The Seahawks came into last week's game against Cleveland minus their top two running backs, and with a quarterback and receiver who had been producing at historical rates during a four-game winning streak leading up to that game.
And while Russell Wilson and Doug Baldwin continued their great play in a win over the Browns, the Seahawks also rushed for 182 yards despite the absences of Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls, their third highest rushing total this season. The Seahawks also ran the ball six more times than the threw it, and even after five games of big numbers from Wilson and company, they still have attempted the third fewest pass attempts in the NFL while running the ball more frequently than every team in the league but Carolina, and for more yards than every team but Buffalo.
"We have to stay us," said offensive line coach/assistant head coach Tom Cable. "A lot of teams, (missing the top two running backs) would affect and it would throw a big curve ball at you, but for us, we need to be able to be who we are in order for this to fit, defensively, offensively, special teams. It's by design."
When the Seahawks acquired Lynch in a trade in 2010, they didn't so much find their identity in a newly-acquired player as they did acquire the player who could best help them have the identity Pete Carroll wants in any team. So even if the Seahawks lost their Pro Bowl back, as well as his backup, they refuse to change who they are.
"I think it's enormously important for the formula for us for winning," Carroll said. "This is the way we've been doing it."
For Carroll, balance doesn't mean a certain run-to-pass ratio, it means having the ability to do both things well during the course of a game. The Seahawks absolutely want to be able to throw the ball effectively, and have done so over the years, being one of the most explosive passing teams in the league despite being at or near the bottom on the NFL in pass attempts every year since 2012. But what they don't want to be is a team that has to be overly reliant on that passing game, no matter how well things are going. And indeed the Seahawks have had 33 fewer passes attempts than rushes during a five-game winning streak in which Wilson became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for three or more touchdowns in five straight games without an interception. Of course winning helps get those rushing totals up, which is all part of the formula. The Seahawks have just one more rushing attempt than pass attempt over the last five games in the first halves of those game, but they get run heavy to control the clock late in the game.
"That's why we talk about being a balanced attack at the end of the games," Carroll said. "Not always in the games; we don't go out just to establish the run. We've never said that in all of the years. I don't mind telling our opponent, we don't do that. We go out and try to win the game. If we play well, then you have your chances in the second half, and particularly in the fourth quarter to run the football and win the game in that manner. We love doing that. That's all part of it, if we're capable of that. We've been ahead quite a bit here, so we get those extra opportunities in the fourth quarter. That's why the runs continue to be ahead of it. It can be misleading, if you think, 'They're a run-first team and that's all they do.' I don't think that's what we're presenting to our opponents at all."
For Carroll, balance is at the very core of who he is as a coach. It's why he has never wavered on that commitment even when the Seahawks have gone out and acquired big-money pass-catchers, or when they signed their quarterback to a big contract extension before the start of this season. To Carroll, balance is part of sustained success, and it's hard to argue with the results considering Seattle is in the postseason for the fourth straight year and fifth time in six seasons under Carroll.
"We have great commitment to the run game," Carroll said. "For all of the football gods that have ever spoken of this game and how you're supposed to play the game, it goes back to the history of it. This game is won on the ground, and won on both sides of the ball. You have to be able to do that if you want to be a long term, consistent, winning team. We've been committed that way for a long time. I'm glad the numbers show that, because that's what we're trying to demonstrate through our play."
Continuing to run the ball well will mean getting more production out of Christine Michael and Bryce Brown until Lynch comes back, if he is able to come back, from abdomen surgery. Michael, who came to Seattle as a second-round pick in 2013, but was traded to Dallas this offseason, had a particularly promising return to Seattle, rushing for 84 yards on 16 carries less than a week after re-signing with his former team. Michael has said that being traded by Seattle, then released from Dallas' active roster and Washington's practice squad has humbled him, and so far his coaches are seeing that as well.
"He cherishes this opportunity more than he ever has, I think," Carroll said. "This is the most important opportunity he's ever been faced with and he appreciates that."
Added offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, "It's a small sample size, but I think that he's grown up a little bit. He's kind of been through some different situations by going to other places, been to two other places, got to see what it's like on the other side. Got to understand maybe how valuable the opportunities are that you can get, and how those opportunities can be gone rather quickly. So he's making the most of it, and he's focused in on the job and the task at hand. Like I said, it's a small sample size, but he did a great job with it last week. Hopefully for his sake and our sake, he'll continue to do that."
The physical ability of Michael has never been in doubt—that's why Seattle drafted him in the second round to begin with—but in his second stint with Seattle, it appears Michael has learned more about what it takes to be an NFL player, not just a great athlete.
"So much of this game is not about what your ability is, it's about who you are, how you're wired, how you're handling your business, becoming a pro," Cable said. "That's really it. There's a lot of guys who are really talented who don't play in this league, because they couldn't figure it out. Being a pro is different. You've got to have growth and accountability and maturity and all those things, and he certainly showed that last week."
But whether Michael continues to thrive, or if Brown takes on a bigger role, or if Lynch returns for a playoff run, the Seahawks will remain committed to balance regardless of who is carrying the ball.
"It's hugely important to us, obviously," Carroll said. "That's why I was really excited about last week when the new runners come in, and they have an impact and we run for 180. That's a big deal. That's about the guys up front, and the commitment and all of that. We'll see if we can get somewhere near that again. It'll give us a chance to play like we want to."