ALAMEDA, Calif. — Initially, Marshawn Lynch had to adjust.
He joined the Raiders in late April, a season-plus removed from the NFL. Naturally, he was eased along in spring workouts during which no team is permitted to practice in pads. On July 31, Lynch saw his offensive line move and strike defenders in pads for the first time in Napa, California. This continued to happen, day after day.
It was different.
Here in December, he’s grown accustomed.
Lynch found his timing behind the Raiders’ offensive line, and the comfort came at the right time. He will look to continue a strong four-game stretch this Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs, as his team continues a contested playoff chase. Production for Lynch can be personally profitable — he’s chasing benchmarks, too, in an incentive-laden contract.
Tight end Lee Smith recalls Lynch’s early impression of camp.
“He was like, ‘Shoot, you all freakin’ move the line of scrimmage around here; it’s different here,’ ” Smith said, paraphrasing. “We’re not just running sideways. Everyone is at different levels. He was trying to get a feel for it. You’ve got K.O. (left guard Kelechi Osemele) mauling people. And then (right guard) Gabe (Jackson). The way our line is so aggressive and moves the line of scrimmage on a regular basis, he was a little bit (uncomfortable) at first.
“But now, you can tell he’s feeling it. And shoot, he’s only been a Raider for, what, 12 games? Latavius (Murray) ran behind this line for two straight years. … In my opinion, Marshawn is a Hall of Fame running back. It’s exciting, with the O-line we have and the way we’re able to get people blocked up, for him to finally feel it and hit the holes that are there. It’s only going to get better from here.”
Last Sunday, Lynch followed a pulling Osemele on the Raiders’ third offensive play.
The Pro Bowl lineman engaged New York Giants inside linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, effectively rendering him irrelevant. One defender was left to make miss.
Safety Landon Collins anticipated Lynch to cut outside of Osemele and filled that gap. Instead, Lynch saw a crease, fluidly cut inside of Osemele and sprinted off for a 51-yard touchdown.
There in the end zone, he found pay dirt.
Lynch activated a $400,000 contract incentive for reaching 500 rushing yards. Having finished with 101 yards on 17 carries, he is up to 558 yards with four regular-season games to go. He is scheduled to earn an additional $400,000 if he reaches 600 yards and a separate payout of $600,000 at 800 yards.
Those two are the most realistic yardage bonuses, but it’s notable that another $600,000 would be awarded at 1,000 yards. He’d have to average 110.5 yards over the next four weeks. Lynch also has six rushing touchdowns. Three more would bump his total to nine and therefore compensation by $250,000.
Times have changed for Lynch.
The running back, 31, missed an Oct. 29 game against the Buffalo Bills to a suspension. Since then, coach Jack Del Rio has said he’s seen a greater purpose and improved approach from Lynch. That referenced period encapsulates the most recent four games. Lynch has 68 carries for 292 yards — an average of 4.3 per tote — and four touchdowns. He had 72 carries for 226 yards — a 3.7 average — and two scores in the first seven games.
Pro Football Focus, a statistical service that seeks to quantify football game footage, marked Lynch as having his three highest-graded weeks of the season in the three games since the bye.
“It’s been good to see him develop that chemistry and that patience with some of the scheme,” offensive coordinator Todd Downing said. “He’s been getting more opportunities as (game flow) has dictated. So, it’s been nice to see them kind of gel together. I think it’s a combination of him and the offensive line really moving that line of scrimmage, gives him a little bit more of an avenue toward some of those holes. I’m excited to see that trending in the right direction.”
The Raiders, Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers are tied atop the AFC West with a 6-6 record.
Lynch’s timing couldn’t be better.