RENTON — Chris Carson runs the ball with a ferocity that has earned him the undying admiration and affection of Seahawks coach Pete Carroll.

But there’s a reason running backs in the NFL, particularly the ones with seemingly little regard for the toll such a fearless style extracts, tend to have a short career. And now the Seahawks are facing the rest of the season without Carson, who will undergo neck surgery after missing their past five games.

“Chris has been one of my favorite guys around here for a long time, since we found him, drafted him, and all of the toughness and style that he brought to us,” Carroll said Friday. “He will always be one of my favorite guys. Looking up there at the big 32, there’s something about the way he carried it. We obviously have missed him all season. We have to take care of him and get him right.”

The first thought, of course, is for Carson’s long-term health. He is 27, nearing old age for a running back but still the prime of life in every other realm. Football, particularly at this level, gives you periodic sobering reminders of its violent nature, and this is yet another one.

Though Carroll said Carson’s neck injury is different from the ones that prematurely ended the careers of Seahawks stars Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril, and that he’s expected to resume his career next year, it’s always scary when you hear talk of the neck and vertebrae.

So here’s a fervent wish that, first and foremost, surgery fixes the injury that Carroll said continues to give Carson considerable discomfort. A return to the Seattle backfield in 2022 would merely be a nice bonus.


But the season goes on, and the Seahawks sans Carson will need to rejuvenate their running game one way or another to have any chance of staying relevant in the playoff race at 3-6. They are coming off a game in which their backs carried the ball a mere 11 times for 43 yards in a shutout loss to Green Bay, the latest incarnation of the Seahawks’ rushing woes.

Which is why a major takeaway from the Carson news, football-wise, is this: It’s now or never for Rashaad Penny to, a) show that his selection as the 27th overall pick in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft wasn’t the overreach that many analysts said at the time (a conclusion that, frankly, has been validated); and b) that he deserves to be back with Seattle in 2022.

Carroll began to emphasize the urgency of Penny’s role Wednesday when he said, “We need Rashaad to come to life. This is an important time for Rashaad to help us.”

And on Friday he continued that theme.

“I’m really looking forward to Rashaad. I’m looking forward to see where he goes and what he can contribute this week. He has a really good role for us, and we are anxious to see him get going, obviously. It’s really his time to help us. As we go through the next couple of weeks, you will see him continue to be a big part of it.”

The Seahawks, however, have already hedged their bets on Penny, 25. In May they declined to pick up the option on Penny’s 2022 contract that would have given him a guaranteed $4.5 million salary next year. The upshot is that he will now become a free agent after this season — which has been characterized as a referendum on whether they would (or should) pursue him in ’22.

So far, Penny hasn’t made much of a case for himself. In a career already riddled with injuries, he played just seven snaps in the season opener at Indianapolis (gaining 8 yards on two carries) before suffering a calf injury that landed him on injured reserve. Since his return Penny has carried the ball 13 times for a mere 16 yards, and never got off the bench last week in Green Bay.


But the thing about Penny is, there have been enough tantalizing glimpses of his explosiveness to make you think it’s still there within him. Alex Collins figures to be the lead back, but he’s fighting a groin injury and has a 3.3-yard average per carry in the past three games since gaining 101 yards at Pittsburgh.

The Seahawks are waiting for Penny to break out like he seemed on the verge of doing in 2019 in his second pro season. Facing the Eagles in Week 11, Penny rushed for 129 yards on 14 carries, including a game-clinching 58-yard touchdown run on which “he looked like he was shot out of a cannon,” Carroll said. The next week Penny ran for 74 yards and had a 13-yard touchdown reception in a decisive win over the Vikings. It seemed as if the Seahawks, with Carson and Penny, had unearthed a formidable one-two punch at running back, which is a dream scenario for a run-game zealot such as Carroll.

The very next week, however, Penny suffered a torn ACL against the Rams. In 2020, ongoing knee problems limited him to three games and 11 carries. And this year the Seahawks are still waiting to see the guy who caused Carroll to say on draft day in 2018, “I don’t mind telling you, this pick fired me up.”

The Seahawks, back in 2018, envisioned a durable, explosive back who would revive Seattle’s running game after a season in which they managed just one touchdown by a tailback. Now they desperately need another revival.

And for Penny, it’s the last chance to show he can be part of it.