PHILADELPHIA — Rashaad Penny’s 58-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter Sunday was a game-breaker, a buoy for his struggling offensive teammates and a godsend to increasingly frustrated Seahawks fans.
Penny was rather pleased with himself, as well.
“I felt an extra burst,” he said. “I was kind of ‘whoo-ing’ myself at how fast I felt.”
Penny has been maligned, and he’s been ignored, which might even be worse. A former first-round draft pick, he seemed to be headed for bust territory, having carried the ball just 36 times in this season’s 10 games heading into Sunday. In Seattle’s most recent game, against the 49ers, Penny had a mere two attempts — and one resulted in a fumble.
Pete Carroll loathes turnovers, yet he saw something in Penny’s response to his lack of playing time and his struggles that spoke to him.
“The last three weeks have been his best three weeks of practice,” Carroll said. “We really wanted him to play today and get him in there and see what could happen.”
What happened bodes extremely well for Penny’s future, and by extension that of the Seahawks. Amid growing concerns that Chris Carson’s massive workload might curtail him later in the season, Penny showed himself as a viable, and vital, alternative. On a day when Carson was bottled up for 26 yards on eight carries, Penny exploded for a career-high 129 yards on 14 attempts in the Seahawks’ 17-9 slog of a win over the Eagles.
“We have all the confidence in the world in both of them,” Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson said of Carson and Penny. “I know both of them want to be in there, and I think maybe we should put both of them in there at times just to mix it up a little bit.”
That’s what Penny has been waiting to hear. He said he believes he has fresh legs, the result of honing his body through a nutritionist and the absence of all the wear and tear absorbed by Carson.
“I think it would suck for me because I’m a first-round pick and everyone is expecting all these big things, but I’m still young and fresh,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of carries I can handle for whenever the time is needed.”
Penny admits it has been tough to be anchored on the sideline, even though he and Carson are close friends. Throughout his career, Penny had always been the bell cow. His senior year at San Diego State, he led the nation with 2,248 rushing yards and scored 23 touchdowns to finish fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
But his career with the Seahawks has been one of frustration. Penny had flashes as a rookie, averaging 4.9 yards on 85 carries, but Carson emerged as the workhorse back. And this year, Carson has only solidified his hold on the job with 853 yards on 200 carries, third-most in the league.
“It’s tough for me because he’s got the hot hand, and he’s doing everything great and I’m just sitting back, but I’m also learning,” Penny said. “It has been a big test, but it’s me just staying poised, staying who I am and patiently waiting my turn. I’m just trying to prove that I can play.”
And not at the expense of Carson, but rather as a complementary piece.
“Most people think that as competitors we’re supposed to hate each other,” Penny said. “I actually love that dude, and he can probably say the same thing about me. It’s just all about playing off each other.”
Which brings us to Sunday, when the Seahawks were playing off Penny. He didn’t get his first carry until the second quarter but made an impact with a 9-yard run on third-and-seven and also broke off a 26-yard run that was a sneak preview of the explosion to come.
That 58-yard romp came early in the fourth quarter with the Seahawks clinging to a 10-3 lead despite a bevy of scoring opportunities. It seemed like one of those games when they blew so many chances that it would haunt them in the end. But on a first-and-20 trap, beautifully blocked by Seattle’s offensive line, Penny found daylight. At about the 10, Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby had a clear shot at him, but Penny flicked him aside and waltzed the rest of the way.
“I think he gave me a boost into the end zone,” Penny deadpanned.
The extra burst that Penny was celebrating (“He looked like he was shot out of a cannon,” Carroll said admiringly) didn’t come by accident. At the end of last season, the Seahawks challenged him to “be more of a professional,” in Penny’s words. That meant dedicating himself to training, which manifested itself, among other things, with Penny hiring a nutritionist.
Last year, he played at 238 pounds, which led to sluggishness.
“That’s not a good weight,” he admitted.
Now he is at 230 with a goal of getting down to 225 before the end of the year.
“If I can prove that by doing that in-season, that means that in the offseason I can do that as well,” he said. “I didn’t take the offseason in my rookie season too seriously like I’m doing now.”
Pigging out at McDonald’s? No more. His mom’s beloved burgers and lasagna? A thing of the past.
“Every time I go home, she just chops up grilled chicken and gives me salad,” he said. “Everybody else eats Little Caesars.”
Now Penny says, “I’m a big broccoli guy. I love green stuff now.”
That’s not just music to the ears of the Seahawks, it’s a symphony. And if Sunday’s breakthrough ushers in a resurgence of Rashaad Penny — or, more accurately, a surgence — he won’t be the only one wooing.
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