He has reached a common age for NFL running backs to dramatically fade. Is it something that the Seahawks should be worried about?

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RENTON — One of Marshawn Lynch’s more famous local television commercials shows him busting through a wall, the wall reacting like defensive backs often do when greeting Lynch on the field … crumbling to the ground in pieces.

As the Seahawks begin another season, though, the NFL world will be wondering if this is the year Lynch hits the wall and it remains standing.

Lynch is 29 years old and has 2,033 career carries — numbers that often foreshadow the beginning of the end for an NFL running back.

[Marshawn Lynch hits regional cover of Sports Illustrated]

Shaun Alexander was NFL MVP in 2005, when he ran for 1,880 yards at age 28. The next year, he rushed for just 896 yards. (Seattle Times file photo)
Shaun Alexander was NFL MVP in 2005, when he ran for 1,880 yards at age 28. The next year, he rushed for just 896 yards. (Seattle Times file photo)

Seattle’s history, in fact, includes the running back often cited as one of the more dramatic examples of hitting the wall at age 29: Shaun Alexander.

At age 28, Alexander was the NFL MVP, gaining 1,880 yards in leading the Seahawks to their first Super Bowl.

A year later and fresh off signing an eight-year, $62 million contract, Alexander was basically done. He rushed for 896 yards, his average per carry falling from 5.1 yards to 3.6. Two years later he was done with football forever.

“I mean, that was literally like a light switch went off,’’ recalled former NFL coach Brian Billick, now an analyst for the NFL Network. “He was the MVP, on the cover of Madden (the video game) and everything else, and boom, the next year just nothing. So when it goes, it can go quickly.’’

Alexander, to be fair, battled injuries in 2006, playing just 10 games. And fair or not, he also battled a perception his desire was muted by his contract. Each issue further makes another point raised by Billick as the discussion of running backs and age is raised — though trends are unmistakable, everyone is different.

Marshawn Lynch repetitively responded to questions at the 2015 Super Bowl Media Day with the same answer: “I’m here so I don’t get fined.” Jan. 27, 2015 (Danny Gawlowski / The Seattle Times)

 

Some backs, in fact, have had some of their better seasons into their 30s.

One of the oft-cited examples of a running back defying time is another Seahawk, Ricky Watters, whose best season came with Seattle in 2000 at age 31. He rushed for 1,242 yards and averaged 4.47 yards per attempt.

That came a year after Watters averaged a then-career-low 3.7 yards per attempt, one reason the team used a first-round choice in the 2000 draft on Alexander.

Watters instead stiff-armed advancing age to turn in one last stellar season before time caught up to him in 2001 and Alexander took over as Seattle’s running back.

Ricky Watters had the best season of his career when he was 31, past the age at which many running backs lose their effectiveness. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
Ricky Watters had the best season of his career when he was 31, past the age at which many running backs lose their effectiveness. (Elaine Thompson / AP)

The Seahawks are banking heavily that Lynch also can defy the trends, having signed him to a three-year contract in March that guaranteed him $12 million. With an annual salary of $12 million, he’s the second-highest-paid back in the NFL behind the $14 million made by Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson.

Lynch earned that contract on the heels of what statistically was his second-best season in 2014. He rushed for 1,306 yards and averaged 4.7 yards per carry — both the second-highest of his career. In 2012, he gained 1,590 yards and averaged 5.0 yards per carry.

When Lynch’s numbers dropped a bit in the Super Bowl season of 2013 (1,257 yards, 4.2 yards per carry) some wondered if he might be beginning to slow down, which helped spur seemingly endless discussion as 2014 began that he might be entering his last season with the Seahawks.

 

Lynch’s future probably remains best viewed as a year-to-year proposition given his age, contract and because for both of the past two years he has considered retiring.

But as another season begins, there seems little debate about his present, with coaches raving about his condition.

I don’t think it will be a gradual thing with him like it is with some backs who don’t take the beating he does. His will be quick when it does happen.”

In fact, Lynch might be more ahead of schedule than last season, when he missed the first week in a holdout after a summer in which he contemplated retiring. Getting Lynch signed to a contract in March ended any uncertainty this offseason, and Lynch has been as active in the first week of camp as any in the past few years.

Fans, though, likely will have to wait until the regular season to get their view of Lynch, because he will get little, if any, action in exhibition games.

 

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“We know he isn’t going to do much work in preseason games, but in practice he gets his work in and works hard. We know come the first game, he will be ready to go,’’ running-backs coach Sherman Smith said.

Billick said if a running back were beginning to show signs of age, it would be hard to tell in a modern-day NFL training camp with less live tackling and full contact than ever.

“With a guy like Marshawn, I don’t know that you would see anything different until it happens,’’ Billick said. “Certainly, I haven’t seen anything in Marshawn to think he is near that point. But I don’t know that you will until you get to that point. And with his style of play, I don’t think it will be a gradual thing with him like it is with some backs who don’t take the beating he does. His will be quick when it does happen.’’

Indeed, the physical nature of Lynch’s game that makes him so valuable to the Seahawks and endears him to fans also makes him more historically vulnerable to a potentially quick drop-off.

A stop-motion look at Marshawn Lynch’s 79-yard run against the Arizona Cardinals. (John Lok / The Seattle Times)

 

Lynch’s style sometimes draws comparisons with Earl Campbell, who also is one of the more vivid examples of dropping off quickly at age 29. Campbell had his last good season at age 28 with 1,301 yards but gained just 1,003 yards over the next two seasons before hanging it up at age 30.

What might help Lynch stave off time, though, is one thing that sometimes frustrates Seahawks fans — the manner in which he is used.

Lynch has never had more than 315 carries in a season, a total that ranks tied for 157th in NFL history for most in a season.

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Many studies of NFL running backs have shown that being used exceedingly heavy in one season helps make the drop-off arrive even more quickly. (An interesting test case this season will be DeMarco Murray, who had 392 carries last season with Dallas, which decided not to re-sign him. Murray, now 27, instead signed with the Eagles.) Alexander, for instance, had 370 carries in his last great season in 2005 after 353 carries in 2004.

We just go out there and play the games. Twenty-five years old, 30, we do the same thing.”

Smith said age has never been a factor in how the Seahawks have used Lynch, with the team instead worrying only about making sure he stays as fresh as possible for the playoffs. Smith said that won’t change now, and that the team won’t go into this season with any thought of limiting Lynch’s carries due to his age.

“We don’t look at that stuff,’’ Smith said. “We just go out there and play the games. Twenty-five years old, 30, we do the same thing.’’

What’s also helped hold down Lynch’s carries per season is the presence of quarterback Russell Wilson, who has had 94, 96 and 118 carries the past three seasons, many coming while operating the zone-read offense that also has proved a perfect fit for Lynch’s skills.

“We are fortunate we have a quarterback who can run it and some other guys who can run the football so we don’t have to put it all on Marshawn,’’ Smith said. “But we know that he is going to do the brunt of it.’’

What Lynch is not doing, Smith insists, is worrying about what history might say about running backs and age.

“I think if guys listen to that, mentally they can give in to that thought that, ‘I’ve hit this age, I’m not supposed to be able to do this anymore,’  ” Smith said. “But Marshawn is not listening to that stuff. His body will tell him what to do. His mind will tell him what to do.”

Leaving the Seahawks confident that at least for another year, it’s the wall that best beware.

Age 29 seasons for Seahawks running backs
Marshawn Lynch turned 29 on April 22, an age at which NFL running backs historically see their production decline. Here’s a review of how some of Seattle’s other top running backs performed at ages 28 and 29.
Shaun Alexander
Age Season Carries Yards Avg. TDs
28 2005 370 1,880 5.1 27
29 2006 252 896 3.6 7
Comment: Alexander was limited to 10 games due to a broken foot in his age-29 season in 2006. While that season marked the beginning of the end, he had one last great moment with 201 yards on 40 carries against Green Bay.
Curt Warner
28 1989 194 631 3.3 3
29 1990 49 139 2.8 1
Comment: Warner’s age-28 season was his last with the Seahawks and he was traded to the Rams in 1990 where he played in seven games at age 29 before retiring. His last great year came at age 27 in 1988 when he rushed for 1,025 yards. A knee injury his second year, in 1984, is often cited for accelerating his decline.
Chris Warren
28 1996 203 855 4.2 5
29 1997 200 847 4.2 4
Comment: Warren stayed fairly consistent through age 29, but also was barely used his first two seasons, not getting significant carries until his third season at age 24. Production fell off quickly after six years of 200 or more carries with the Seahawks.