In the second of our 10-part series counting down to Seahawks' training camp, we look at whether the return of a healthy Russell Wilson can also bring back the Seattle rushing attack in 2017.
The impact of quarterback Russell Wilson on the Seahawks’ running game since he arrived in 2012 has never been questioned.
Just how big of an impact, though, became more clear last season when he suffered ankle and knee injuries in the first three games of the year and ended up rushing for career lows in total yards and yards per attempt, both heavily contributing to the Seahawks’ offensive struggles.
So an obvious question as we continue our daily countdown to Seahawks training camp, which begins July 30, is this: Will the return of a healthy Wilson bring the Seattle rushing attack back to where it was from 2012-15?
There were, of course, other factors for Seattle’s stunted running game in 2016, which fell to 25th in the NFL at 99.4 yards per game.
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The offensive line was at best a work in progress and at worst, well, among the worst in the NFL. The 2016 season also was Seattle’s first in the Wilson era without Marshawn Lynch, and injuries created a rotating cast of tailbacks throughout the season.
The Seahawks are banking on improvement from a more experienced offensive line bolstered by the acquisition of Luke Joeckel. They also added to the tailback corps with the signing of free agent Eddie Lacy and are anticipating a healthy Thomas Rawls from Week 1.
But Wilson’s return to health could loom just as large.
While much was made of the Seahawks playing without Lynch, they entered the season thinking they could move on just fine, due in part to how the running game had statistically not been much different in 2015 during the nine games Lynch missed due to injury.
In fact, the Seahawks averaged 146.8 yards rushing per game without Lynch in 2015 compared with a season average of 141.8 that ranked third in the NFL, and they rushed for almost 129 yards per game in a late-season, three-game stretch without Lynch or Rawls.
Since Wilson’s arrival in 2012 the Seahawks have consistently said it’s not just the yards he rushes for — recall in 2014 that he had one of the best quarterback rushing seasons in NFL history with 849 — but the way that the threat of him running opens things up for everyone else.
When Wilson is healthy, defenses know he’s a threat on any play to keep the ball and run for a big gain. That’s a key in the Seahawks’ zone-read package, in which Wilson can hand off to a running back or take it himself and race around the edge.
In 2015, offensive-line coach Tom Cable explained it this way during one of the team’s town-hall meetings: “Marshawn needs Russ like Russ needs Marshawn. It’s like ham and eggs or peanut butter and jelly. They’ve got to have each other for this thing to work. Neither one of them is bigger or greater than the other.’’
But from the second game of last season, the Seahawks were basically without their ham (or was he the eggs?).
A week after Wilson suffered a high-ankle sprain in the opener against Miami, the Seahawks played the Rams in Los Angeles, a game in which it became apparent just how the injury had changed his mobility.
One moment stood out — a third-and-eight play in the fourth quarter when Wilson took off around the edge with just one defender to beat to get into open field. But in the kind of situation he has routinely turned into a big gain, Wilson was easily tracked down by Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree for just a two-yard gain.
After the season, when asked about the impact of Wilson’s injuries on Seattle’s running game, coach Pete Carroll said, “I think it’s about as clear as it can get.’’
The numbers, though, also told the story. After averaging at least 5.2 or more yards per carry in each of his first four seasons and rushing for at least 489 yards or more each year, Wilson was held to 259 yards and 3.6 per carry for the season.
Wilson did not have a run longer than 10 yards until the 11th game of the season, and in one seven-game stretch gained just 30 yards on 22 carries.
The result was a Seattle rushing attack that, after averaging at least 136.8 yards per game and ranking in the top four in the NFL every season from 2012-2015, fell to 99.4 yards per game and 25th in 2016.
No one is expecting a return to 2014, when Wilson rushed for 40 or more yards in a game eight times — a total he hit only once last year. And as he ages — he’ll be 29 in November — he’ll inevitably run fewer times.
But Wilson pronounced himself healthy in the spring and is in the midst of a re-tooled workout and nutrition regime this offseason that reportedly has seen him cut about 10 pounds to get back down to a more regular playing weight of about 214 (he is listed by the team at 215).
With that, the Seahawks are hoping, if not expecting, that at least the threat of his running also will return — if not also the yards themselves — and with it the kind of running attack that has been at the center of the team’s rise to prominence under Carroll.