Last year at this time, Christine Michael was getting cut from the Seahawks’ plans.
Then, he got cut by two other teams. He was out of the NFL.
Now, this new, humbled and matured Michael is back in Seattle’s blueprint for the 2016 season.
“I’m a different player,” Michael said late Thursday night at CenturyLink Field, after he rushed for 55 yards on 10 carries in the first half of the Seahawks’ 18-11 preseason loss to Minnesota.
He’s different, in more ways than one.
“He is maturing,” coach Pete Carroll said of his 25-year-old running back.
Michael has been making sharper cuts as Seattle’s No. 1 running back while starter Thomas Rawls recovers from a broken ankle. Not only that, Michael’s awareness of when to make those cutbacks on runs is better than it was last season, when he returned to Seattle out of injury necessity late in the year.
It’s far, far better than it was in his first time with the Seahawks, in the 2013 and ’14 seasons.
Those cutbacks are how Michael has 99 yards on 17 carries through two preseason games. That’s 5.8 yards per carry, better than Rawls’ 5.6 yards per carry that led the NFL last season.
On Thursday’s first drive, Michael took quarterback Russell Wilson’s handoff running right. Then, seemingly out of the corner of his eye, he saw guard Mark Glowinski to his left driving Minnesota defensive tackle Tom Johnson 5 yards past the line and onto his back. Michael cut left behind that lane created by Glowinski’s pancake block and gained 10 yards.
The next play was third-and-2. Michael took a read-option handoff from Wilson heading again to the right but immediately planted his right foot and cut up the middle for a more straight-ahead burst to get those 2 yards. That decisive cut easily got Michael the first down.
“His consistency is really much, much improved, in that he is seeing the line of scrimmage really well. He’s taking advantage of the plays,” Carroll said. “He ran kind of wild at times and was impatient at times. His sense for stuff and expectation for how the plays should come out and having to really bounce the football (outside against) teams — because he’s really quick and can get out laterally — is showing up more consistently.
“He’s an improved version of it again this time around. He looks good.”
So good, he’s even switching the ball from his inside arm to his outside arm, away from defenders, on runs around the end. That’s a fundamental for which Michael either didn’t have time or care in his first Seahawks go-round.
“Because he is growing and maturing, he is more concerned about all of the things that are really important: his reads, his pass protection stuff, his ball-catching skills,” Carroll said. “And I think he is taking care of the football better, as well.
“All of his stuff fundamentally is more available to him because, in general, he’s just more mindful of how to play the position. He is more tuned in.
“And he’s just matured.”
Yes, as we contemplate this awakening and wonder why this Christine Michael looks so much better and more dependable than the first one, it might be simply this: He is a changed man.
As in, he’s not 22 years old anymore.
When the Seahawks drafted him out of Texas A&M in the second round in 2013, he entered the league exuding an obvious sense he should be a featured back and that it wouldn’t take a lot of extra work or focus on details to be that main man.
Blocking his progress was that the Seahawks had an All-Pro back who will eventually be considered for the Hall of Fame. And he needed the extra work — a lot of it.
Most of all, he needed the Seahawks to trust him.
They gave up trying to do that last September, trading Michael to Dallas for a late-round draft choice. Then injuries caused Marshawn Lynch to miss games for the first time in his Seahawks career. Rawls then became the first undrafted running back to rush for 160 yards or more twice in his rookie season.
Michael was gone and absolutely forgotten.
But Lynch missed months with a sports hernia. Rawls broke his ankle and tore ligaments in December. Free agent Bryce Brown tried and failed. In December, the Seahawks re-signed Michael. This came after the Texas native had played in five games for the Cowboys, then was released by Dallas and Washington.
In three games and two starts at the end of Seattle’s 2015 regular season, Michael rushed for 192 yards and an average of 4.9 yards per carry. That was above his career average of 4.7. It was 1.5 yards better than his average with Dallas.
In February, Lynch retired. In May, Michael seemed an endangered man on the Seahawks’ roster. Seattle drafted three running backs, C.J. Prosise in the third round, Alex Collins in the fifth round and Zac Brooks in the seventh. Furthermore, by June, the team became convinced Rawls would be recovered from the broken ankle to be Seattle’s lead runner for the start of the 2016 regular season.
That left Michael with a third and perhaps last chance to impress the team that first believed in him three years ago — a short window in training camp and preseason games while Rawls recovered.
“I just want them to trust me,” Michael said last week after his seven carries and 44 yards in the first quarter at Kansas City.
Now, three impressive weeks and two revitalizing preseason games later, they do. Prosise, expected to be the third-down back, and Brooks have been out with hamstring injuries for the majority of this month. Collins has struggled in two preseason games at pass blocking and short-yardage running.
Carroll said this week when Rawls returns, he and Michael can provide a potent, “one-two punch” in the Seahawks’ new running game.
And Rawls might be fully back soon. Carroll said after Thursday’s exhibition that Rawls will be “full go” in practice next week. He could play in Thursday’s exhibition against Dallas, when starters are likely to play into the third quarter.
Michael will be there, too. The Seahawks can now finally count on that.
Endangered no more.
“Man, he’s really run the ball,” Wilson said.
“It’s impressive to see Christine Michael run the ball the way he is,” Wilson said. “He is running very physical, running with speed, hitting the edge, makes the right cut at the right time.
“I’m excited for Rawls to get back here soon. I know everyone here is excited for Rawls to get back, the fans and all that. He’s put so much work in, I’m so happy for him and all the things that he’s done to get back so fast for him. He feels really strong and healthy, so that’s exciting for him.
“We have a big stable of running backs right now … C-Mike and Thomas Rawls, they will be able to lead the way, for sure.”
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle