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Seattle Seahawks

Commentary: After stunning turnaround, Seahawks should do everything they can to bring back Rashaad Penny

Seattle Seahawks running back Rashaad Penny (20) runs against the Detroit Lions during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022, in Seattle.   (Associated Press)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

It was six weeks ago that coach Pete Carroll acknowledged, in what could be construed as a thinly veiled and kindly ultimatum, that it was running back Rashaad Penny’s time to shine.

Starter Chris Carson had just been declared out for the season. Penny would never have a better showcase to prove that the Seahawks should want to keep him around when his contract expired after the season.

“We need Rashaad to come to life,” Carroll said back then. “This is an important time for Rashaad to help us.”

What Carroll didn’t say was readily apparent: Penny’s Seahawks career depended on it. And then Penny proceeded to carry the ball just twice in their next game, missed the one after that because of a hamstring injury and carried 10 times for a mere 35 yards in the one after that.

At that point, it appeared quite certain what the answer was to the question of whether Penny would be back with Seattle in 2022.

A month later, the answer is starting to look just as clear-cut. But in a stunning turnaround, it has switched from a resounding no to a growing sense that the Seahawks should, and will, do everything they can to retain Penny.

Put me solidly in the “bring back Penny” camp. He certainly made his strongest case Sunday in the Seahawks’ 51-29 romp over the Detroit Lions at Lumen Field. Penny rushed 25 times for 170 yards and two touchdowns, caught two passes for 15 yards and looked every bit like a dominant, game-changing back.

Yes, I understand the skepticism that remains. To review, Penny is in this spot because in May, the Seahawks declined to exercise the option on his 2022 contract. If the team had done so, it would have locked up Penny for a guaranteed $4.5 million salary next season. Now he’s building a case that ensures that the competition for Penny’s services will be fiercer than anticipated.

The main reason the Seahawks declined the option is that Penny’s career has been riddled with injuries. And for much of this year, that has been the case. He suffered a calf injury in the season opener at Indianapolis (in which he played just seven snaps, gaining 8 yards on two carries). He landed on injured reserve, and then upon his return carried 13 times for 16 yards in his first two games. In his third, he never left the bench against Green Bay.

Yes, you can wonder if Penny will ever be able to stay healthy for an extended stretch. You can point out that his resurgence — which has included three 100-yard performances (all exceeding 130 yards) in his past four games — has come against the Texans, Bears and Lions. All rank near the bottom of the NFL in yards-per-carry allowed. And his resurgence has come after the Seahawks were removed from serious playoff contention.

But it’s hard to watch Penny in those games and not see a guy who, when healthy — yes, that “when” does a lot of heavy lifting — helps make the Seahawks offense hum. Lions coach Dan Campbell spoke to the ripple effect after the game:

“Look, Penny’s a hell of a player. He is. But when you let him get going, you’re making that quarterback 10 times better than he already is.”

Carroll hit the same note: “It’s a big boost. You can see the rhythm it gives our offense, the balance that gives our offense to be able to be that explosive, and he looked great again.”

There is now a school of thought that it’s not wise to invest heavily in running backs, either financially or with draft capital. They are too injury prone, and have proven over time to be fungible commodities.

But you still need a good one, and a healthy Penny has shown he could be a great one. The Seahawks are already committed to Carson for 2022 at a salary of $4.5 million, and he will be trying to come back from a neck injury that wiped out most of his season. There’s no guarantee he’ll be able to do that, but if he does the prospect of a one-two punch with Carson and Penny is highly intriguing. And if he doesn’t, a full season of Penny as the lead back is just as intriguing.

As Times reporter Bob Condotta pointed out, Penny now has the equivalent of about a regular season’s worth of work in his career. His stat line of 257 carries for 1,382 yards, 5.4 yards per carry and 10 TDs would make him a top-level NFL back.

Penny’s resurgence has coincided with the arrival of Adrian Peterson, who has made a valuable contribution far beyond the 11 carries and 16 yards he had in his lone game with Seattle.

“When you have a guy who has been running in this league for so long and is on the verge of the Hall of Fame, it honestly gives you a boost and you want to mimic everything that you see him do,” Penny said. “We kind of have the same type of injuries, so I’ve torn his ear off with all of the questions I’ve asked.”

Penny on Sunday turned in one of the better rushing days in Seahawks history. His 5.8 yards-per-carry would be a season record for a Seahawks running back. He’s second in the NFL with six runs of 25 or more yards, despite having just 96 carries. The leader with eight is Jonathan Taylor, who has 317 carries. Only Dalvin Cook, with 153, has more yards in a half this year than Penny’s 144 in the first half Sunday. And no Seahawks running back has had that many in a half since Shaun Alexander’s 192 in 2001.

“I’m so fired up for him and for us,” Carroll said. “And, man, he’s leaving no doubt. He’s explosive. He weighs 236 pounds (despite being listed as 220). The program says something else — 236. He’s a load to tackle.

“He’s running through tackles, bouncing off guys. And then he uses his burst and the quick feet. The touchdown run, I mean, there’s about three different carries in this game that were exquisite.”

It’s eye-opening stuff. No doubt, other eyes around the league are open, too. Everyone will be watching Sunday to see how he does against an Arizona team that’s been strong against the run and has something to play for. It will be the best defense Penny has played against this year since Dec. 21 against the Rams — and he had just 39 yards on 11 carries in that game.

So, yes, there is still some haze around Penny. But after watching him meander through his first four years in Seattle as a No. 1 draft bust, it would be a shame to see his full-season breakout occur somewhere else.