Last week, Thomas Rawls was back.
One game after he wasn’t even allowed in uniform, left inactive on the sidelines against Indianapolis, Rawls was back as the Seahawks’ lead runner last weekend for their divisional showdown at the Los Angeles Rams.
So he — and we — thought.
Eddie Lacy started instead. Lacy was the lead back to begin three of the first four drives, and bulled for a first down on third and short. Lacy ended up with nine carries for 19 yards. Rawls had eight rushes for 20 yards. And despite the win and the recapturing of the NFC West lead, Seattle’s running game remained stalled.
With clear favorite Chris Carson on injured reserve following ankle surgery and no longer the featured runner, is it Rawls? He was a healthy inactive two games ago. Is it Lacy? The Seahawks made him a healthy scratch for the first time in his career, too; that was four games ago. Is it C.J. Prosise, who will return next week from an ankle injury that kept him out of the last two games. The usual third-down back will return Oct. 22 when the Seahawks (3-2) return from this week’s bye to play at the New York Giants (0-5).
Heck, at this point, is it Dan Doornink?
Don’t ask Pete Carroll if he has criteria for determining his lead running back. I did this week—and got stared at below a furrowed brow.
"Who said we had criteria? I’m not sure what that means," the Seahawks’ coach said.
"We are just going to keep working our guys and keep rolling, with really worthy guys. We will just pound away and see what happens as the games go and everybody is ready to go. C.J. will be back the next time around and we will add him in, too. We will see how it goes.
"There is no reason to have any criteria right now, because we like our guys. And really equal status now is good for us. We will see how they do."
So far, not so good.
The Seahawks set for this season a primary goal of dramatically improving their running game. It fell from third in the NFL with Marshawn Lynch and Rawls as lead backs in 2015 at 141.8 yards per game to 25th last season, at 99.4 yards per game. Rawls was injured and a whopping 18 different guys ran the ball in 2016. Christine Michael was last season’s leading rusher—and Seattle cut him in mid-November.
Through five games this season the Seahawks are 15th in the league in rushing, at 109.2 yards per game. But take away Carson’s 49 carries for 208 yards because he’s on IR. Remove quarterback Russell Wilson’s 30 rushes for 154 yards mostly on scrambles away from consistent pressure through his iffy offensive line. Seattle’s active running backs, the ones still on the roster playing, the options they have currently at the position, have gained 156 yards on 52 carries this season.
That’s 31 yards per game on the ground from the guys paid specifically to gain those yards. The lowest team average of rushing yards per game in the NFL is the Arizona Cardinals’ 51.8. And statue-like, aged quarterback Carson Palmer isn’t running in the desert like Wilson is for Seattle.
Honestly, though, Walter Payton would have trouble getting yards with the blocking the Seahawks’ backs have gotten. Their offensive line isn’t opening consistent running lanes in Seattle’s zone-blocking scheme.
Against Los Angeles last weekend, the Seahawks had 25 rushes for 62 yards. The running backs had 19 carries for just 39 yards (2.1 yards per carry).
"Yeah, we didn’t make a lot of yards. We worked it enough," Carroll said.
That brings us to the one criteria the Seahawks’ coach does have for his Seahawks’ running game. Carroll said he thought it comes from legendary Green Bay Packers balance-seeking, title-winning coach Vince Lombardi half a century ago.
"Whenever we get around the 50 mark of completions and carries, it’s a good number for us," Carroll said. "We were close, 49 (against the Rams). That gives us a chance to mix and feel, but it wasn’t effective enough. It is one of those deals, I wish we had gotten ahead a little bit more so we could have really pounded it a little bit more and see if we could make some more yards with it but we kept our attitude about it and kept trying and working at it.
"Both Eddie and Thomas got some shots. We need to do better. I really want to keep pounding away until we get better at it. We will make progress there."
But Carroll counts to 50. So we will, too. The Seahawks have reached that many carries and completions three times in five games. They are 2-1 in those games: wins over San Francisco (60) and Indianapolis (54) and the loss at Tennessee (51). They had a total of 32 in the opening loss at Green Bay, and 49 last week against the Rams.
Indicative of how the Seahawks’ running game has been broken for two seasons, Seattle has reached Carroll’s 50 of carries and completions just 10 times in the last 23 games. The Seahawks are 8-2 over the last two seasons when they do get to 50.
And Wilson’s running, often for his life, is a big reason for those times the Seahawks have gotten to 50 rushes and completions since the start of 2016. Six of those 10 times is because of runs by Wilson and/or wide receivers Tyler Lockett and Doug Baldwin. Seattle has only reached its 50 number because of its running backs four times in those last 23 times.
Here’s the thing: The Seahawks must continue to run, even if it isn’t getting them anywhere. That will help keep defenses honest; that is, from teeing off on Wilson with pass rushers Seattle’s offensive line has shown it can’t repel consistently. Wilson has been sacked 13 times and hit 43 times through five games. That’s on pace for 138 hits over the entire regular season, 27 more than last year. That, of course, was when the Seahawks’ entire season that ended in the second round of the playoffs was limited by Wilson playing with a high-ankle sprain and sprained knee.
So who will it be against the Giants, after the Seahawks return to practice Monday?
Carroll indicated Rawls needs to get more opportunities. His last two seasons he’s been coming off a broken ankle, a cracked fibula and, this August, a high-ankle sprain. That kept him out until week two of this regular season.
"I thought Thomas did have a better feel as the (Rams) game went on. He just doesn’t have much experience in the last year," Carroll said. "We will just keep bringing him along and see how it goes."
Rawls led the NFL in yards per carry (5.6) in his breakout rookie season of 2015, when he replaced the injured Lynch. He is averaging 3.2 yards since then (373 yards on 117 carries, with 24 yards on 13 carries this season).
"Yeah, he doesn’t (have enough reps). You can add them up, there is none," Carroll said. "It is next to nothing. But he is working real hard. He is in good shape and his attitude is great. I don’t see there is any reason other than just kind of bringing him along.
"Meanwhile, Eddie is pounding it.
"And,” Carroll said, with the outlook he always has, “we will be alright."