RENTON, Wash. — When asked last week what he has seen from Chris Carson since the Seattle Seahawks used their first-round draft pick on another running back, coach Pete Carroll said everything he has done this offseason “has just been top drawer.”
One source inside the Virginia Mason Athletic Center put it a bit more colorfully, saying Carson’s response to the challenge from Rashaad Penny has essentially been: “You think you’re taking my f—ing job?”
Indeed, it was a common assumption when the Seahawks drafted Penny 27th overall that he would take over the starting running back job — the job Carson won out of training camp last summer before an injury ended his rookie season. After all, first-round running backs usually don’t stay on the bench for too long, and as promising as Carson looked through last offseason before rushing for 208 yards on 49 carries through the first four games, it wasn’t much of a sample size.
But based on how impressive Carson has been while consistently taking first-team reps through the offseason program and the first 3½ weeks of training camp, it seems he is firmly in the lead to be Seattle’s primary runner. That was apparent even before Penny suffered a broken finger that required surgery.
Penny is expected to be back by Week 1, according to Carroll, and he figures to still have a sizable role in Seattle’s offense as a rookie. The Seahawks didn’t draft him as highly as they did just to redshirt him in 2018.
But it doesn’t look like he’s taking the starting job away from Carson just yet.
Carson is an easy guy to notice at Seahawks practice, and not just because of how he’s running.
His face is shielded by a dark visor that makes his 5-foot-11, 229-pound frame all the more intimidating. Underneath his pads, he wears a hooded, sleeveless sweatshirt that leaves a set of bulging biceps exposed. He pulls the hood tightly over his head when the team isn’t in helmets, and at all times he wears a custom-made black headband with white cursive lettering.
It reads “Steady hustlinn,” a motto Carson adopted last season when he was trying to work his way back from a broken leg suffered in October.
“I just had that mindset of I’m gonna try to come back and keep hustlin’, never get comfortable, keep fighting for everything,” he said. “I’ve always been kind of the underdog in every situation I’ve been in.”
Carson never did play again last season due to a setback late in his recovery, but he has regained the form that helped him beat out favorites Thomas Rawls and Eddie Lacy last summer as a rookie seventh-round pick.
Seahawks running back Chris Carson wears a headband that reads “Steady hustlinn,” which was made for him by a friend. He said it’s a mindset that he adopted as a rookie last season as he was trying to work his way back from an ankle/leg injury. “I just had that mindset of I’m gonna try to come back and keep hustlin’, never get comfortable, keep fighting for everything,” he said. “I’ve always been kind of the underdog in every situation I’ve been in.”
He might even be in better form, actually. Carson packed on 9 pounds, and he still looks every bit as fast with the extra weight. During one practice, he plowed through a weighted bag so hard that he knocked it off the gauntlet machine to which it was attached.
“He’s been so well fit, so hard pushing and getting after everything,” Carroll said. “From the weight room to the field to the meeting room, everything we’ve done. I mean, he’s putting his best foot forward, without question. You can’t get after it any more than he has, and he’s had a great camp.”
Carson has rushed for 60 yards on 13 attempts with a lost fumble while starting both of Seattle’s preseason games. Against the Chargers on Saturday night, he knifed through Los Angeles’ defense and broke free for a would-be 23-yard touchdown run that was nullified by a penalty that didn’t affect the play.
“Man, Chris Carson looks like a monster,” Seattle safety Bradley McDougald said. “He’s running hard. You can tell that time off last year did something to his mentality. He doesn’t really say much when we get out there; he just gets up out there and plays balls to the wall, and I love it.”
“It takes more than one, for sure”
Carroll has said that this is as deep and talented as any backfield he has had in Seattle. Two moments from a mock game that the Seahawks held a week into training camp offered a reminder of why they’re so excited about it.
On the first snap, Carson ran by a defender on a wheel route out of the backfield and caught a 65-yard touchdown pass from Russell Wilson. Later, Penny showed off his 4.46 speed — which was tied for the third fastest among running backs at the NFL combine –- when he took a handoff on an outside run and bolted upfield for a long gain.
“I loved it,” Carroll said of Penny’s run. “He weighed in this week at 236 — 236 pounds running like that. And he can catch the football and all that as well. He’s a really, really exciting addition to this club.”
Carson’s leg fracture was among a seemingly endless string of injuries that have forced the Seahawks to cycle through running backs over the past two seasons, a departure from the stability their backfield enjoyed during the height of the Marshawn Lynch era. Carson also missed five games over his two seasons at Oklahoma State.
It’s why the Seahawks felt they needed to draft a running back early, even though they already had a promising one.
So while Carson is in line to remain the lead back by all indications, Penny will get his touches this season, whether it’s by design or out of necessity.
“Each situation is different,” said new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who held the same title with the New York Jets from 2006 to 2011. “Most of those years in New York when we were running the ball really, really well, there was always at least two guys. There’s a Thomas Jones and a Shonn Greene and there was a LaDainian Tomlinson and a Leon Washington.
“It takes more than one, for sure. But obviously, you’d like to find each guy’s niche, what they can do. And if there’s guys that can do multiple things, you kind of do it based on the opponent, kind of what you’re seeing from the matchups that are created. I think we have great flexibility in that regard.”