A day before the Seahawks played the Lions, running back Rashaad Penny retweeted a video of his 5-year-old nephew, Kurrenci, pulling away from defenders with ease for a long touchdown run in his flag football game.
A day later, at the game's highest level where long touchdown runs are rare on a field full of world-class athletes, Penny attempted to live up to his little nephew's standard, busting loose for touchdown runs of 36 and 41 yards that helped the Seahawks to a 48-45 win over the Lions.
To see a young child, especially the son of one NFL player and the nephew of another, dominate and break off long runs in a flag football game is hardly surprising. But for an NFL running back to find the end zone from distance time after time? Well, that's a different story, but when Penny gets going, he reminds his head coach a bit of a dominant back at a lower level of football.
"You feel like when he bust it, he's gone," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "You don't feel like anybody is going to get a shot at him, and he has proven that. I think we underestimate how powerful he is. He's 235 or 236 (pounds) or something like that. There aren't many running backs like that, not very many that are that fast and that big. It's that combination that really makes it hard to get him down, and all of a sudden, he's just in the clear, it looks like there is nobody else on the field. It looks like when we used to recruit the great running backs in high school. There would be nobody on the film. The guy would break the line of scrimmage and be gone. There are some plays like that where he's just out there and there's one guy or nobody. It's been exciting to see."
Since taking over the starting role late last season, Penny has been one of the NFL's best running backs, gaining 135 or more yards in five of his last nine games. And while he's more than capable of grinding out the tough yards—for an example, look no further than Seattle's final, game-clinching possession Sunday on which he ran three straight times for a first down when the Lions knew the Seahawks were likely to run the ball—what has really made Penny special is a big-play ability that is rare among even the NFL's very best backs.
During the last five games of the season alone, Penny had eight runs of 25 or more yards, tied for the most in the league for the whole season with All-Pro running back Jonathan Taylor, who had 332 carries last year to Penny's 119. And even more difficult than breaking off a big run is finishing one in the end zone without a speedy defensive back chasing the play down, but Penny is on a different level in that regard as well. Dating back to the start of last season, Penny has five touchdown runs of 30 or more yards; no other NFL player has more than two. And if you go back to 2019, Penny has seven touchdowns of 30 or more yards, a total eclipsed only by Derrick Henry, who has eight such touchdown runs on four times as many carries as Penny has had over that span.
If you expand the criteria to any runs of 30-plus yards and not just touchdowns, Penny's 10 since 2019 rank fifth behind four players who all have significantly more carries over that span.
"There's a real suddenness to him and it's the power that he has," Carroll said. "He runs right through tackles that normally guys have to change course—he didn't have to change course half the time. A guy reaches out and tries to get him, whether it's the big guys or not, he just runs right through it, and it doesn't affect him, so he seems to maximize his opportunity to get to top speed."
Penny, who is unfailingly humble when it comes to his success, is quick to credit his offensive line for all of those big runs—following Sunday's game he said he wished the entire line had been at the podium with him for his postgame press conference.
"Obviously, the offensive line, I think that is number one," Penny said about the long touchdown runs.
There is another element at play, Penny concedes, and that is the patience that can be required of a running back, both in terms of patience within a play so blocks can get set up and holes can open, and patience within a game when it can take a running game some time to get going—Penny had only 8 yards on five carries in the first half before his huge second half.
"I just try to be one of the most patient runners in the game as far as watching the film and how the game goes," said Penny, who was named the FedEx Ground Player of the Week for Week 4. "When you do what we did on Sunday of just breaking them down and killing them with the boot and play actions, I kind of had a feeling like, 'OK, it's ready to go and ready to pop.' I think Ken (Walker III) had a few of them where he was ready to go too. I think it is more so the feel, the speed of everything, how the defense slows down a little bit, and the defensive line started to get more tired. At that moment, I felt it was time to take over the game and do what's best. I am grateful.
"I want to be one of the best runners to play this game. I'm just so competitive, but I know that sometimes you are going to stick your head in and get one yard or two yards. I'm just always ready to go as far as making big plays and I always want to be the most explosive runner. Then again, with how the play plays out, you have to be patient. I feel like when you see linebackers shooting over the top, it's time to make this cut or how the offensive line is picking up and where they are going is key. That's pretty much what I have been working on and just staying true to the game."
Patience was also a key factor in Penny getting his game back to this point. A former first-round pick who battled minor injuries during parts of his first two seasons, finally started to break out late in the 2019 season, only to tear his ACL, a late-season injury that cost him most of the 2020 season as well.
"Most importantly with the ACL, it was a tough road because it was more about confidence," he said. "I was hoping that I got my speed back and everything. To get your quad strength was hard for me because of what I went through and how many ligaments I've torn. Having the strains, you kind of get down on yourself asking if you are still fast. Practicing, watching film, and doing the little things, I think I got pretty much faster than where I was. I credit all of that to the offensive line, they make the holes, and my job is easier of just running straight and not stopping."
And a big factor in getting back was his nephews, the sons of his older brother, Elijhaa a five-year NFL veteran who is currently a free agent.
"That was my nephew," Penny said of the video he shared. "My brother Elijhaa's (Penny) kid, he pushed me to get back to playing football."
And deploying the confidence only a young child possesses to casually tell an NFL starter how to do his job, Kurrenci gave his uncle a bit of coaching ahead of last weekend's game.
"It's kind of funny because I had a conversation with him on facetime and he was like, 'Shaady, you keep running inside and getting tackled.'" Penny said, chuckling as he recounted the conversation. "I'm like, 'That's where my blocking is happening. Where do you want me to go?' He's like, 'If you bounce it outside and keep running out wide, you will score a touchdown.' I was like, 'All right.' Then the play in Detroit happened where the counter play went outside, and after the game, the first thing that he said was, 'I told you to go outside.' Those guys make me go, make me want to play football more, and they make me enjoy this game so much more. I'm thankful that I get to compete with him every weekend because we make bets. He asks me, 'If I score more touchdowns than you, you have to give me this.' He's been winning the bets for the past three weeks."
So did Penny even lose the bet this past weekend after scoring two touchdowns?
"He had three," Penny conceded.
But even if he can't outscore a 5-year-old on gameday, Penny is still putting up impressive numbers and breaking off long runs at a rate that is very rare in the NFL, and that was all part of Penny's plan when he re-signed as a free agent this offseason.
"I really wanted to come back here and give the people what they want," he said. "I felt like I let people down as far as being hurt all of the time and not making it to Sundays, and really not showing my true potential, because I really know what I can do. I feel like they drafted me here for a reason and I feel like I can give a lot when I'm healthy. That's just one thing, health, and I always tried to stay on top of that, but it's hard. As an NFL player, I'm getting hit by guys that are 300 pounds, safeties tackling at your knees, it's not easy to stay healthy. I thank God when I come out of the game every day now. I'm just thankful that I am healthy. I know what it is to be a football player. I've been around a lot of great guys, Bobby (Wagner), Russ (Wilson), Doug (Baldwin), and Chris (Carson), they take care of their bodies and me finally figuring all of that out, it's like, 'OK, I now know what to do.' I'm doing the right things to be ahead of schedule to always be ready to play on Sundays and play fast."