John McGrath

Penny for the Hawks? Experts grade it a D but he’s done nothing but earn high marks

San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny runs a drill during the NFL football scouting combine, Friday, March 2, 2018, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny runs a drill during the NFL football scouting combine, Friday, March 2, 2018, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

On a report card resembling that of a benevolent art-class teacher – A’s and B’s, an occasional C – the Seahawks were identified as stick-drawing failures Thursday night. Their first-round choice of San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny was graded as a D.

“He’s a nice runner,” wrote analyst Pete Prisco, “but they have so many other needs and there are better backs. Weird.”

There were other needs for the Hawks to address Thursday, but when a team steeped in ground-control offense finishes a 16-game season with a running back scoring one touchdown, it suggests the most obvious need was improving the running attack.

How to accomplish this? Well, let’s see. You can replace offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. (Done.) You can replace the offensive line coach Tom Cable, whose primary duty had been overseeing the running attack. (Done.) You can sign a free-agent lineman previously drafted in the first round, D.J. Fluker, because of his proclivity to create space for running backs. (Done.)

Which brings us to solving the final and yet least emphasized aspect of the Seahawks’ touchdown-drought puzzle: Obtaining somebody familiar with the quaint notion of, like, running the ball into the end zone.

Last season at San Diego State, Penny rushed for 23 touchdowns, and caught a pair of touchdown passes. He gained 2,248 yards on the ground, averaging 7.8 yards a carry. Those are crazy-bread numbers mitigated by the fact he did not compete in a Power 5 conference.

Then again, neither did Marshall Faulk, a 1994 first-round draft choice from San Diego State. Faulk collected three Offensive Player of the Year awards en route to his 2011 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

A nice runner, that guy.

Listed at 220 pounds but projected to bulk up to 230, the 5-foot-11 Penny is bigger than Faulk, almost as fast, and every bit as capable of shredding the tackle that turns a 2-yard gain into a 20-yard touchdown.

“He’s a slasher,” San Diego State head coach Rocky Long told 710 ESPN Seattle radio host John Clayton on Friday. “He can see a gap and take a gap and break arm tackles.

“I know it’s a different level, obviously,” Long said of Penny’s adjustment to the NFL. “But at our level, once he broke into the open, nobody ran him down. He outran everybody he could to the end zone.”

The harsh criticism the Seahawks drew for their “weird” first-round pick dwells on the state of football in 2018. It’s a passing game now: Pass on first-and-10, pass on third-and-1, pass at the goal line during the last minute of a potential Super Bowl victory derailed by sideline strategists out-thinking themselves.

Amid the air-raid culture, running backs have been downgraded from prominent pieces on the chess board to pawns. They’re essentially expendable, the thinking goes. Selecting a running back in the first round, when there were holes to fill on both sides of the line and in the defensive secondary, was deemed foolish by many draft experts.

The Seahawks gambit to trade down Thursday, from No. 18 to No. 27, was not foolish. It got them a third-round choice they didn’t have, and got them a running back they didn’t have.

Quarterback Russell Wilson led the Hawks’ 2017 rushing attack with 586 yards, largely assembled on broken-play scrambles. Journeyman Mike Davis ran for 240 yards, and rookie Chris Carson, not drafted, ran for 208. The perpetually injured C.J. Prosise managed to remain healthy enough to contribute 23 yards.

The Hawks ground game last season didn’t border on incompetent. It defined incompetent. The running-by-committee experiment, hinged on a backfield with no reliable starter, led to three-and-out possessions that taxed a crippled defense.

If the fates allow, Penny will be a reliable starter. Unlike the recent high-end draft picks whose behavior as collegians posed a risk as pros for the Seahawks, there are no questions about his character.

A few years ago, he suffered from that psychological malady commonly known as homesickness. Penny called his mother every day, hoping she’d approve a frustrated freshman’s decision to leave school. His dad was rigid, didn’t listen to excuses, but moms are compassionate and will take you back with your favorite meal delivered in three-course harmony.

Not gonna happen, mom told him. You’ll find a way to survive and thrive. Rashaad Penny will graduate with his class next month.

Under the stewardship of head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider, the Seahawks have flourished with over-achievers determined to prove themselves. Their first-round selection was graded as a D.