The running joke with Michael was that he was a preseason phenom and regular-season flop. But through three games in 2016 — including Sunday’s 106-yard, two-TD effort in a win over the 49ers — Michael has proven himself as a worthy NFL starting running back.

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The question came in mid-August, two days after the Seahawks’ first preseason game, and I was 90 percent joking when I asked it.

Thomas Rawls had just spent three minutes praising the evolution of Christine Michael, who was fresh off a seven-carry, 44-yard performance vs. the Chiefs.

Rawls noted how Michael had developed into a “one-cut” back who had become as decisive as he was explosive — and his improvement was evident throughout training camp. So I threw it out there.

Is any part of you worried that he’s coming for you?

Rawls smiled.

“You have to understand that when you come here, everybody wants to be the guy at the top,” he said.

Well, here we are a month and a half later, and Michael is the guy at the top. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Monday that a fibula injury will sideline Rawls for at least a few weeks.

But even if Rawls were healthy, C-Mike has earned the opportunity to be the Seahawks’ go-to running back. Through three games in 2016, Michael has proven himself as a worthy NFL starting running back.

“We always knew that he had it in him,” Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin said. “Sometimes you just have to evolve with the offense and evolve with yourself as you get older.”

On Sunday, Michael rushed for 106 yards on 20 carries in a 37-18 win over the 49ers. He exploded for a 41-yard touchdown run on the third snap of the game and scored another TD on Seattle’s next drive.

Never before had the 25-year-old reached the end zone in the regular season, but you get the feeling he’ll be breaking the plane several more times this year. This three-game stretch doesn’t feel like an aberration. It feels like the commencement ceremony for a guy who finally figured it out.

The running joke with C-Mike was that he was a preseason phenom and regular-season flop. The former second-round draft pick racked up 201 yards on 40 carries during the 2013 exhibition schedule but suited up in only four games that counted.

The next year, despite an avalanche of offseason hype, he had just 34 carries for the Seahawks. And right before the 2015 season, he was traded to the Cowboys, who waived him in November, thereby relegating him to a monthlong stint on Washington’s practice squad.

The only reason the Seahawks brought him back last season is because Rawls injured his ankle in a December win against Baltimore. And considering Seattle drafted three running backs in April, the common thought was that he wouldn’t even make this year’s roster.

Fast forward five months, and Michael has 232 yards on 45 rushes. His 5.2 yards per carry is the fifth-best in the league.

And though “Pro Bowl running back” might be a bit of a stretch for now, “legitimate NFL running back” is not.

“This is a really good story,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “I hope all coaches pay attention to this. It’s a great illustration of — if you stay with a guy and you keep giving him a chance — they have a chance to change.”

With Rawls out, Sunday marked the first chance Michael had to showcase himself as the Seahawks’ premier running back. He didn’t disappoint.

Of course, you have to give much of the credit to the offensive line, which created running room in ways it hadn’t through the first two games. Then again, while the Dolphins’ and Rams’ defense swallowed up the Seahawks offense as a whole, Michael was still able to rush for 126 yards on 25 carries (5.1 yards per carry) in those contests.

We’ll see if Rawls is able to bounce back at some point this season. His 830 yards on 147 rushes and an NFL-leading 5.6 yards per carry last year can’t be ignored. But after suffering a broken ankle, torn ligaments and now a fibula injury it’s possible Thomas has lost a half step. That’s to be determined, though.

What has been determined, however, is that Michael is a capable running back who has shown flashes of star potential. He deserved a spot on this roster after his preseason campaign, and after what he has done this season, he deserves the starting role no matter who else is cleared to play.