RENTON The Seahawks are hoping to finally play their preferred card out of what their play caller says has been a "Rolodex of runners" this season.
This is no time to be trying out new ones. Yet Seattle tried out five free-agent running backs this week, reportedly including former New England Patriot Jonas Gray.
Thoms Rawls has been the card Seattle has wanted to play first and most ever since last Super Bowl Sunday. That was the February night Marshawn Lynch famously posted on Twitter his retirement with a pair of his cleats hanging from a wire.
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Rawls was Lynch’s immediate heir. Since then, the Seahawks’ offense has waited for him to recover from the broken ankle he got 12 months ago in a win at Baltimore, ending his rookie season as the NFL’s leader in yards per carry. That recovery lasted into September. Two games into his return this season he cracked his fibula early in the loss at Los Angeles. He missed two months.
Last weekend he missed the final two quarters of the loss to Arizona with a bruised shoulder. But Friday was the third consecutive practice in which Rawls fully participated. He isn’t even listed on the injury report for Sunday’s regular-season finale for the NFC West-champion Seahawks (9-5-1) at San Francisco (2-13).
"We are already in the playoffs," Rawls said about being able to play.
The Seahawks need to win over the woeful 49ers to have a chance at a No. 2 seed in the NFC and an important first-round bye; New Orleans would also have to upset the NFC South-champion Falcons in Atlanta for Seattle to steal that second seed.
And the Seahawks need a better running game to advance in the postseason, no matter what their seed.
How down has the running game been with Rawls often out of it? If Rawls doesn’t run for 135 yards on Sunday against the league’s last-ranked defense, the Seahawks’ leading rusher for the 2016 season will be...long-gone Christine Michael. He hasn’t played for the Seahawks since Nov. 13 at New England. The team waived him two days later, and he’s been a Green Bay Packer since.
Sixteen different players have run the ball at least once in a game this season for the Seahawks.
A 17th could be J.D. McKissic. Seattle claimed the 23-year-old rookie off waivers this month from Atlanta. He was a wide receiver at Arkansas State, but coach Pete Carroll has been spending time after practices working out McKissic at running back. That’s the position at which the Seahawks list him.
(McKissic also, by the way, ran back a kickoff for a touchdown in a preseason game for the Falcons, and could be a replacement there, too, now that Tyler Lockett is out for the season with a broken leg.)
"We’re working each and every week to bring the run game along," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. "The plays that we’re asking the guys to do, making sure that everyone is on the same page, communication is great.
"Also the runners; we’ve kind of had a rolodex of runners that have been in there as well. To be able to get a consistent look at it for them, to see it more than twice … obviously, being able to convert third downs so we can continue drives and call more runs. I think it’s a combination of all that."
Rawls returning to health and prominence is the wild card that could change the NFL’s 22nd-ranked rushing offense in the postseason.
See, he’s still an unknown. Rawls has yet to play a full season with a full running-back workload since he was romping at Northern High School in Flint, Michigan. He signed with Michigan and played three seasons with the Wolverines, but never as a starter. He had only 73 carries in those three years.
He graduated from Michigan then moved to Central Michigan as a graduate transfer for his fourth and final season of college eligibility, in 2014. He got suspended that season for academic issues and for a purse-snatching incident. He missed the Chippewas’ bowl game.
Then his broken ankle Dec. 13, 2015, just as he was rampaging for the injured Lynch.
His first carry on New Year’s Day against the 49ers will be the latest he’s ever run the ball, in any football season. He was a reserve in two January bowl games while at Michigan but never carried the ball in them.
"I know I love it when he’s in there," Bevell said. "We have a different mentality and feel about us. He runs downhill. He’s violent. He sees things well and he punishes the defense. So it brings a different mentality to us when he’s in there. I think teams have to play for that.
"I definitely love having him in there."
That violence from Rawls has come at a price.
Rawls has missed all or most of Seattle’s last 13 games, including all of the two playoff ones last January."You know, it’s tough – especially being a physical runner, too," he said of the punishment he’s taken. "Because you also want to dish out some hits, also. I mean, the game is physical.
"Every guy out there knows what he’s gotten himself into.”
So will the rugged Rawls be more cautious against the 49ers, maybe avoid a defender instead of plowing him as uaual, so he can be healthy for the playoffs?
"Um….," Rawls said, as if taken about someone would even consider he avoid contact.
"The game is all off instinct. Sometimes you will make the right cuts. Sometimes you will make the wrong cut. Sometimes you will elude a guy or sometimes you will run him over. It all depends.
"That’s one thing about my game: I’m very instinctive. I try to be a physical runner. Maybe every now and then you may see me be a little more elusive, you know?
"But other than that, we want to send a message to the defense. That’s what a physical running game is about. That’s one thing we have to do, is stay true."
We’ll take that as a no.