RENTON, Wash. — The heartbeat of Seattle’s offense is at rest in the Seahawks’ locker room.
Marshawn Lynch isn’t sitting in a recliner, but lying back with his hood pulled over his head, eyes closed. His iPhone is on his chest, playing music while reporters mill about, asking his teammates all manner of questions about the upcoming playoff game.
The moment was a metaphor, a snapshot from Wednesday afternoon that embodied Lynch’s place on this team. He’s the man in the middle of everything Seattle does on offense, but one who keeps his distance from those outside the team’s locker room.
That is not a criticism. It’s an observation, maybe even a compliment. In a league that regulates interviews as much as hits on the quarterback, Lynch remains reclusive publicly — almost shy. The result is that there isn’t a more important player in these playoffs who’s less visible off the field than Lynch, his understated persona a contrast to the ferocity of his play.
He is 26 years old, has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the last four regular-season games and all he did the last time Seattle made the playoffs was make history with a 67-yard touchdown run against the Saints that could be measured by seismometers near the stadium.
For all the attention the quarterbacks in Sunday’s game are bound to get, it’s Lynch who is the foundation for Seattle’s offense.
“He’s as smart a football guy as I’ve been around,” said Tom Cable, the Seahawks’ assistant head coach. “Some people don’t get to know that because he won’t share that with you. He won’t open up very much.”
This is by choice after a career that has seen him praised as a prodigy in Buffalo, celebrated as a Pro Bowler and later characterized as a pariah. And nearly three years into his second chance in Seattle, we’re still trying to get a picture of what this Skittles-chomping, defense-stomping force of nature is really like.
Behind the curtain
This story should be easier to write.
Lynch is not only one of the most important players on Seattle’s team, but one of the most colorful.
The man who authored the third-highest season rushing total in franchise history has a gold tooth and his own distinct way of talking that can only be described as Marshawnese.
“What you say, bruh?” he asked during an interview earlier this year. It was a request to repeat the question.
He is someone who will engage teammates at loud volumes in the locker room, whether it’s debating basketball with former wide receiver Mike Williams or, just last week, proclaiming that a swift kick in the pants would serve as adequate defense to what guard John Moffitt proclaimed was a unique Kung-Fu Crab Style.
“He’s just himself around anybody,” receiver Sidney Rice said. “It doesn’t matter who it is. There is no filter. Marshawn is just Marshawn. What you see is what you get.”
After a game last season, former Seahawks owner John Nordstrom was in the locker room wearing a “Beast Mode” T-shirt give to him by Lynch. It was hard to tell which man was smiling more.
Lynch is the kind of player beloved by not only his teammates, but his teammates’ kids. Fullback Michael Robinson said his daughter likes Marshawn so much, that’s what she calls anyone she sees with dreadlocks.
Outside the locker room, the man known for breaking tackles is more apt to throw a block. In Toronto last month, Lynch was in the team’s hotel when a woman approached him and asked, “Are you the Skittles guy?”
“I’m Marshawn Lynch,” he said.
She wasn’t sure what to make of that. Later, when someone else asked if he played football, Lynch just said he was waiting for his friend.
If he’s going out of his way to avoid interviews, it’s because he’s not all that interested in letting people inside. He’s run the gamut of media coverage. He received credit for back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons in Buffalo. Then he was criticized during a prolonged hit-and-run investigation and an unrelated three-game suspension that stemmed from a weapons charge in California. This offseason he was arrested for DUI in California, a charge that still must be resolved.
Lynch keeps it quiet even when it comes to the work he has done through his Fam 1st Family Foundation in California.He has been available for interviews at times this season, but most often declines. Asked Thursday if he would answer some questions, he declined.
“I’m fine,” he said. “Thanks for asking.”
Leave it to his fullback spokesman, Robinson.
“A lot of things he says can get misunderstood,” Robinson said. “And as opposed to somebody writing something that’s misunderstood, just don’t say anything.”
And so the most consistent part of this Seahawks season has remained constantly in the background publicly.
Lynch has found a home on a team that has become known for second chances.
Rebounding might be a basketball statistic, but it describes Seattle’s approach under coach Pete Carroll, who himself was twice fired in the NFL before he was hired here. The Seahawks brought Mike Williams back to the NFL, put Chris Clemons in a pass-rushing role that allowed him to thrive and gave Tarvaris Jackson a chance to be a starter.
Lynch’s second chance started more than two years ago, the Seahawks acquiring him from Buffalo four games into the 2010 season for two late-round picks. It was a move Lynch had wanted for months, a trade Seattle had pursued even longer. And when Seattle acquired him, Carroll proclaimed the Seahawks had the physical, punishing bell-cow of a running back his offense needed.
Except he didn’t exactly hit the ground running. His 67-yard touchdown run in the playoffs might have been unforgettable, but the rest of his first season and a half wasn’t nearly so memorable.
Lynch didn’t gain more than 100 yards in any of his first 18 regular-season starts as a Seahawk, the team going 7-12 in that time, which included one game Lynch missed because of a back injury.
The eighth game of Lynch’s second season in Seattle turned out to be a turning point for Lynch and the Seahawks. He gained 135 yards in Dallas, and while Seattle lost that game, the running game found a stride it hasn’t lost since.
So what happened?
“He’s made that transition into a system,” Cable said, “and he did it kind of open-armed. He’s really embraced it.”
This was a player who had fallen out of favor in Buffalo, which had elevated Fred Jackson to starting running back and chosen C.J. Spiller in the first round.
But when Cable arrived in 2011, he quickly discovered the kind of back he inherited.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Cable said. “He has been fantastic, and I think he just loves football so much. He’s a brilliant football player. People don’t know that about him and people don’t get to find that out about him. But that’s who he is.
“His football IQ, I would challenge you, it’s as good if not better than anyone on this football team.”
If Seattle has developed a bit of a swagger on offense, it resembles Lynch’s wide stance, his high stepping and adamant refusal to opt for the path of least resistance. He doesn’t just like contact, he seeks it out, as he did on the first touchdown against San Francisco on Dec. 23 when he ran right into the 49ers cornerback who was being blocked by Doug Baldwin instead of veering out of bounds.
“He’s a great teammate,” tight end Zach Miller said. “He doesn’t say a whole lot. He’s not like a ‘rah-rah’ guy or anything like that, but when they see him out there playing as hard as he does — fighting for that extra yardage — just doing what you want your tailback to be doing, it’s definitely an influence on our whole offense and our whole football team.
“It kind of sets our mindset.”
It’s a style that speaks for itself, which is a good thing. Lynch isn’t much for talking.