Amid the hype and fanfare of the NFL draft, football folk hero Marshawn Lynch did the most Marshawn Lynch thing of all: slipped out the back door when no one was looking.
Lynch announced his retirement last week, at exactly the time when the NFL world was least equipped to deal with it … which almost surely wasn’t a coincidence. Lynch was always the NFL’s equivalent of a pop-up storm, materializing and then vaporizing before you’d even realized he was there.
Lynch is a key figure in two of the most famous plays in NFL history, plays we’ll be discussing 50 years from now. So with that in mind, it’s time to start talking legacy. A simple question: Does Marshawn Lynch’s story end in the Hall of Fame?
Marshawn by the numbers
Let’s break this down. Lynch’s 10,379 career rushing yards rank 29th all-time, and his 2,441 attempts rank 26th. There are 32 running backs already in the Hall of Fame. But career numbers don’t tell the whole story; retired players on the career yardage list ahead of Lynch include Edgerrin James, Fred Taylor, Steven Jackson, Corey Dillon, Warrick Dunn, Ricky Watters, Jamal Lewis, Thomas Jones, Tiki Barber and Eddie George. Star-level backs, all of them, some among the best of their era … but will they all end up in the Hall? Unlikely.
Breaking in Lynch’s favor is the fact that his 2011-14 seasons rank among the best quartet any running back has ever produced. He was a Pro Bowler all four years and a first-team All-Pro in 2012. He led the league in rushing touchdowns in 2013 and 2014. His Seahawks went to the playoffs in three of those four years, won a ring in 2013, and came this close in 2014. (More on that debacle later.)
The knock on Lynch, of course, is that those four years comprise pretty much the entirety of his star-level output. He was reasonably productive in Buffalo — Marshawn Lynch once played for the Bills, remember that? — and less so in chunks of two seasons with Oakland. He walked away from the game entirely in 2016, leaving his age-30 year on the table. He still gobbled up yards like Skittles every time he touched the ball, averaging more than four yards a carry right on into retirement, but those carries shrunk every game.
Let the record show that Lynch’s final game came against, of all teams, Seattle. The Raiders lost in a blowout, 27-3, and Lynch’s final play was a five-yard run right up the middle. Of course.
Marshawn by the plays
Granted, Lynch made headlines with his surpassing strangeness, but when you think of him on the field, you think of two plays. Both rocked the world, but he only touched the ball in one of them.
First off, there’s Beast Quake, one of the most apocalyptic plays in NFL history. Lynch’s Seahawks were facing the defending champion Saints in a 2011 wild-card game. Ahead by 4 with less than four minutes to go — and with Drew Brees on the other sideline — the Seahawks needed to control the ball first, put points on the board second. In one rumbling, 67-yard play, Lynch did both. He broke nine tackles over the course of his u-shaped run, grabbed his crotch as he sailed backward across the goal line, and set off a tremor large enough to be picked up by nearby seismographs.
And then there’s Super Bowl XLIX, and the infamous carry-that-wasn’t. You remember: 25 seconds left in the game, Seahawks down 28-24, second down, ball on the one-yard line courtesy of a four-yard run Lynch had just peeled off. Lynch was expecting to get the ball — planning to get the ball — should have gotten the ball. He was averaging 5 yards a carry that postseason, enough to score, come back out, and score again.
“Not to take anything away from they defense at that point in time, there was nothing they could do to stop that play,” Lynch said late last year. “It was two yards. [Shoot.] You know, you average out the numbers and how that sound? Sounds like 10 touchdowns to me.”
Instead, well … you know what happened. Russell Wilson decided to go for a snap throw underneath, Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler sniffed it out, and … game over.
“At the end of the day, I’m not mad at [Wilson] or who called the [play],” Lynch said, referring to then-Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. “But I’m going to tell you like this, when that play was called, and I saw the expression on the other 10 guys’ faces in there … when they heard the call … they looked right at me. And I’m looking like [clapping] ‘break.’ What y’all want me to do?”
You can grind the tape and make the argument that a pass was a defensible call given New England’s defense. But the fact remains: the best running back in the game didn’t get the ball at a moment when he could have changed the course of NFL history.
Did the Super Bowl misfire hurt Lynch?
The Pro Football Hall of Fame isn’t quite as starstruck as its baseball counterpart; one good postseason isn’t enough to get you in the door the way it can in Cooperstown. That said, there’s something to be said for having “repeat Super Bowl champion” and, most likely, “Super Bowl MVP” attached to your name.
Lynch vaulted up and over the magical 10,000-yard mark for running backs at the end of 2017. And he played in an era where the running back was devalued virtually to swap-out status.
But Lynch also falls into that good-but-not-good-enough valley where so many other running backs reside. His career comps, per Pro Football Reference, include Hall of Famers Larry Czonka and Floyd Little … but also guys like Ottis Anderson, Herschel Walker and Earnest Byner.
The Canton comp for Lynch — and for many running backs going forward — will likely be Terrell Davis, who got into the Hall of Fame on his 11th attempt. Like Lynch, Davis played some of his best ball in a very short period of time — in Davis’ case, 1996 to 1998 — and fell off quickly thereafter. Like Lynch, Davis was a thunderous presence in the playoffs. But unlike Lynch, Davis has that second ring ... and a 2,000-yard season.
Realistically, no sane Hall of Fame voter would hold the Wilson interception against Lynch. Like he said — what y’all want him to do? It would have helped with the eye test, maybe, but his game was his game.
Lynch will come before the Hall of Fame committee — not in person, in spirit — starting in 2024. Best guess: Lynch gets in, but not immediately, and not for awhile. He was one of the league’s preeminent stars in the early 2010s, and as turnover in the NFL only increases, four-year runs like Lynch’s are only going to look better as time goes on.
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