Mulling over Marshawn Lynch’s contract woes

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With the evidence we have today it seems likely that Marshawn Lynch will be holding out of Seahawks offseason activities, to some degree at least.

A disclaimer: If you simply think that players make too damn much, or should play out their contracts to their ends, or if you’re greatly offended by the idea of not retaining one of your favorite player’s, this post isn’t for you. This is meant to explore the logic of Lynch and the Seahawks, not the morality of a potential hold out. If you want morality, go to church or something. 

It seems like he may skip next week’s mandatory mini-camp. Originally this could have been positioned as more passively eccentric behavior from the increasingly reclusive Lynch. Today’s news that he wants a new contract, and recent comments from Darrell Bevell stating that the Seahawks will operate a “runningback by committee” seem to point to something larger than Lynch being a weirdo.

From Lynch’s perspective, a holdout makes some sense. He’s coming off of perhaps the best season of his career, the Seahawks won the Super Bowl, and he’ll never have more leverage because nobody ever has more leverage in sports the older they get. Considering his age, it’s hard to imagine him actually improving, and the best the Seahawks could have hoped for is that he simply sustains his performance for the next two seasons – those being the last two of his contract.

Lynch at this point appears willing to force the Seahawks’ hand to some degree. Considering the team’s past personnel decisions, their recent draft pick of Robert Turbin and Christine Michael, and their relative lack of cap room, what this might spell is a more swift end to Marshawn Lynch‘s tenure in Seattle than anybody but apparently Lynch wanted.

Marshawn Lynch is 28 years old. As previously mentioned he’s coming from a place of diminishing bargaining power. If he plays out his contract, it’s possible he’s signed the last substantial contract of his NFL career. At 29 years old, Maurice Jones-Drew signed a contract for three years, $7.5 million. At 26 years old, Ben Tate signed a contract for two years, $7 million.

Running backs have never been valued lower, and perhaps no good team extracts as much value from a running back as the Seahawks do from Lynch. Right now the Seahawks would probably expect to remain fairly run-heavy. They’ve got three backs in place, and Russell Wilson hasn’t signed an extension yet, meaning the team can afford such luxuries as a high paid running back. That will soon change, but the Seahawks plan for success in 2014 probably remained squarely on the legs of Lynch.

It’s entirely possible that Lynch has more leverage right now with the Seahawks, considering his age and importance to their offense, than he would even on today’s open market, let alone two years from now when he’s 30 years old. That assumes good health for Lynch, which is a fool’s assumption for players at any position.

This is the ugly part of sports that makes casual fans cringe. Most sports fans are pretty simple. They want the players that they love to stay good forever, to stay with their team forever, and for their team to win a championship every year.

The reality is that players are people. People who want to earn money. The reason athletes make so much money is because they usually retire in their mid-20s. Marshawn Lynch isn’t an asshole because he wants more money, and the Seahawks won’t be assholes if they don’t give him more money. These things can become toxic in locker rooms, but the Seahawks have shown a willingness to rid themselves of toxicity once it crosses below its breakeven point.

Of course, most of this is speculation. The report of Lynch wanting a new deal comes from ESPN by way of somebody that has some proximity to the situation. That can mean close to nothing a lot of the time. Lynch may be willing to take the Walter Jones tact, and simply train in the offseason away from the team, and then come to the team fresh, and ready to perform at an elite level.

And in some bizarre twist of fate, we may have seen the last down we’ll ever see of Marshawn Lynch in a Seahawks uniform. It’s unlikely, but the possibility is less remote than we’d have expected coming off the high of a Super Bowl victory. The Seahawks could stand to save $4 million against the cap by trading Lynch, though that’s hardly a reason to trade him. The Seahawks leverage so far as Lynch’s trade value is concerned – certainly a thing most of us have never really considered as a component of Lynch’s value – is diminishing as fast as Lynch’s bargaining power.

Many a team has paid too much for past performance and been burned by present and future performance. Shaun Alexander is a great example of that. Alexander was a hero, and the best performer on the 2005 team that went to the Super Bowl. He signed his big deal going into his Age 29 season, and never rushed for 1,000 yards in a season again, and was out of football after his Age 31 season.

There are a lot of difference between Lynch and Alexander that make Lynch more endearing in the short-term. He’s a more physical runner, and more willing to sacrifice his body for the team than Alexander was even before he signed his big contract. While that’s endearing, it doesn’t bode will for Lynch’s future.

In baseball there is a lot of energy around solving the pitcher injury problem. Elbows seem more fragile than they’ve ever been, and have for some reason had an inverse relationship with medical science. Some of this can be attributed to the kinds of pitches that are being thrown – those being breaking pitches that put higher stress on elbows and shoulders, and some of this has been attributed to pitch counts.

In Lynch’s case, he’s got not only a style that has shown itself to make most running backs more prone to injuries, but also has carried the ball extensively throughout his career, ranking seventh among active running backs in carries, and leading all backs 28 years old and younger. Since 2011, he’s got more attempts than any running back in football (901, which is 76 more than Adrian Peterson, who is in second place).

The most ideal scenario would be that Lynch shows up to a later team activity happy, and free of his desire for a new contract. A more likely scenario probably involves a compromise. Anything more than a one-year extension with something of a dummy year on the back-end and some more guaranteed money up front – which could be quite favorable in Lynch’s mind – is probably irresponsible for the Seahawks. I’d expect something like an extension that included a $6 million base salary for an additional year, but with $3 million in signing bonus attached to it.

For some perspective, Lynch presently has $3 million in remaining prorated bonus, so his new annual structure would look something like this:

Base/Prorated Bonus

Year One: $5 million/$2 million

Year Two: $5.5 million/$2 million

Year Three: $6 million/$2 million

Anything more than that seems markedly irresponsible for a team with young running backs and a quarterback who is going to sign the largest contract in team history, and a team that just signed Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman to huge contract extensions.