There’s more to Marshawn Lynch’s success than Beast Mode
What makes Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch so good? Sure, there’s the hard-charging Beast Mode style. But teammates and coaches point to his footwork, quickness and discipline.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The Beast Mode nickname trails Marshawn Lynch everywhere, and it gives him an identity.
His teammates call him a fighter and a warrior, a street brawler and the team’s heart and soul. Few running backs in the NFL seem to enjoy contact more than Lynch, a claim backed by his friend and former fullback, Michael Robinson.
“Those dirty, ugly 2- or 3- or 4-yard runs, he actually enjoys those more than the breakout runs,” said Robinson, who works for the NFL Network. “I saw him get maybe half a yard one time last year. He probably made six people miss. ... He stepped over two people and flipped over another guy and was very excited.”
Here, Robinson breaks into a Lynch impersonation.
“And he was like, ‘I almost broke it, I almost broke it!’ I said, ‘You only got half a yard.’ He said, ‘Did you see what I did, though?! Did you see it?!’ ”
But the nickname and the images it stirs betray Lynch in some ways. He does run like a street fight broke out. He had one of his braids ripped from his head against the Broncos, then simply reached down and picked it up, like he found a stray quarter. He lost his helmet during another run against Denver yet kept firing stiff-arms into the chest of defenders. He has finished in the NFL’s top four in yards after contact and missed tackles each of the past two years.
But some of Lynch’s best attributes are far more subtle, and they exist in the shadow of the Beast Mode persona. Coach Pete Carroll marvels at Lynch’s footwork.
Lynch’s numbers are skewed because of the San Diego game, when he had only six carries. But he is seventh in the league in yards per game (78), and he’s averaging 4.5 yards per carry, which would be the second-best average of his career.
Perhaps no player knows Lynch as well as Robinson. At the Super Bowl, when Lynch reluctantly spoke to the media, he had Robinson at his side, and it was Robinson’s wife who re-twisted Lynch’s braids each season.
When Robinson watches Lynch this season, he sees a more efficient runner, a guy who is combining the power he’s always had with a more self-aware approach.
“He’s running smarter,” Robinson said.
Lynch is in better shape now than he normally is this early in the season, and teammates think he is quicker because of it.
Lynch’s running style is defined by his split-legged stance, which gives him power and allows him to slide and hop through openings in the defense. Carroll describes Lynch’s running style being “like a slalom skier.”
But Robinson notices that Lynch is challenging defenders more. When Lynch would see a defender in the hole earlier in his career — what Robinson calls “color in the hole” — it would force him to cut back. Now he is more likely to attack the defender and try to make him miss in pursuit of an explosive run.
“He’s attacking the defender instead of looking for another avenue to escape,” Robinson said. “I think he’s probably the best I’ve seen him.”
Lynch has taken 56 percent of his carries out of the shotgun formation this season, and Robinson said Lynch is one of the best he’s seen at squaring his shoulders to the line of scrimmage. That allows him to better attack linebackers, who can’t tell if he’s going to run straight, to the right or to the left.
“With the exception of LeSean McCoy and Frank Gore, he has some of the best feet I’ve ever seen on a guy,” Robinson said. “If you check his inside-zone runs, he’s a guy that if he’s lined up on the left side of the quarterback, he can come across the quarterback, grab the ball and within a step get his shoulders squared to the line of scrimmage. Which I can’t do, Robert Turbin can’t do, Christine Michael can’t do. I don’t care how many times they try, they can’t do it.
“He can get his shoulders square, put one foot in the ground and get right back to the left side within two steps. Not many human beings walking the Earth can do that.”
Lynch’s runs look like a free-for-all, and he is so good at finding lanes that it appears as if he’s improvising. But Derrick Coleman, Seattle’s third-year fullback, argues that what makes Lynch effective is the exact opposite: He’s so disciplined.
Seattle’s zone-blocking scheme is dictated by rules and principles. Running backs and offensive linemen are expected to hit their marks at precise times in order for the play to unfold the way offensive-line coach Tom Cable drew it up. Former NFL fullback Heath Evans once said Lynch’s job is to be the conductor because his pacing, the number of steps he takes, dictates the success of a run.
Sometimes a play requires Lynch to run to a spot, even if there isn’t an opening when he gets the ball. But Lynch has the discipline to stick with the play, hit the clogged hole and trust that his blocking will clear the desired path. The Seahawks call that ability to cruise until bursting through an emerging hole “popping the clutch.”
“A lot of runners aren’t disciplined enough to do that because they’re so anxious to find a hole themselves instead of waiting for it to develop,” receiver Doug Baldwin said.
Said Coleman: “The coaches always say: ‘Run like Marshawn, get to the spot and make a decision.’ The guys who try to do other stuff are the ones who ain’t here anymore.”
And then there is the violence. Lynch has only one run of 20 yards this season, and he’s finished in the top 10 in the NFL in that category only once while in Seattle.
But Lynch’s bruising style, at its core, is a psychological hammer. Baldwin says Lynch makes Seattle’s receivers block longer because they know Lynch is going to run as hard as he can. Offensive linemen have said the same thing.
Former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo judges running backs by how they handle themselves between the tackles, and Angelo thinks that’s where Lynch does his best work.
“You cannot let that guy get downhill,” Angelo said. “And it’s not because he’s going to hurt you with a big play or long run, but because he’s going to pound you. The worst thing you can do is get run on. If a defense gets beat, they’d rather get beat on a big pass play. But that kind of back destroys your will. He destroys your will to win.”