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Finding his fit
San Diego Chargers running back Branden Oliver stuns the Seattle Seahawks with a 70-yard touchdown catch.
Seahawks fans came out in droves on Saturday in San Diego.
It was family day here at the VMAC as the Seahawks had their last practice of the week before heading to San Diego tomorrow for a preaseon matchup against the Chargers on Saturday.
At one point this season, Marshawn Lynch admitted his image was overtaking his identity.
“When I came here, my name was Marshawn Lynch,” he said in November. “Now I get called ‘Beast Mode’ everywhere I go. So I guess that’s how it goes.”
And that was before this whole Skittles thing took on phenomenon proportions when a camera caught a trainer “administering” Lynch his favorite candy on the sideline during the Seahawks’ nationally televised game against the Philadelphia Eagles. The following week, he was greeted by a shower of Skittles after scoring against the St. Louis Rams on “Monday Night Football.”
“I think a lot of people got it mixed up, like it’s a prize that I get Skittles for scoring a touchdown,” he said at the time. “If you want the truth, you’ve got to ask my mama.”
The truth is, Lynch has been eating them during games since his days at Oakland Technical High School.
Beast Mode. Skittles-back. Just who is this guy?
Lynch paused from what he was doing the other day in the locker room, looked the questioner directly in the eyes and offered, “I know who I am. I’m very clear with that.”
After what Lynch has done in the team’s second-half surge, so does everyone else: The most productive running back the Seahawks have had since Shaun Alexander in 2005.
Entering Sunday’s season finale against the Cardinals in Arizona, Lynch has rushed for 1,118 yards and scored 13 touchdowns – career-highs for the hard-charging back who was obtained in a trade last October after playing his first three NFL seasons with the Buffalo Bills.
But wait, there’s more. Lynch also has scored a TD in his past 11 games, not only a franchise record but the longest streak in the league since the Chiefs’ Priest Holmes scored in 11 consecutive games in 2002. Also, 855 of his rushing yards have come in the past eight games, when he has been the NFL’s leading rusher.
But wait, there’s still more. In last week’s two-point loss to the NFC West Champion San Francisco 49ers, Lynch became the first player this season to score a rushing touchdown and the first back since 2009 to rush for more than 100 yards against them.
If this was an infommercial, this is where the announcer would exclaim, “Now how much would you pay?” And that’s also relevant, because Lynch is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent and the club already has stated that re-signing him is a priority.
Back to Beast Mode. Or Skittles-back. Or Marshawn Lynch.
Even though he finished as the second alternate when the NFC Pro Bowl squad was announced this week, those in-the-know know better.
“The way Marshawn is running after he gets the first and second contacts, this guy is not going down,” Justin Smith, the 49ers’ Pro Bowl defensive lineman, said last week. “That’s how he’s run his whole career, but it really looks like the last five or six games this guy is turning it up a notch. The O-linemen are believing in him, they’re blocking for him.”
And that is another story within this story. It started when Lynch went to Tom Cable and told the team’s first-year assistant head coach/offensive line coach that he wanted to learn how to run in Cable’s battle-tested system.
“We made a deal – you have to do it the way I tell you to do it, I ask you to do it,” Cable said. “And he’s done it. So a lot of credit, to me, goes to him because he was willing to kind of maybe push his ego or push own beliefs, to some extent, aside and then embrace something new.
“Because this is a system that asks backs to do things a certain way. Once you get in and through the line of scrimmage, then do your thing. You can do all the craziness you want then. But you’ve got to do it this way from A to B. And he bought in from A to B. And after that, what you do from C on is you.”
It’s the back and his blocker working in unison by reading things the same way. What a concept.
“It’s all about, ‘This is what they’re blocking in front of you.’ So you’ve got to understand what they’re trying to do in order for where you fit,” Cable said.
Lynch’s take? “I feel I became a pro this year,” he said. “From the studying, to the taking care of my body, doing little things that I could have gotten over with when I was younger – like not stretching, just going out there.”
Lynch credits the lead-by-example habits of fellow back Leon Washington, who hits the sauna and hot tub and also stretches before practice to make sure he’s loose.
“Every week, I ask Leon if he’s sore. And he tells me, ‘Nah,’ ” Lynch said. “Now I understand why.”
For help with the mental preparation, Lynch turned to fullback Michael Robinson. Then there’s Justin Forsett, who became Lynch’s close friend when both were at the University of California and remains a confidant in matters of life off the field as well as on.
“A lot of the things I have learned, I have learned from those guys,” Lynch said. “I give those guys a lot of respect.”
As a result of Lynch finding his fit, his teammates aren’t just blocking for Lynch, they’re trippin’ with him.
“It’s fun, man. He makes it fun,” said quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, when asked what it’s like to have a free-spirited, Skittles-munching, Beast-Mode running back like Lynch in the huddle.
“In the huddle, you can never really know what’s going to come out of his mouth. He pretty much says anything. It’s fun to come out and practice with him every day, and especially in the game. He’s a funny dude and he’s fun to be around. It’s been a great experience for me.”
You also never know what Lynch might do once that huddle breaks and he gets his hands on the ball.
“Marshawn never misses a one-read, he’s always right on the mark,” said Robinson, Lynch’s lead-blocker and a first alternate to the Pro Bowl. “He definitely makes you want to block for him. There are some guys you just don’t know. But with Marshawn, he makes you want to block for him and you take pride in blocking for him.
“He’s a selfless person. He’s definitely a great guy to be around.”
Beast Mode. Skittles-back. Pro Bowl snub. Call Lynch what you like – or feel you must – but Justin Smith made the right call last week. Just as Baltimore coach John Harbaugh did before the Seahawks upset his Ravens in Week 10, as Lynch ran for 105 yards and a touchdown.
“I think he’s one of the top backs in the league,” Smith said. “With the way he runs and the plays he makes, I’d put him definitely at No. 1, 2 or 3, for sure. He’s a top back in the NFL.
“The way he runs and the way he can make one, two, three or four guys miss is amazing. Then the power that he has with his size, and he’s got the speed, everything. He’s the total package.”
Said Harbaugh, “Obviously, it starts with Lynch. He’s definitely a Top 2 or 3 running back in the National Football League.”
This week, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt offered, “He’s done a good job this year of really being a guy that’s tough to bring down. I mean, how many times do you think that he’s stopped and he breaks out of there for extra yards? That’s something that concerns you as a defense. He’s a very good football player.”
And, despite the Beast Mode-mania and Skittles-back sensation, they are talking about Marshawn Lynch.