Assuming It's Over, Just How Good Was Marshawn Lynch's Career?

Marshawn Lynch is planning to retire, but not before leaving a seismic footprint on the NFL.

It couldn’t have been planned any better. Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch exited from the National Football League the same way he did anything: enigmatically as ever. Dropping a simple “peace out” emoji and a picture of his cleats literally hung up on a telephone wire to Twitter, the five-time Pro Bowl running back “announced” his retirement during Super Bowl 50.

It was an exit fitting for the man who answered questions during media sessions with one-word answers and by responding, “I’m only here so I don’t get fined”.

Though he frustrated reporters and perplexed teammates, we analysts and fans loved to see the man called Beast Mode flummox defenses for most of nine seasons in the NFL. Whether it was the always-colorful moments off the field, the highlight reel big plays, or the consistent grinding, Lynch was one of the truly great players to have stepped onto a football field in our lifetimes.

Here’s why.

The Statistics

Most of us are familiar with Lynch’s impressive statistical resumé, and our own fearless leader JJ Zachariason broke down his potential Hall of Fame credentials last January. I decided to take a slightly different look at his numbers to see what we could pull out.

Lynch obviously added somewhat to his career totals in 2015, despite playing just seven games, so where do his rushing numbers rank in comparison to current Hall of Fame running backs? We know that the game has changed considerably in the last 95 years, but the early eras featured a lot more rushing than modern football. I decided to give Beast Mode the benefit of the doubt and compared his career data to every Hall of Fame running back since 1920 with at least 1,000 total touches and 500 career rushes. The table below shows where he ranks among these 31 players.

Player Games Rush Rush Yd Rush YPC Rush TD
Marshawn Lynch 127 (22nd) 2,144 (16th) 9,112 (16th) 4.25 (20th) 74 (t-14th)
Average HOF RB 145.5 2,112 9,143 4.30 71

Marshawn Lynch comes in as a solidly-average player among Hall of Famers. That isn’t something we should knock; that should solidify his case for the Hall. I consider it a very good thing when one has a near-identical rushing line to Earl Campbell (115 games, 2,187 carries, 9,407 yards, 4.30 yards per carry, 74 touchdowns). In fact, when comparing him to the average Hall of Fame running back, Lynch is almost a perfect fit at the median line.

When we control for career length, Lynch’s career goes from solidly impressive to spectacular. By determining each player’s average season performance, Lynch average of 238 carries for 1,012 yards and 8 touchdowns ranks 12th in yardage, just behind Marshall Faulk and Jerome Bettis. Even when we factor in receiving yardage -- which was never his strong suit -- Lynch still ranks 12th among these players in an average season.

The Value

At numberFire, we don’t just look at statistics, however. We want to know more about the value a player brings to the table in their career. Was Marshawn Lynch truly a great contributor in the NFL? We can find that out through Net Expected Points (NEP).

NEP is an analytic helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and shows how that player did versus expectation. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. If Lynch rushes for five yards on 3rd-and-2, it means more to the game than it does on 3rd-and-10, and those plays should be valued accordingly. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

To control for volume, I limited the Rushing NEP seasons to those with 300 or more opportunities, and from 2000 onward (the beginning of numberFire’s data) -- 232 player seasons. The table below shows each of his 300 or more opportunity seasons in terms of Rushing NEP and Rushing Success Rate, and their ranking against all seasons meeting this threshold.

Year Rush NEP Per-Carry Rush Success Rate
2008 -3.47 (119th) -0.01 (t-109th) 38.60% (t-180th)
2011 1.53 (92nd) 0.01 (t-79th) 38.60% (196th)
2012 19.92 (37th) 0.06 (t-38th) 45.71% (44th)
2013 4.81 (77th) 0.02 (t-70th) 44.85% (49th)
2014 27.34 (23rd) 0.10 (t-15th) 48.57% (16th)

To put this clearly, Lynch was so dominant over the last decade and a half, that he put four entries in the top-100 seasons by a running back. The only players to do that besides him are Adrian Peterson, Clinton Portis, Edgerrin James, and Ladainian Tomlinson. Even when we look at per-carry efficiency, Lynch also has four top-100 entries, bested or matched again by just those four names.

Even if he misses the Hall due to a lack of career stats or length, this is a stunning resumé, and one of the best sustained peaks for a running back’s career ever.

The Highlight Reel

Finally, how can we forget the historic “Beast Quake” run that shook the entirety of Seattle’s CenturyLink Field with the  magnitude of a 1.0 grade earthquake on the Richter scale? This devastated the New Orleans Saints’ hopes in the 2010-11 Wild Card Round, as the ‘Hawks hoped to bleed three-and-a-half minutes off the clock while clinging to a four-point lead.

Lynch drove into a pile of Saints defenders and looked sunk from the get-go. He then bounced off of contact twice at the line of scrimmage, dropped another two defenders at the first-down marker, shed another at 15 yards, another close to 30, bounced backwards, and kept his momentum going to shed another tackle that almost caught him from behind, leaping into the end zone with his signature crotch grab celebration. Seven broken tackles and 67 yards later, Seattle rode onward with an insurmountable lead.

Then you have the nail in the coffin for the Arizona Cardinals in Week 16 of 2014, who watched as Lynch rumbled through five Arizona defenders on his way to a 79-yard touchdown. This was the icing on the cake for Seattle, as they were already up 15 late in the game. That didn’t matter to Marshawn, though, who would not be stopped.

That’s some action, boss.

The Man

It’s funny that we can say so much about Marshawn Lynch, when he was a man of very few words himself. He could possibly be in the Hall of Fame when all is said and done, and we might have a better acceptance speech than Dennis Rodman's. He was the brute strength behind the Seahawks’ playoff runs during the beginning of this burgeoning dynasty. He did all of this in an era where the running game was being diminished and seen as an ever-growing loss of offensive value.

More than anything, the real reason he was special was because he never did it for money, for fame, for glory. He did it for – as cliché as it is – the love of the game. That’s what we lose with Lynch’s retirement: the pure, unbridled joy and rebellion of his style of play.

He’s leaving the game on his terms, and he’ll forever stay one-hundred for that.