Seattle’s running game once moved the earth — ask any local seismologist — but now the Seahawks just want to do a better job of moving the sticks.
The franchise is in a rebuilding cycle, and a big part of that is reestablishing the running game that has been on hiatus for a couple of years.
In the past two years, the Seahawks were 23rd and 25th in rushing, a shadow of the team that in the four years prior was ranked third, fourth, first and third.
Yes, the defense is a giant construction site, with a constellation of stars either playing for other teams or out of the game. But a rock-solid ground game is a hallmark of Pete Carroll’s best teams, and with Marshawn Lynch and running-game coordinator Tom Cable now in Oakland, the Seahawks are looking to write a new chapter in that regard.
They might not move the needle the way Lynch did in the “Beast Quake” game — the reaction to his rollicking touchdown run against New Orleans actually registered on the Richter scale — although a revitalized ground game will help the Seahawks control the clock and bleed pressure off do-everything quarterback Russell Wilson.
“We’ve been off the last year-and-a-half in the running game, and it’s been the difference in how we’ve played, it affects everything that we do,” Carroll said, leaning against a wall in a quiet corner of team headquarters. “We’ve had so many guys get hurt in the last two years, we couldn’t get back to it being the kind of factor that we needed. Right now, this is really exciting.”
Much of that excitement swirls around rookie Rashaad Penny, a first-round pick from San Diego State, and second-year back Chris Carson, a seventh-round find from Oklahoma State. They’re nearly identical in size — both 5 feet 11, Carson listed at two pounds heavier at 222 — and they envision forming a similar one-two punch to the Mark Ingram-Alvin Kamara tandem in New Orleans last season.
“They opened things up for Drew Brees, and that’s kind of where I see this offense going,” said Carson, who showed impressive flashes of promise last season before a leg injury sidelined him for the season in Week 4.
The Seahawks are stocked with running backs beyond Penny and Carson. C.J. Prosise, Mike Davis and J.D. McKissic all should be playing in the league somewhere this season, if not Seattle.
The team is also better suited to push people off the ball, particularly in the interior of the offensive line. In the post-Cable era, the Seahawks are getting away from the smaller, quicker offensive linemen, and back to bigger bodies more capable of winning at the point of attack. The team also drafted Washington’s Will Dissly, the fourth-round pick considered by many to be the top blocking tight end in his class.
“I think [drafting Dissly] is as important as almost anything that’s happened. Since Zach Miller we haven’t had the factor of a really solid blocking guy,” Carroll said of the tight end who last played for Seattle in 2014. “We’ve had catchers, receivers that we had to make blocker. So Will was on our board from way back.”
It was somewhat of a surprise the Seahawks used the 27th pick on Norwalk’s Penny, if only to draft prognosticators, precious few of whom projected him for the first round. He was the second of three backs selected in the opening round, with the New York Giants taking Penn State’s Saquon Barkley second, and New England choosing Georgia’s Sony Michel 31st.
But Penny certainly has the credentials, having led the nation last season in rushing yards (2,027) and all-purpose yards (2,698). He was fifth in Heisman Trophy voting, the best finish by a San Diego State player since Marshall Faulk was fourth in 1993.
Penny grew up a big USC fan, mostly because of Reggie Bush, and was disappointed when the Trojans didn’t offer him a football scholarship. (He was a high school senior the year USC cycled through head coaches, from Lane Kiffin to Ed Orgeron to Clay Helton.) Penny did get an offer from UCLA, however.
“I was underrated in high school, so that’s why I chose San Diego State,” Penny said. “I felt the program was building and was going to take off. That’s why I’m where I’m at now.”
Penny said he’s feeling more confident by the day in his ability to make the step up and succeed in the NFL.
“I’m matching their speed,” he said. “I’m playing at their level of intensity … I’m getting adjusted to the Seahawks’ speed, which is pretty fast. Now I’ve just got to get adjusted to the game speed.”
It was surreal for Penny when he met Carroll for the first time, a coach he had watched for so long as a kid in Los Angeles.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Penny said. “I was like, ‘I’m really in the room with him.’ The first thing I brought up was the USC-Texas game, because I was there as a fan. I think that was probably one of the greatest college football games in history. Every play had a chance to be exciting, and it was.”
Of course, it was also a heartbreaking loss for his favorite team. But that’s not what Penny took away from the experience.