The Seattle Seahawks' running backs have nothing on the drummers from …This Is Spinal Tap. They are going down at an alarming rate.
Marshawn Lynch missed part of Week 3 and all of Weeks 4 and 5 with a hamstring injury. Then he suffered an abdominal injury Week 10 against the Cardinals, and hasn't been seen on an NFL field since. His replacement, Thomas Rawls, was in the process of taking the fantasy football world by storm until last Sunday, when he broke his ankle. And now the Seahawks—who still have designs on partaking of their third straight Super Bowl—turn their lonely eyes to some familiar faces.
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First off, there's Christine Michael, about whom I wrote a Friday Film Room piece back when he was supposed to rescue the Dallas Cowboys' backfield. He began the year with the Seahawks, but failed to make the team and got dealt to the Cowboys after Rawls burst onto the scene in training camp. Then Dallas cut Michael. Washington just dumped him off their practice squad—not exactly an endorsement of tremendous quality—and the Seahawks claimed him off waivers.
There's also Bryce Brown, whom the Bills released after Week 1 this season, whom the Seahawks signed off the street on October 27, whom they released right around Thanksgiving, and whom they re-signed once Lynch needed abdominal surgery. Last, there's fullback Derrick Coleman, who could steal some touches. What a crew of much-wanted all-stars!
The crazy thing is the parallel tracks Michael and Brown have taken in their NFL careers. They are tremendous physical specimens. Michael is 5'10" and 221 pounds and runs a 4.54 40. Brown is 6' and 220 pounds and supposedly ran a 4.37 at his pro day. They can both cut hard and frequently, they can truck tacklers when they put their minds to it, and they have legit long speed. Neither guy has been able to stay on an NFL roster.
In the case of Brown, at least we've seen him star in NFL regular-season games. Remember this breakout play from 2013?
Brown had a lot of good plays during his rookie year: 18 of his 128 scrimmage touches went for 10-plus yards. At his best, he was a bulldog in the middle of the field:
This is a power-running play that prefers Brown hit the middle hard; the right guard and right tackle crush the left defensive tackle, and as long as the left defensive end runs upfield there should be a hole. Brown is decisive, the middle linebacker chooses the wrong gap, and Brown takes care of the outside linebacker, breaking a tackle at the line and plowing into the defensive secondary. He gets spun around, shows impressive balance for a big man, and takes a couple defensive backs for a ride out of bounds. This is the kind of run that had me revved up for Brown a few years ago.
I still do think Brown is capable of such majesty. Unfortunately, he's also proved to be capable of this:
In fact, even during his two breakout games after a LeSean McCoy injury in 2012, Brown lost three fumbles. While this miscue running into the end zone with the Buffalo Bills is his only lost fumble since, his ball security is an open question. (And as my Twitter feed informs me, Bills fans have not forgotten this particular play.)
The only other on-field black mark against Bryce Brown is the lingering impression that he continually tried to hit a home run on every rush, and as a result often broke plays to the outside that didn't really need to go there. Now, I think this is an overstatement. Andy Reid's 2012 Philly offense was geared around shotgun snaps and inside handoffs, where the rusher is naturally running to the sideline, hoping to either cut back or get to the corner:
There's no criticism for bouncing this run outside; that's where it's destined to go, unless a cutback lane presents itself. Chip Kelly's zone-running schemes have many similar runs. When I'd hear folks slagging Brown for running east-west rather than north-south, sometimes I wanted to say, "It's kind of what he's supposed to do!"
But I don't want to absolve Brown from blame. He knows what kind of raw ability he has, and he probably thinks he can rip off a long run on every play. Sometimes that gets him into trouble:
This is meant to be a smash-mouth play: hit it hard, keep the clock moving, let's go home. No, it's not particularly well blocked—Brown sees safeties Ryan Mundy and Antrel Rolle cheating up—but he should still pound behind his linemen and get a few yards, or at least dish out some punishment to a couple defensive backs whom he outweighs. Instead, his instinct is to push it outside; then when he sees defensive end Justin Tuck get a bead on him, he runs backward to get to the corner. When folks criticize Brown for wanting to "bounce everything outside," this is the kind of play they point to.
Still, when he gets to the corner, Brown does damage. I absolutely love him as an open field runner. He has all the qualities you look for in a bigger back: speed, shiftiness, terrific balance and power. It's vexing that he hasn't found a home as an NFL player, probably even more vexing than the case of Michael, because Brown actually has laid down tremendous plays on game film. It leads me to the conclusion that something may be missing from the off-field approach that both of these talented runners have. Unfortunately, that's simply the kind of thing we can't know without being in an NFL meeting room.
So this weekend, with no Lynch and no Rawls, the Seahawks enter an enticing matchup against a poor Cleveland Browns run defense, and we're left wishing we knew which running back to choose for our fantasy lineups. Is it Michael, the prodigal son who spent the first couple years of his career in the Seattle system? Or is it Brown, the former Monday Night Football star, who's racked up 1,320 regular-season NFL scrimmage yards, compared to 319 for Michael? My assumption is that the Seahawks will give each guy a chance to prove himself early in Week 15. Whoever springs a couple nice runs will probably get a chance to stay on the field and establish himself as the starter. Unfortunately, without knowing which guy that'll be, it's difficult for me to recommend starting either of these mystifying freak athletes in your fantasy semifinals.
Christopher Harris (@HarrisFootball) is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. He hosts the Harris Football Podcast every weekday. Find it on iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn and most other podcast apps, as well as at www.HarrisFootball.com.