If Marshawn Lynch mounted his best runs on walls like animal pelts, my favorite run this season would hang down the hall, around the corner, out the door, in the damp corner of the garage.
In a review that bordered on obsession, I watched all of Lynch’s runs and receptions this season – all 360 of them – to see how many times a solo tackler stopped him.
That includes Lynch’s 79-yarder in Arizona dubbed Beast Quake II, the touchdown against the Oakland Raiders when he drove four guys into the end zone, and the 24-yarder last Sunday against the Green Bay Packers that revitalized the Seahawks.
But the run I can’t stop thinking about, the one still saved on my phone, is actually a 3-yard loss. It’s against the San Francisco 49ers, and it appeals to me for many reasons: Lynch’s cut to bounce the run outside, the punishment he delivers with stiff-arms to a safety and linebacker, the way he lowers his shoulder, for no other reason than he can, before stepping out of bounds.
I send the video to Chad Brown, the former Pro Bowl linebacker for the Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers. He pulls up the 7-second clip on his computer and laughs.
“Uh, he doesn’t stiff-arm the first defensive back who comes up. He just throws him out of bounds,” Brown said. “He throws him out of the club. Then comes a linebacker, who is not a small guy or a bad tackler, and he throws him out of the club, too. So he throws two guys out of the club. Now he gives the shoulder to the safety instead of going out of bounds, and he’s got the shield on, but you can tell that he’s staring down all the guys on the 49ers around him.”
Lynch’s reputation is built on violent runs that shake the earth, but the respect Lynch commands from teammates is based on the carnal way he carries the ball, play after play, game after game, season after season.
In other words, the way he loses 3 yards.
“Some of his best runs to me are his no-gain runs or 4-yard runs because it should have been for a lot less,” Seahawks running back coach Sherman Smith said. “But he always gets something out of it.”
To appreciate Lynch from afar is to appreciate how powerful his runs look. But to appreciate Lynch up close is to appreciate how they sound: a clap of thunder, again … and again … and again.
“It’s hard to even say what it sounds like,” center Patrick Lewis said. “You want to say a car wreck but …”
“That doesn’t sound violent enough to me,” offensive lineman Alvin Bailey said.
“A lot of times, I feel like somebody’s helmet cracks,” Lewis said. “If you look at it, everybody he hits has to fix their chin strap, just about.”
Lynch is merciless. He hunts for contact in the final minutes of a game the same way he did in the first few. Every time he touches the ball, he demands an answer from tacklers: Will you throw down with me?
Hugh Millen, the former NFL and UW quarterback and Seattle Times football analyst, believes maybe 5 percent of players can intimidate on some level, and he puts Lynch in that group. Wide receiver Jermaine Kearse said his favorite runs are when he’s blocking, Lynch is running his way, and he can see the defensive backs in front backing down from the challenge.
“You can see it,” Kearse said. “I see it every time when a defender like a safety or corner see Marshawn, they turn it down. Look at the Giants game.”
Rookie offensive tackle Justin Britt describes Lynch as “indestructible.”
“Everybody’s like, ‘Where’s he going to go? Am I going to have to be the one to tackle him?’ ” Britt said. “People don’t want to tackle him. They don’t. Watch the Giants game.”
The Giants game. Fourth quarter. Eight minutes left. Third-and-2. Seahawks up 24-17. Lynch breaks free, untouched, into the open field for a 16-yard touchdown. But watch again. At the end, maybe 3 yards from the end zone, Giants cornerback Zack Bowman has a chance to stop Lynch – and surrenders.
That’s part of the reason I re-watch all of Lynch’s touches this season. I want to find out if it really does take a small army to wrangle Lynch to the ground.
Two things become clear: First, Lynch almost never goes out of bounds, unless he has no choice. It seems to be a point of pride that he doesn’t step out, and by my count there is only one time all season when Lynch stepped out without contact.
Second, he almost never takes a clean shot. If each collision is a battle within a battle, Lynch rarely loses. In fact, of all the runs I watch, only twice does Lynch take a big shot – or at least a bigger shot than the one he delivers.
Of Lynch’s 360 touches this season, I find only 62 in which one guy stops him. And of those 62 solo stops, I find only a handful when a defender brings Lynch down with a head-on tackle. Most others I mark with varying asterisks: He was tripped. Ran into his own lineman. Forced out of bounds.
“The first guy is not going to stop the iceberg,” receiver Ricardo Lockette said. “He’s not going to break the iceberg. It’s going to take three or four of you. Just because you’re the first person doesn’t mean you’re going to stop it. Actually, you’re the worst one.
“If you’re the first person, you’re the person who’s taking it for the team. You’re – what do you call it? – the sacrificial lamb.”
In a game against the Philadelphia Eagles this season, Lynch sidesteps one defender, then takes on three tacklers and fights for more yards. He fumbles in the scrum and the Eagles recover. On the sideline Smith, Lynch’s position coach, approaches the running back with a message.
“For me to tell you to get out of bounds or tell you to go down, I’m wasting my time because that’s not in your DNA,” Smith told Lynch. “You’re going to keep running, you’re going to keep trying to get yards. You just need to protect the ball.’”
The other image of Lynch that I can’t shake is of him surrounded by six Eagles in the same game. He stiff-arms a linebacker and then jukes another so badly he sends him spiraling to the ground. Lynch quickly finds himself surrounded on all sides, his escape routes sealed. I freeze the frame.
“That looks like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Millen said.
Lewis, the center, looks at the image and laughs.
“It looks like he’s dead to right,” he said. “It looks like he’s dead to right. But I’m pretty sure he got out of that some kind of way.”
Kearse recognizes the play right away, even though it happened nearly two months ago.
“That’s the one when he still gained like 9 yards!” Kearse said.
Lynch chops his feet, then lowers his shoulder and plows into the pile of bodies for an extra 5 yards.
“That’s just who he is,” Kearse said.
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