Thomas Rawls doesn’t possess the elegant style of the luxury car brand his “Rawls-Royce” nickname is a riff off of. Rawls thinks of himself as “Thomas the Train.”
— Thomas Rawls (@TRawls810) April 30, 2016
The better analogy is somewhere in the middle. Amid the NFL tailbacks’ automotive showcase that features Porsches (Darren Sproles), hybrid electrics, (David Johnson) and monster trucks (Derrick Henry), muscle car Rawls runs like Dominic Toretto in a repossessed gas-guzzling 1970 Dodge Charger. He is buttressed by a purring engine packed inside a 5-foot-9, 215 pound frame that can withstand violent collisions.
In the pantheon of meteoric rises, Rawls’ emergence from the shadow cast by Marshawn Lynch into the NFL zeitgeist in a span of two months was quick enough to cause whiplash. The next act for Rawls could be topping the league in rushing for an entire season instead of a few games.
It’s been six years since another undrafted free agent, Arian Foster, was anointed the Houston Texans’ starting running back in his second season. Foster’s 2010 romp in Alex Gibbs’ zone-blocking scheme made him only the second undrafted free-agent running back in the modern era (Priest Holmes in 2001 was the other) to finish as the league’s top rusher.
Rawls’ low center of gravity, in addition to his decisive running and explosions toward the hole led to him leading the league in yards after contact per rush. His impressive 0-60 speed and one-cut style fits Seattle’s zone-blocking scheme like lycra on Teyana Taylor.
A decade ago, future UCLA head coach Jim Mora Jr. hired a Bruins offensive coordinator named Tom Cable to serve as Alex Gibbs’ apprentice. Although Cable was the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive line coach, Gibbs remained on staff to consult Cable on installing the zone-blocking scheme he’d popularized in Denver during the 1990s and early 21st century.
In Atlanta, the marriage of the zone-blocking scheme with a mobile quarterback executing play-action fakes, rollouts and bootlegs put an even greater burden on defenses. During the three years Gibbs commanded the offensive line as coach and consultant, Atlanta led the league in combined rushing yards.
Nearly, a decade later, quarterback Russell Wilson benefited as much from Lynch freezing safeties on play-action as Lynch did from lanes opening up due to the dual threat of Wilson operating the shotgun read-option.
Since 2011, Cable has been the general of Seattle’s offensive line. In that time, their pass blocking flimsiness has been antithetical to the fortitude of their run blocking prowess.
During Cable’s reign as unofficial “run game coordinator”, the Seahawks have finished 14th, 1st, 7th, 1st and 3rd in rushing DVOA (Defense-adjusted over average, which weights strength of opposing run defenses and other factors into the equation) after ranking 28th before Lynch became their feature back in 2010.
Rawls’ individual DVOA in 2015 (how successful a back is per play than a league-average RB in the same situation) was significantly higher than 2010 Arian Foster’s, albeit in a much smaller sample size of carries.
Against base defenses featuring four defensive backs, he was second in yards per carry to Le’Veon Bell. His actual yards per carry also outpaced his expected yards per carry, which takes into account the league-wide average yards per carry against specific defensive personnel, by a league-leading margin. He was an obvious upgrade over a visibly creakier Lynch, ranked 40th in the same category among backs who qualified.
Yet, there are extenuating circumstances which could rain on his first full season as Seattle’s sole backfield star, starting with the aforementioned linemen leading his procession.
While this incarnation of Cable’s malleable offensive line fits within the parameters of his mandate for converting large athletes from both sides of the ball, there was less stability than usual this offseason. If J’Marcus Webb, now on his fourth team in three seasons, starts over Gary Gilliam at right tackle, the Seahawks would be integrating a new starter at every position in 2016.
Rawls’ proved during a pair of 200-yard performances that he has the horsepower to be the NFL’s most productive backfield runner in spurts, but whether he can maintain that torrid pace as his body’s odometer tallies the mileage of a contemporary workhorse tailback remains to be seen.
The running back position brings with it a susceptibility to wear and tear, which is why some coaches treat similar Crash Bandicoot-type running backs like pitching aces and utilize carry limits to save them a) from themselves and b) for the pivotal December, January run.
“I never run out of bounds,” Rawls acknowledged last season. “It’s just my whole mentality. I think I would feel less of a person if I just ran out of bounds.”
Rawls salivates over steamrolling defenders, but that may not be sustainable over four months of hard labor. Last season, Rawls could only endure 147 carries until he was rolled up in the backfield while attempting to plow through a wall of tacklers and broke his ankle.
Fred Jackson Sr., Rawls’ position coach at Michigan, tried to impart upon him the same advice Donald Trump’s kids probably extol during his extensive Twitter feuds with detractors. Sometimes it’s best to avoid confrontation and live to fight another day.
“He didn’t try to run around people,” Jackson told the Seattle Times last November. “That’s why he was hurt all the time.”
Rawls’ physicality is most exemplified in his hit-and-run on 49ers cornerback Trumaine Brock.
Rather than stepping out as he was cornered on the sideline by two defensive backs, Rawls trucked Brock and somehow kept his legs driving for another 10-yard gain.
Jackson tried to drill this into his head to no avail.
“So I just limited his carries.” Jackson added.
As a result of his rehab from last December’s broken ankle, Rawls was limited to 2 carries in the preseason. In his stead, prodigal son Christine Michael returned to the team that drafted him in 2013 and led all preseason rushers in total yards, which may portend a bright season for Rawls behind the new O-line. Although, Michael was the NFL’s worst rusher against base defenses in 2015, he may have earned himself a larger split of the backfield time share.
Almost six years ago, Rawls simultaneously announced his intentions to play for the Michigan Wolverines and to shatter Mike Hart’s career rushing record. After gaining acclaim during his freshman season, Rawls never built upon that foundation and transferred to Central Michigan for his senior year.
Without Lynch in the fold, this season won’t be a street drag race. The Seahawks will be rawling with Rawls for a 16-week road trip. They are banking on Rawls bouncing back from rehab and fulfilling the high standards he set for himself as an amateur.