Thomas Rawls: The Heir Apparent (Image via USA Today)

How Do You Follow an Earthquake?

The Thomas Rawls Conundrum

Last year, Thomas Rawls had 147 brilliant carries for the Seattle Seahawks.

Ok, not all 147 were brilliant, but more than a few of them, and more than enough to spark Seahawks fans’ imaginations.

Running like a greased bowling ball wearing a jetpack, Rawls amassed 830 yards with a league-leading 5.6 yards per carry before injuries derailed his rookie campaign. The yardage was impressive, but it was his punishing running style that endeared Rawls most to Seahawks fans.

Seattle quickly learned that its new running back was a bad, bad man. Yes, he could be brought down, but always for a price — a helmet to the chest or a stiff arm to the face. In 13 games, Rawls looked like Iron Mike born again on the gridiron. Ferocity, impetuous style and all.

As Seattle’s beloved Beast took one last limp around the league, Rawls emerged as the heir apparent, his arrival perfectly timed for a seamless transition into the post-Marshawn era.

By the looks of it Rawls is primed for a successful NFL career. His toughness can’t be faked, and his playmaking isn’t a fluke. But “successor” isn’t synonymous with “second coming.” Thomas Rawls is a lot of things, but he isn’t Marshawn Lynch. Here’s the good news for the Seahawks: he doesn’t have to be.

For six years, Seattle rode the Marshawn Lynch Experience for all it was worth and was privileged to be a part of it. Our love for Lynch was pure, forged through years of his greatness and unrivaled weirdness. As much myth as man, years from now the stories about Lynch will be inflated to epic proportions and still only capture part of how much he meant to Seattle.

Rawls isn’t just tasked with replacing an on-field legend, he’s replacing a man responsible for a seismic event. Good luck, kid.

So matching Lynch on a human interest level will be tough, but what about mirroring his on-field production?

There’s every reason to expect that Rawls is a worthy replacement, but there’s a huge gulf between flash of brilliance and sustained excellence. Rawls has three-quarters of a fantastic rookie season under his belt, and currently sits 10,185 total yards and 78 touchdowns behind Lynch’s career production.

Rawls has plenty of career in front of him to make it a conversation, but for now, Lynch’s production should earn him the benefit of a few years as the top dog before Rawls is anointed as Lynch’s better.

Maybe 10 years from now we’ll be talking about how fortunate Seattle was to have back-to-back Hall of Fame-caliber running backs, but for now, we should measure Rawls on no one’s scale but his own. That scale is plenty good for the 2016 Seahawks.

We know two things about Pete Carroll coached/Russell Wilson led teams: they run the ball and they run it well. Each year of the Wilson era the Seahawks finished with a top five rushing attack.

There’s more to winning than rushing yards, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume that another top five rushing finish is key to Seattle’s success in 2016 as well.

Using super fancy/rudimentary math, I can tell you that in the last four years a team needed to average 2,220 rushing yards to crack the top five. That makes a loose, but useful target for what the Seahawks need to do in 2016: rush for 2,220+ yards.

In a world without Rawls, the Seahawks would have a hard time hitting that target. But just how big of a contributor does he need to be? Not as big as you might think. The Seahawks don’t need Rawls to be peak Lynch (1,250+ yards per year), they just need him to be 65%-75% of peak Lynch. In other words, they need Rawls to be more or less what he was last year.

In an era where the “one running back to rule them all” approach is falling out of fashion, the 2015 Seahawks provide a repeatable model for surpassing the 2,220 threshold in 2016 as well.

This conservative model shows that even if Rawls is essentially the same (within 5% of 2015 production), it doesn’t require a herculean effort by the team to reach Top 5 territory:

  • Wilson’s production mirrors 2015 (47 yards fewer than his four-year average)
  • The back-up (Collins/Brooks) only needs 30 yards per game (a modest proposition considering the likelihood Rawls doesn’t average as many carries as peak Lynch)
  • The injury fill-in (Michael) only needs 10 yards per game (32 yards fewer than 2015)
  • The third-down back (Prosise) mirrors the underwhelming production of Jackson in 2015
  • The “other” category — fullback runs, miscellaneous trick plays, Jon Ryan adventures, etc. — hits Seattle’s four-year average (74 yards fewer than 2015)

This isn’t rocket science, and it isn’t even a projection. What it is, is a feasible rushing blueprint for a Seahawks team that is in transition.

If Rawls has a monster season, all the better. But unlike past years when the Seahawks needed elite production from Lynch to succeed, the 2016 Seahawks are much better equipped for the post-elite back era.

The Seahawks don’t need Rawls to be Lynch. They need him to lead a stable of runners who are all asked to do things that should be well within their current abilities.

Put another way: Rawls doesn’t need to start an earthquake; he just needs to lead the groundswell.

Rumble, young man, rumble.

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