It's Not Time to Fade Marshawn Lynch
The beginning of June is a magical time for football fans. After waiting nearly six months for any meaningful football news, we rejoice when teams reconvene for OTAs. We get a sneak preview of what our favorite teams may look like come the end of August when the games start to count.
Along with all this goodness comes another side of OTAs that can be a bit of a headache – coach speak. Every year coaches will brag that “Player X is in the best shape of his career,” and that “Player Y is going to see more carries than he can handle.”
Prior to last season, Buffalo Bills coaches claimed they were planning on giving running back C.J. Spiller the ball “until he throws up.” Although Spiller was nagged by an ankle injury in 2013, it seems obvious now that the Bills envisioned Fred Jackson getting significant carries all along.
This preseason, it’s Arizona Head Coach Bruce Arians touting running back Andre Ellington as an every-down running back. According to Arians, they want Ellington to get “25-30 touches a game.” numberFire’s own Leo Howell did an excellent job describing why this is highly unlikely to happen.
The next contestant on the Wheel of Coach Speak? Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell.
According to NFL.com, Bevell said that second-year running back Christine Michael is going to “get a ton of work,” and that the Seahawks “are going to be running back-by-committee.” So is the workhorse role traditionally played by Marshawn Lynch for the Seahawks slowly fading away? Let’s take a look at Bevell’s history with regards to his running back usage.
|Year||Leading Rusher (Carries)||Percentage of Total Team Carries|
|2006||Chester Taylor (303)||69%|
|2007||Adrian Peterson (238)||48%|
|2008||Adrian Peterson (363)||70%|
|2009||Adrian Peterson (314)||67%|
|2010||Adrian Peterson (283)||64%|
|2011||Marshawn Lynch (285)||64%|
|2012||Marshawn Lynch (315)||59%|
|2013||Marshawn Lynch (301)||59%|
Only once in Bevell’s coaching career has his team’s main ball carrier had less than 59% of the carries at season's end (In 2007, as a rookie, Adrian Peterson missed almost a month with a knee injury). 2007 was also the only instance where the top back failed to reach at least 280 carries. And once Bevell finds a player he likes, he sticks with him (e.g. Peterson and Lynch).
Although Bevell has been consistent in giving his number one running back the majority of carries, it’s clear that the ratio has dropped since 2008, when Peterson posted a ridiculous 70% carry rate. Even for Bevell, a running game stalwart, a change in the way the NFL game is played seems to be creeping into his approach ever so slightly.
A combination of running quarterbacks (in Bevell’s case, Russell Wilson) and specialty running backs (third-down, change-of-pace, etc.) has eroded the notion that a single player should handle a large majority of a team’s carries. Couple those factors with the extremely short average self life of running backs at the NFL level, and it seems to be a forgone conclusion that carries are likely to be distributed more evenly across the league.
It appears Christine Michael and Robert Turbin will be the ones to benefit if the Seahawks do decide to rest Lynch more often in 2014. And using our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, we can attempt to see if Michael or Turbin have done enough in their limit roles to warrant a larger share of the offense.
In 2012, Turbin had -6.89 Rush NEP on 80 carries. This ranked 5th out of 12 running backs with 75 to 100 carries. In 2013, he accumulated -7.63 Rush NEP, ranking dead last out of eight qualifying running backs. Although it’s not uncommon to have a negative Rushing NEP – due to the fact that running the ball is generally less effective than passing – Turbin’s numbers compared to running backs with similar workloads does not set himself apart.
As a rookie in 2013, Michael’s 0.60 Rushing NEP on 18 carries ranked 4th out of the 11 running backs with 15-30 carries. While he ranks near the top in this given subset, the extremely small sample size is a bit problematic when trying to show how effective Michael might be given more carries.
It's important to remember that Seattle selected Michael in the second round in the 2013 NFL Draft, so they're fairly invested in his success. And by all accounts so far this preseason, Michael has impressed the coaching staff - not only in his running ability, but catching the ball and pass-blocking as well. Pedigree and praise from the coaching staff are both good things, but until Michael proves he can be effective on the field, I’m leaning towards the side of cautious optimism regarding a much larger offensive role.
With Lynch under contract for two more seasons, it makes sense for the Seahawks to simply run him into the ground while they have him. He’s shown no real signs of slowing down at age 28, and should continue to demand 280-plus carries, barring injury or an act of God.
While Michael and Turbin are certain to be incorporated in the Seahawks offense, those predicting the end of Marshawn Lynch because of Bevell’s comments are likely to be very disappointed.