Just as impressive as Rashaad Penny’s 100-yard games, his game-breaking touchdown runs, his league-leading rushing total since last December?
His humility and humanity. It’s rare among pro athletes.
“I am grateful,” the Seahawks’ lead running back and latest NFL rushing award winner said Wednesday, days after his two latest, long scoring sprints last weekend clinched his team’s 48-45 win at Detroit.
“I always felt like the speed was there,” Penny said. “But again, it was me being available. I think that was probably the hardest part of my career, just always being available and playing on Sunday. When you kind of think like that, like, ‘I’ll never be available,’ it was hard for me.”
This time last year, Penny was derided from Oregon to Omak. He was a colossal bust. A former college football rushing leader and Seahawks first-round pick was on injured reserve from two carries into the 2021 opener until the end of October. It was his fifth injury in less than four NFL seasons. He had played in only 16 of a possible 54 games to begin his career.
Fans and critics derided him. They joked about how often he was injured.
That hurt Penny, too.
“People don’t know what we actually go through,” Penny said 12 months ago.
“People forget we are human.”
Then, at his last chance with Seattle, his rookie contract a month from ending and the team having declined to pick up a fifth-year option for 2022, Penny had the best four games of his career. He led the NFL in rushing over the final five weeks of last season. That earned him a new Seahawks contract for this season, at $5.75 million.
Sunday at Detroit was the fifth time in nine games Penny romped for at least 135 yards.
Rashaad Penny named FedEx Ground NFL Player of the Week—which isn’t as cool as the fact the award means a $2,000 donation in the Seahawks’ running back’s name to a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) for needs-based scholarships to deserving HBCU students.
— Gregg Bell (@gbellseattle) October 5, 2022
He’d had two 100-yard rushing games his first 3 1/2 years. He spent two of those years recovering and affected by a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. He got that in the open field, no contact, running with a swing pass against his hometown Los Angeles Rams in Dec. 2019.
His speed remains
These last nine games show Penny didn’t lose his speed after his ACL tear and complete knee reconstruction. He thinks he’s faster now — even at 236 pounds, 16 more than last season.
He lost his belief.
“I think most importantly with the ACL, it was a tough road because it was more about confidence,” he said. “I was hoping that I got my speed back and everything. To get your quad strength was hard for me because of what I went through and how many ligaments I’ve torn. Having the strains, you kind of get down on yourself, asking if you are still fast.
“When you kind of think like that, like, ‘I’ll never be available,’ it was hard for me.”
The 71-year-old Carroll said he hasn’t had many running backs in 50 years of coaching that have been 236 pounds and as fast as Penny is right now.
“There’s a real suddenness to him,” Carroll said, “and it’s the power that he has. He runs right through tackles that normally guys have to change course. He didn’t have to change course half the time. A guy reaches out and tries to get him, whether it’s the big guys or not. He just runs right through it.
“It’s that combination that really makes it hard to get him down. And all of a sudden, he’s just in the clear. Looks like there is nobody else on the field. It looks like when we used to recruit the old great running backs in high school and there would be nobody on the film.”
Rashaad Penny’s best friends
His best friend is Chris Carson. The Seahawks’ lead running back until his career-ending neck-fusion surgery last fall remains close with Penny.
Penny said of Carson having to retire this summer: “I was pretty much heartbroken.”
Penny’s new best friends are rookie offensive tackles Charles Cross and Abe Lucas — and, for that matter, the entire offensive line. Not just the starting ones. All 10 of them on the team.
Of Cross and Lucas, Penny said: “They beasts. It’s like music to ears when I’ve got Abe and Cross.
“This is kind of only the beginning for them. We have big things coming.”
He said during his press conference in Detroit following his 17 carries for 151 yards and two touchdown runs of 36 and 41 yards in the second half he wanted all 10 of the blockers up at the podium with him. Penny wanted to share the credit for his latest huge day.
It, paired with quarterback Geno Smith having the highest completion rate in NFL history through the first four games of a season, have the Seahawks 2-2 even with all other teams in the NFC West. Seattle plays Sunday at New Orleans (1-3).
Penny’s 41-yard touchdown run on an audible by Smith in the fourth quarter restored the Seahawks’ two-score lead. He credited Cross, the first-round draft choice, for reading with him to bounce that counter play outside where no Lions were.
Interesting from Rashaad Penny: his Seahawks’ game-clinching touchdown on 3rd & 2, 41 yards, was designed to go inside. He and pulling LT Charles Cross read the Lions’ over-shifted front inside and bounced it outside—where no one was for the score. Penny credits rookie for improv pic.twitter.com/dK1KJ1zYVx
— Gregg Bell (@gbellseattle) October 2, 2022
Penny said Wednesday he also had a tip from a helper, not on the field or even in the stadium, for that game-clinching touchdown run.
“He’s (my) brother Elijhaa’s kid. He pushed me to get back to playing football,” Penny said.
“It’s kind of funny because I had a conversation with him on FaceTime and he was like, ‘Rashaad, you keep running inside and getting tackled.’”
Penny told his nephew: “That’s where my blocking is happening. Where do you want me to go?”
His nephew told Uncle Rashaad: “If you bounce it outside and keep running out wide, you will score a touchdown.”
“I was like, ‘Alright.’”
“Then the play in Detroit happened where the counter play went outside. And after the game, the first thing that he said was, ‘I told you to go outside!’
“Those guys make me go, make me want to play football more, and they make me enjoy this game so much more.”
Penny has weekly bets with his nephew over who is going to score more touchdowns in their upcoming games.
“I’m thankful that I get to compete with him every weekend. ...He asks me, ‘If I score more touchdowns than you, you have to give me this,’” Penny said.
“He’s been winning the bets for the past three weeks.”
How old is his nephew?
Thanking his offensive line
It’s rare sentence Penny speaks publicly these days that doesn’t include thank-yous to his blockers.
“I feel like I’ve been like this for my whole career, even at San Diego State,” he said. “They do the dirty work. They have to line up in two-point stances and block a guy at 335 pounds. That’s hard, when a defensive lineman is probably now close to being the most athletic guy on the field that can move.
“I’m going to continue to praise them, because they deserve this.”
Penny said that after every one of his big games since last December he tells his linemen: “Dinner is on me and running backs. You get anything you want anywhere you want to go to.”
That’s going to be an expensive tab.
“Aw, man, they are already talkin’,” Penny said, smiling. “They are hungry now.”
So is Penny — to please teammates, coaches and fans who he feels he failed for years.
“I felt like I let people down as far as being hurt all of the time, not making it to Sundays, and not showing my true potential,” he said, “because I really know what I can do.
“I feel like they drafted me here for a reason and I feel like I can give a lot when I’m healthy.
“As an NFL player, I’m getting hit by guys that are 300 pounds. Safeties tackling at knees. It’s not easy to stay healthy. I thank God when I come out of the game every day now. I’m just thankful that I am healthy. ...
“I’m doing the right things to be ahead of schedule to always be ready to play on Sundays.
“And play fast.”