Lead rusher Chris Carson is hurting.
But, hey, that’s OK. The Seahawks have a rookie first-round draft choice at running back.
Carson missed practice Wednesday with a nagging hip injury that kept him out of the second half of last weekend’s loss to the Chargers. Carson’s chance to start at the division-leading Los Angeles Rams on Sunday is in jeopardy, and he may be a game-time decision to play, at best.
That should mean this becomes Rashaad Penny’s prime time, right?
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“Yeah, we’ve just got to get him out there,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said on Wednesday, before the first full practice for the next biggest game of this season for his 4-4 team.
“He just needs more turns.”
Halfway into his rookie season, he’s not getting many.
This fall, Seattle has made Penny a lightning rod for frustration. The team has barely put its first-round pick on the field. Fans and football followers from Moclips to Maine wonder why the Seahawks spent a first-round pick on a third-string running back when they had pressing needs at pass rusher, defensive back, offensive and defensive lines—heck, almost everywhere coming off their first non-playoff season in six years.
Carson missed the entire second half of last weekend’s loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. Yet Penny played just 13 of 81 offensive snaps. Mike Davis, waived by the 2-14 49ers in the spring of 2017 two years after San Francisco drafted him in the fourth round, has been the featured back when Carson hasn’t been able to go. Davis was the starter at the end of last season, after Carson broke his leg in October and missed the rest of the season.
Penny’s 13 snaps last weekend were 13 more than he got the previous week in the win at Detroit. The Seahawks ran 42 times that day against the Lions, and none of them were by their first-round pick. The 27th-overall selection also got zero snaps on offense in the Seahawks’ first meeting with the Rams, on Oct. 7 in Seattle.
The Seahawks scored romped for a season-high 190 yards on the ground that day and scored 31 points against the mighty Rams and one of the NFL’s strongest defensive fronts without their top pick contributing even one snap on offense, let alone yards or points.
The most Penny has played in a game this season is 25 plays. That was in the opener Sept. 9 at Denver, weeks after his surgery to repair a broken finger that kept him out of the last three preseason games. Penny, Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer acknowledged the week leading up to the that first game Penny was rusty and was somewhat behind in conditioning from not being on the field for weeks. Yet that 27-24 loss to Broncos in which he gained seven carries for 8 yards, the time he was least ready physically this season, remains the most we’ve seen Penny in a game all season.
The following week at Chicago the Seahawks mysteriously ignored Carson after 11:51 remained in the second quarter. Penny got his first decent chance, and gained 30 yards on 10 carries. Seattle chose to throw again too much that night — no runs from the second quarter into the fourth. Russell Wilson got sacked six times for the second consecutive game. Seattle fell to 0-2 with that loss.
Carroll said after that Bears game he thought Carson was “gassed” that night in Chicago, after just seven carries. The odd explanation seemed another way to say the coaches wanted to see what Penny could do in a close game.
The next week Carson set his career high with 32 carries and had his first 100-yard rushing day while Seattle beat Dallas. JHe missed the following week’s game at Arizona with a groin injury.
But Davis, not Penny, started when Carson did not play against the Cardinals. Davis had 101 yards rushing while Penny had nine carries for 49 yards, his season high, as the number-two back in that win Sept. 30.
Penny had nine more rushes for 43 yards at the end of Seattle’s 27-3 runaway from Oakland in London in mid-October.
That’s it. The national leader in major college football with 2,248 yards rushing with 23 touchdowns in 2017 for San Diego State has 148 yards on 42 carries (3.5 yards per rush) in the NFL, with zero touchdowns, plus three catches for 13 yards.
San Diego State’s first running back drafted in round one since Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk in 1994 also has eight, mostly hesitant kickoff returns for 140 yards, a meager 17.5 yards per run back. That part-time job on special teams hasn’t done anything for Penny to raise his profile, either.
Last weekend in the loss to the Chargers he ran one kickoff back in which he got his back turned to the opposing kickoff-coverage tacklers and didn’t get past his own 16-yard line.
“If you want to compare, look at the difference between he and Tyler (Lockett, Seattle’s primary kickoff returner last weekend) in the starts, start (of) the catch,” Carroll said of the kickoff returns against the Chargers. “(It’s) how you time up the catch and you’re running as far as you can. When the time you make the catch, as opposed to being stationary and being punched up and get going. It’s a big characteristic of good returners, that they hit the ball on the run so that they’re really flying.
“That’s something he (Penny) can improve at. And we’ve been talking to him about that quite a bit.”
On offense, it’s not just that Penny isn’t starting over Carson, the more proven and far more decisive NFL runner. Penny isn’t even above Davis for second string.
Carroll hinted on Wednesday that the issue is the same one that had Penny behind Carson on offense in the preseason: his performance and undeveloped skills in the passing game and as a pass blocker (doing that is how he broke his finger in training camp).
“Mike has been very versatile in the throwing game, (and with) all the styles of runs,” Carroll said. “He’s just been really good at it and very effective. So we’re just going with what looks right.
“It has nothing to do with where you got picked or where you came from. Just waiting for the opportunities to present itself so the guys can show what they can do. That’s not just the running back spot. That’s all our spots.”
By the middle of October, Penny was frustrated by his lack of more playing time. Carroll acknowledged that, saying “that’s exactly what I want. I want him to be frustrated. I want him to be anxious to get out there.
“I want him to be unsatisfied with what’s going on right now.”
Since then, Penny has played just 12.4 percent of Seattle’s offensive snaps over the last three games. There have been weeks seldom-used fullback Tre Madden, one of the last players on the roster, has played more than Penny has.
“It’s definitely a learning challenge,” Penny said last month. “I mean, just sitting back waiting for my opportunity.
“I’ve been in this situation at San Diego State (waiting behind Donnel Pumphery, the career rushing leader at the top level of college football). When you’ve got two backs that are rolling, that are hot, you know all you can do is support them and just wait for your opportunity.
“I want to be on the field. I want to prove what I can do. But you’ve got two good backs that are rolling right now. You’ve got to stick with who’s hot. And those two are hot.
“It’s just something that I’ll get used to.”
Eight games into his rookie season is not the time to declare Penny is a draft bust. The Seahawks didn’t just draft him for 2018. They have him under contract for three more seasons after this one, and they hold a contract option on him for the 2022 season. Carson’s two injuries in half a season this year, after he missed the final 12 games of his 2017 rookie season, justify the team’s concerns about durability of their running backs since Marshawn Lynch finally got hurt then left after the 2015 season.
Still...zero snaps in two of the last four games for your number-one draft choice?
Carroll even talked Wednesday about moth-balled C.J. Prosise as an option at running back if Carson can’t play against the Rams. Prosise has been a healthy inactive for four of the eight games this season.
At least Penny hasn’t been a healthy scratch. Just a healthy spectator.
“Still looking for him to make his big plays. He’s got it in him,” Carroll said this week. “We’ve already seen it (in training camp), and I think he’s just on the verge of exploding. He’s got tremendous vision and quickness and foot quickness that will allow him to make some plays.
“I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he turns it out next chance he gets. That’s how much we’ve seen from him already and count on him.”