Rashaad Penny's rookie season began with him showing the type of promise in training camp that one might expect to see out of a first-round pick. The running back looked like the type of explosive, dynamic threat the Seahawks were hoping to get when they made him the 27th overall pick out of San Diego State.
But just when it looked like Penny, along with Chris Carson, was on his way to giving the Seahawks the kind of one-two punch at running back head coach Pete Carroll loves, Penny broke his finger in training camp, causing him to miss Seattle's final three preseason games. It wasn't a major injury, and Penny made it back for the start of the regular season. But despite averaging 4.9 yards per carry over 14 games, the highest average among Seahawks backs, that preseason injury was one that set him back—"kind of put me in a hole," is how Penny put it—for his rookie season.
"It is frustrating, and it was frustrating for me as a rookie," Penny said following Seattle's ninth and final session of organized team activities. "I didn't know how to take it. I've never been hurt playing football in my life, so when that happened, I just hit a wall. I'm glad that I've grown up. Over these past months and this offseason, I've just started taking everything seriously by treating my body right and doing the little things. Also I think what helped me was losing all that extra weight. Now I feel better. I don't have all those nagging injuries. I'm at my best."
What made the injuries more frustrating for Penny—he also missed time late in the year with a knee injury—was the fact that he had been so healthy in high school and college. Seahawks general manager John Schneider said earlier this offseason that Penny had one of the best medical grades the Seahawks had ever put on a running back, so even a couple of minor—by NFL standards—injuries were tough to overcome.
"He had never been hurt," Schneider said at the NFL scouting combine. "So this is the first time he had ever been hurt. He was like, 'What?' He didn't know how to handle it, really. He's got a ton of pride. So he's like, 'Hey, I don't want to be disappointing anybody.' So it's just about him getting through that, having that confidence in himself that, 'I can play through this injury' or 'I'm going to get better. I'm going to get better in two weeks and then be ready to go.' It's hard… I mean, he had one of the better medical grades that our docs have ever given anybody. And so he didn't know—when you are hurt for the first time you don't necessarily know what it feels like. Whether that's breaking your finger, having a hamstring pull."
Now Penny is not only slimmed down—he said he's below 230 pounds, which is his ideal weight range—he has also learned how to be a professional.
"I'm just now learning how to be a pro," he said. "I think that's the big step for your second year and just playing at a different type of speed than I played at last year.
Asked what it means to be a pro, Penny said, "Just being in the details. Just coming in early, getting treatment whenever my body is sore. Doing all the little things. Focusing on other positions, techniques and what they do besides just knowing mine. I have a mentor in Marshall Faulk who's teaching me as well. He knew everything, what the offensive line was doing to receivers and just learning different reads and things."
Faulk, a Hall of Fame running back who also played at San Diego State, has been helping mentor Penny this offseason, including twice-a-week video chats, which is just another reason why Penny feels like big things are in store this year.
"I feel better than I've ever felt," he said.
And Penny isn't just feeling good, he's also learned some lessons about being an NFL running back.
"Just being more patient," he said. "You get anxious, over-excited, you've got high expectations being a first rounder. But at the end of the day, it's all about coming in and doing what's at hand. We have a great running back in Chris Carson, so I try to take little details from him, try to be his best friend and just try to create something that hasn't been done here."