Chris Carson stood in front of his locker, speaking so quietly that you had to strain to hear. His postgame interview session on Sunday lasted barely two minutes and was mostly unrevealing.
But what was he going to say? After fumbling for the third time in three games, this one the most egregious in that it led directly to a scoop-and-score 33-yard touchdown by the New Orleans Saints’ Vonn Bell, Carson is out of words.
But he’s not out of a job, even after the 33-27 Seahawks’ loss on Sunday that was far more of a debacle than the score would indicate.
While it’s easy to pillory Carson, and just as easy to call for a change at running back, that’s not the reality of the situation. Not even under a coach whose primary tenet is ball security, and whose mantra is win the turnover battle and success will follow.
Each lost fumble is an affront to Pete Carroll. Three of them by one back in September is an abomination. But there Carroll was after the game, looking like he had just lost a boxing match with his swollen and bandaged nose, speaking not of discarding Carson, but rather of fixing him.
“I’m going to help him believe in himself because he’s a fantastic competitor and ballplayer, and he deserves that support,’’ Carroll said. “I just want to get him back out there and get going, just so he can show himself that he can take care of this.”
Part of that is Carroll’s natural disposition and inclination to be a healer, not a badass. And he’s a master at it. But just as big a part is that the Seahawks have few alternatives that are palatable.
Rashaad Penny missed the game with a hamstring injury, and those are notoriously slow to heal. C.J. Prosise has yet to show that he can withstand the rigors of being a lead back, and hardly shined on Sunday with 5 yards on four carries. Rookie Travis Homer has yet to carry the ball in the NFL.
So it’s Carson, still, by process of elimination but also because three games is too early to throw out the blueprint that this season was predicated upon. A big part of that involved Carson, coming off a 1,000-yard season, not only serving as the lead back but enhancing his role as a receiver out the backfield. With his sure hands, the Seahawks saw the potential for explosiveness that would give them another potent weapon on offense.
It hasn’t happened yet. Carson does have 10 catches (half his 2018 total) for 59 yards and a receiving touchdown. But through three games, the Seahawks running attack has been a shadow of last year’s efficiency. You can blame the backs, or the offensive line, or the circumstances of the games, but they are 15th in the NFL in rushing at 110.7 yards per game, compared to their league-best 160 yards per game last season. Their per-carry average of 4.0 ranks 21st. Last year, they were fifth at 4.8 yards. Without a dominant running attack, Carroll’s offensive master plan begins to unravel.
Carson has 159 yards on 45 carries, a 3.5 average, down from 4.7 last year. On a key fourth-and-one in the fourth quarter Sunday, on the next Seattle possession after his fumble — a situation he critically converted against Pittsburgh a week ago — Carson lost a yard.
The Seahawks need a revival of the vintage Carson in order to thrive. And now he has to get the fumbles out of his head. That is especially hard to do now that it is in the heads of his opponents — as in, they see Carson as vulnerable and will redouble their efforts to poke the ball loose.
“If you see somebody fumble, of course they’re going to go after it,’’ Carson said after the game.
Like Carroll, Carson’s teammates expressed strong support for him after the game.
“He’s a very, very key part of our success on this offense and on this team,’’ said offensive lineman Duane Brown. “So we’re going to continue to have faith in him and he’ll continue to have faith in himself. He’s a huge part of our offenses. You’re not going to give up on a guy like that.”
“We know eventually it’s going to subside,’’ added receiver Tyler Lockett. “He’s going to do amazing things like he’s been doing. It’s just something that’s happening right now. But everybody, we’re behind him 100%. Every time he gets the ball, we’re still going to block, still try to do whatever we can, because we know how powerful of a runner he is, and we know he can get loose at any second.”
And here’s how Carroll put it: “He’s been a marvelous player on this team, and he has to fix this. I can’t fix it for him, but we’ll help him and count on him to come back and play good football for us.”
This absolution is not absolute, however. Running back is a transient position in the NFL. And it is so with the Seahawks. Since Marshawn Lynch led them in the 2014 season, they have had four different players lead them in rushing in the ensuing four years — Thomas Rawls in 2015, Christine Michael in 2016, Russell Wilson in 2017 (when Mike Davis was the top-gaining running back) and Carson in 2018.
Rawls was going to be the answer with his 830 yards and 5.6 per-carry average in ’15 — until he wasn’t. They still see Chris Carson as the answer now — but it’s up to him to keep it in his grasp.
NOTE: This story has been corrected. Marshawn Lynch led the Seahawks in rushing in 2014 and left after the 2015 season, not the 2014 season as originally reported.