Training camp opened with Marshawn Lynch playing hooky.
The signs were obvious. He was unhappy with his contract, so he’d be out of shape and discontented when he showed up.
Surely his future with the team was in doubt, considering the young backs they’d drafted.
After all, at 28, he was nearing the inevitable “wall” that impedes the careers of aging running backs.
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But, as is typical when Lynch meets an obstacle, he knocks a hole in it.
And so far this season, he’s also showing he can catch passes on the other side of the wall, too. Clearly, this beast has alternate modes.
He’s on pace for the customary 1,200 yards rushing (perhaps more since his numbers were skewed downward with only six carries during the inoffensive San Diego game).
But he’s got 13 receptions so far, which is a career-high pace, and his three touchdown catches are a career season-high in just four games.
How extraordinary is that? In his previous 66 games with the Seahawks, he had four touchdown catches.
Lynch, it appears, is somehow getting better and more versatile.
“It’s just his talents,” running backs coach Sherman Smith said. “He’s really talented. Marshawn has some of the best hands on the team and he’s a great route runner. He could be a wide receiver.”
And this season, he’s getting targeted in that capacity.
“Opportunities have come up and he’s cashed in on them,” coach Pete Carroll said. “He’s always been a great receiver … fantastic hands and a terrific route runner.”
When he catches it, “he’s really difficult to get down,” Carroll added.
Yes, using Lynch on pass routes creates one of the greatest mismatches the Seahawks can find. He’s hard enough to tackle by the gang of players that get shots at him when he runs up the middle.
But put him in open space where he can run past a linebacker or over a cornerback, and it’s a tough proposition for defenders.
“He’s already tough to tackle when you’re handing it off to him, but when you put him out in the open field where you have to tackle him by yourself? Nobody tackles Marshawn by himself,” linebacker Bobby Wagner said.
Washington linebacker Perry Riley certainly couldn’t. In the Monday night game last week, Lynch pulled in a swing pass to the right sideline, and Riley took a perfect angle and hit Lynch flush on the inside thigh. It barely affected Lynch’s stride as he raced to the end zone.
Fullback Derrick Coleman said Lynch’s three touchdown catches display a versatility that forces defenses into uncomfortable decisions.
“Now he’s telling defenses, ‘I’m not just a runner, but a pass-catcher, too … what are you going to do about it?’ ” Coleman said.
Yes, what to do? When Lynch is on a designed route, coverage at least can be schemed. But when Russell Wilson goes into full improv mode under pressure, keeping track of Lynch is nearly impossible.
On a crucial third down late in the Washington game, three defenders raced through and were on top of Wilson before the play could develop. He dodged and retreated.
Lynch, meanwhile, found an open spot behind the coursing pass rushers, where Wilson found him with a pass that was in his neighborhood but well behind him.
Still, Lynch turned, caught it, sprinted upfield — careful not to step out of bounds to stop the clock — dodged a tackler and finally was brought down after a 30-yard gain.
Wilson rightfully deserved praise for keeping the play alive. But Lynch’s catch and run were exceptional, as well.
“We just tell our players, particularly on play-actions, to stay alive because Russell might always get the ball to you,” Smith said. “We expect him to make those plays; we don’t expect a cornerback to come up and tackle Marshawn. Not many people can do that.”
What if catching the ball in the open field can not only increase Lynch’s scoring ability, but save him from some of the interior pounding, as well?
Does that extend his career? Let’s say he can get into his 30s and add three-plus more 1,200-yard rushing seasons. That will get him up over that 12,000-yard rushing mark which is the territory that got recent inductees Marshall Faulk and Thurman Thomas into the Hall of Fame.
Health, fitness and good fortune play into it all. But if he’s not slowing down by now?
“He has something about him when he gets on that field and steps between those white lines,” Smith said. “He just plays so hard; that’s the only way he knows how to do it.”
But what about the normal notions on the sudden aging of running backs nearing 30?
“They don’t apply to him,” Smith said. “This guy is a special talent. He isn’t even close to slowing down.”