SEATTLE — Has Marshawn Lynch saved the Seattle Seahawks’ season?
The way attitudes seemed to be around the Puget Sound the past week, one can be forgiven for thinking Lynch was a savior on par with Oskar Schindler. The former Seahawks star running back, who last played for Seattle in 2015, had returned, re-signing with the team Monday night, and everything from media reports to holiday parties to Twitter discussions was abuzz about the return of Beast Mode. And just about every reaction I saw or heard was gushing with excitement, fully believing Lynch was the final piece in Seattle’s Super Bowl puzzle.
While I was as bemused as anyone about Lynch’s return, I had to raise an eyebrow at those who thought a 33-year-old who hadn’t played in 14 months would be the answer to all the Seahawks’ problems. Indeed, I couldn’t help wondering how much of it was a PR move as much as a football move.
But Lynch’s impact, both physically and emotionally, on Sunday’s dramatic 26-21 loss to the San Francisco 49ers says he may have been just what the doctor ordered.
I can understand the skeptics. From the team’s standpoint, bringing in Lynch was a no-brainer. The Seahawks had just been throttled at home by a terrible Arizona Cardinals team, and in the process Seattle lost 1,000-yard rusher Chris Carson, arguably the team’s second-best offensive player, to a season-ending hip injury. Morale, despite a playoff berth already in hand, had sunk to a new low, both in the locker room and among the fans. What better way to raise spirits — and bury the headlines from last Sunday’s debacle — than by bringing back one of the most charismatic members of the Seahawks’ greatest team?
It made sense for Lynch, too. Lynch isn’t just a football player, he’s a brand, complete with Beast Mode retail stores located in both Seattle and his hometown of Oakland. But it’s hard for an athlete to keep one’s brand in the spotlight when he or she is no longer playing, especially when that athlete’s appeal is more regional than national. Was Lynch’s brand in need of a boost? The reported long lines at the Seattle Beast Mode store, as well as the immediate presence of “Unfinished Business” t-shirts available on the Beast Mode website, suggested re-signing with the Seahawks certainly didn’t hurt.
Then again, if there’s a position where a player doesn’t necessarily need to be in perfect choreographed unity with the 10 other players on the field, and where a lengthy period off might actually be a benefit rather than a detriment, it’s running back. So maybe the dreamers were grasping onto more than a single strand of straw.
Sunday at CenturyLink Field, in the game against the 49ers for the NFC West championship, we were going to find out.
Early on, it looked as if it may have been a stunt. Lynch didn’t check in once during Seattle’s first offensive series, prompting former Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin to do some second guessing: “How do you not give the ball to Marshawn the first play of the game?” he asked on Twitter.
When Lynch finally did check in for the first play of Seattle’s second drive, he was just a decoy on a play-action incompletion. On his second snap Lynch took a handoff up the middle, leaped onto the back of his offensive line and gained 5 yards to give the crowd a brief moment of excitement. But it ended up being a barren first half: four carries, 7 yards, and stuffed on fourth-and-inches with Seattle in scoring range. The Beast appeared to have been tamed.
But the second half was another matter. On Seattle’s first possession of the third quarter Lynch was on the field for six of the 11 snaps, including an 8-yard gain on a outside run to the right followed by a 15-yard scamper through a hole up the middle, setting up the Seahawks’ first scoring drive. The shades of the old Marshawn were returning.
Then on Seattle’s next drive came the moment every Seattle fan was waiting for. On first-and-goal from the 1 the handoff went to Lynch, and Lynch made like Walter Payton as he skied up and over the line for the 1-yard touchdown that pulled Seattle within 19-14. The crowd went berserk and Skittles rained down onto the CenturyLink turf.
And would CenturyLink still be standing had the Seahawks not been assessed a delay-of-game penalty at the end, thus giving Lynch the chance to win the game from the 1-yard line? I’m not sure any of us would have survived that.
By my count, Lynch finished the game with 23 snaps, carrying the ball 12 times for 34 yards and a TD. Marshawn may not have been the savior on the day, but he helped get the Seahawks back into it, he thrilled the home crowd, and he sure looked like someone who could help in the playoffs.
“I thought he was incredible,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “It was incredible just to be out there. He played hard and tough and he came out OK. There was a play during the week, a goal-line play, the play he scored on, we weren’t in pads on the day and it looked like he was going to leap over the top. I don’t know if he heard me, but I said, ‘Don’t tease me!’ because I’ve always wanted to see him go over the top. Sure enough, he got his chance and did it. I thought that was a thrilling moment for everybody.
“You don’t all know Marshawn, but you should all be proud of the way he handled this,” Carroll added. “He handled it in extraordinary fashion. He has been all-in, every aspect, everything he could have done to get ready and help this team. It could have gone a number of different ways, it’s such a unique and crazy situation, but he handled it impeccably.”
So has Lynch saved the Seahawks’ season? It’s going to be tough for Seattle, having to play the wild-card week and go on the road throughout the playoffs. But we just may end saying the answer to that question is, “Yes.”