Marshawn Lynch had to be taken off the Seahawks’ charter-flight manifest last Friday.
That should provide an idea about the degree of surprise over the decision he would not travel to Minnesota for the team’s wild-card game.
After a week of full participation at practice, something had changed in the final 24 hours before Seattle departed. You heard it from coach Pete Carroll when he said after Friday’s practice that Lynch was, in fact, a question mark for the game, and you saw it most dramatically when Lynch didn’t even make the trip.
Having watched Lynch run the ball for six seasons in Seattle, it’s impossible to doubt the man’s toughness or willingness to play for his teammates. To have seen the deterioration of his attitude toward the team over the past two years, it’s just as difficult to take last week’s about-face on his availability at face value.
He is a player beloved by his teammates, someone who was given a $5 million raise to return to this team, and yet the most charitable characterization of what occurred last week is to say that the communication between player and employer is strained to the point where his coach didn’t know he wouldn’t be playing less than an hour before he failed to make the trip.
And before we begin searching where Lynch goes from here in this playoff run, it’s worth a look to how we got this far:
Nothing was ever the same for Lynch in Seattle after the offseason that followed Seattle’s 2011 season.
Many will point to his July arrest on suspicion of DUI as the turning point. Always a reluctant interview subject before the arrest, it became increasingly difficult after that. Not impossible, but more difficult.
The real change occurred during the contract negotiations before the arrest, however. Lynch was scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, but that was never going to happen. Not with Seattle holding the trump card that is the franchise tag, which would severely restrict Lynch’s options.
At that time, Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson constituted the gold standard at running back. Peterson signed a six-year, $86 million deal before the 2011 season while Johnson signed for a four-year, $53.5 million deal.
Lynch was considered part of the next tier of running backs along with Chicago’s Matt Forte and Baltimore’s Ray Rice. Each faced the threat of having the franchise tag placed on them; all signed multi-year deals. None averaged more than $8 million per year.
The sign that Lynch wasn’t happy? How long it took to get the deal done. The parameters for the deal were set in place at the league’s annual scouting combine at the end of February. Lynch didn’t formally sign them for another two weeks when Paul Allen announced the deal via Twitter on March 4.
Oct. 17, 2013
You heard of the bird? Well, Lynch flashed it toward the Seattle bench while lining up in the backfield during the middle of the game, leaving us all to sort through just how much ill will was behind the gesture.
Here are the particulars: Thursday night game in Arizona, Seattle has third-and-goal at the Arizona 1, the Seahawks leading 17-13. The Seahawks offense broke the huddle, and before getting set, Lynch turned and flashed a middle finger toward Seattle’s sideline.
It was a pass play, and Lynch even wound up throwing a great block on a play that resulted in a touchdown to tight end Kellen Davis.
It’s a play that has come to typify Lynch’s last two seasons here in Seattle. A player whose effort can’t be questioned based on what you see between the whistles, but whose attitude toward his employer can appear outright hostile.
May 22, 2014
Lynch wasn’t the only Seahawk who missed Seattle’s trip to the White House where the team was greeted by President Barack Obama. Cliff Avril was overseas on his honeymoon at the time.
Lynch was the player people noticed, though. Especially when his mother told The Seattle Times that her son just “didn’t want to go.”
Lynch had told teammates during the season that he would retire if the team won the Super Bowl. He wasn’t on the team’s flight back from New York after winning the title, and when it came time for the victory parade the Wednesday after the victory, no one was sure if he was going to make it. He arrived late and wound up on an amphibious Duck vehicle with the Seagals.
In July, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said, “We are going to be running back by committee,” at an event for season-ticket holders, but by that time Lynch had already been absent for Seattle’s offseason training, and the uncertainty regarding his future was obvious.
July 25, 2014
Any doubt about Lynch’s satisfaction with his employment was answered when he didn’t report for training camp at the beginning of last season. Lynch sat out the first eight days of training camp, subjecting himself to as much as $500,000 in fines and signing-bonus forfeiture. While reports were the team waived those fines, the team has never stated that.
While Lynch’s contract was adjusted when he reported, it wasn’t adjusted as much as he wanted. The Seahawks moved money around within the deal, they didn’t add money to it. He was given a $1 million raise, guaranteed to make $6 million with another $1.5 million in bonuses possible.
The following offseason, Seattle signed Lynch to a new contract, raising his 2015 salary from $7 million to $12 million. The deal was technically for three years, but it was constructed with the understanding that Lynch could choose to retire after 2015.
Again, the parameters of the deal were agreed to in February – and first reported by Jason LaCanfora of CBS Sports. Again, Lynch waited weeks before formally agreeing to the new contract.
Sept. 13, 2015
Seattle had to wait for Lynch.
You probably didn’t notice. In fact, you couldn’t have. The Seahawks were on the road for their first game, Lynch sitting on the bench after Seattle received the opening kickoff and the Seahawks offense took the field for the game’s first possession.
Lynch walked onto the field last, which isn’t unheard of, but was especially poignant consider the report from ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith earlier in the week that Lynch wouldn’t play unless the Seahawks got Kam Chancellor back.
Lynch had worn Chancellor’s No. 31 jersey during the team’s Thursday practice that week. The team diffused any sense of rebellion, Tweeting out a picture of Lynch in the jersey from the team’s official account while coach Pete Carroll pointed to Lynch’s support of a teammate loved by everyone in the franchise.
When Chancellor returned to the team after missing two games, Lynch was the player he singled out by name, citing Lynch’s effort.
December 24, 2015
It wasn’t a message to Marshawn Lynch, but a statement of a new reality when Tom Cable, the team’s assistant head coach answered a question about Lynch’s potential return from abdominal surgery.
“We’re counting on him to get healthy, whenever that is,” Cable said. “And once that happens, for him to come back in and be able to adapt to this football team and the way it is and the way it acts and the way it’s moving right now collectively â€¦ that’ll be his challenge.”
It was significant who said it. Cable is the architect of Seattle’s run game. The one who worked with Lynch over the rocky first half of 2011 until the breakthrough in the final eight games when the Seahawks became one of the top rushing offenses in the league.
But this season, Lynch has missed more games than he’s played. He’s undergone the first surgery of his career, and in the seven regular-season games he did suit up for, he wasn’t as effective as rookie Thomas Rawls. Not only that, but over the second half of the season, quarterback Russell Wilson passed at a historically proficient level.
That doesn’t mean Seattle is running the ball significantly less or that Lynch’s role would change. It does, however, mean the offense isn’t as dependent on Lynch as it once was. It doesn’t need him like it did in 2013 and certainly in 2012.
That doesn’t mean he won’t be an asset to the team. In fact, there’s a very real likelihood that Seattle will need Lynch to not just play, but play well if it’s going to become the fourth team in the 25 years to win three straight playoff games on the road to reach the Super Bowl.
But the situation is different now. That’s as true for the offense as it is for Lynch’s relationship with his team, and one week after he felt he wasn’t strong enough to play, everyone will be watching on Friday to see if this running back who has meant so much to the franchise will climb aboard the bus for at least one more ride.