Why is Rashaad Penny sharing lessons learned from Seahawks rookie year?
DK Metcalf’s newest friend on the Seahawks?
This time last year, Penny was exactly where Metcalf is now. Penny was one of Seattle’s top rookies. And he was coming out of surgery that interrupted his debut a few weeks before his first NFL regular season.
Metcalf is one of Seattle’s top rookies in 2019. The big wide receiver had surgery Tuesday. Coach Pete Carroll said Wednesday it was a “minimal” procedure to his knee. The team expects him to be back soon, though it’s unclear how soon.
Penny’s surgery in August 2018 was to insert a screw in a broken finger. It was the first major injury of his football career.
The third running back the Seahawks have ever drafted in the first round, after Curt Warner and Shaun Alexander, Penny admitted later last year his surgery messed him up at the start of his rookie year.
“It put me in hole,” Penny said, looking back.
“I hit a wall.”
Penny has talked to Metcalf since the rookie’s knee surgery Tuesday. Metcalf already was inside the Seahawks’ training room rehabbing his right knee Wednesday morning.
What advice did Penny give?
“Just be patient. It’s a grind,” Penny said in a hallway outside the locker room following Wednesday’s indoor practice.
“You lose a little bit of time in practicing, but it’s all about staying mentally prepared. I think that’s the main thing about DK. I think his skill set is way better than mine was as a rookie. So he’s going to come in and come back and be fresh. It’s going to be real short (that he’s out) before he’ll be back.
“I just said, ‘Be positive.’ He’s just got a little nagging injury, that’s it. He’ll come back. ...
“But, you know, it’s all about the mental part. Physically, you are all right. You’re thinking, ‘Man, I’m not out there. I’ve been on the field for so long.’”
This is Metcalf’s first NFL setback.
He was a national phenomenon for his pre-draft workouts and images of his chiseled body.
This spring and summer he has impressed Seahawks coaches with how polished and technical a route runner and pass catcher he is. He showed less skill and more just physical dominance over college defenders while playing at Mississippi.
However minor Metcalf’s knee surgery was, it remains to be seen how he will respond mentally to falling behind on the eve of his first NFL season.
Penny had all kinds of trouble with that.
Penny had his procedure on Aug. 14, six days earlier in the month than Metcalf had his. Penny returned three weeks later, in time to play in the season opener at Denver that was on Sept. 9. But he had just 8 yards on seven carries in Seattle’s loss to the Broncos. He had just 30 yards on 10 carries the following week at Chicago, when the Seahawks dropped to 0-2.
By week five he was out of the offense, playing on special teams only. Chris Carson, the 2017 seventh-round pick, was the Seahawks’ headlining back by then, on his way to an 1,110-yard rushing season. Even Mike Davis, now gone to Chicago, had a 100-yard game at Penny’s expense.
Penny was a special-teams-only participant in two out of three games during October. He gained more than 65 yards rushing in just one game, his 108-yard game in the five-point loss at the eventual NFC-champion Rams in November.
For the season, Penny rushed for 419 yards on 85 carries in 14 regular-season games. That was 4.9 yards per rush but just 29.9 yards per game.
Carroll said last year Penny didn’t quite know how to handle the setback of the broken finger and time lost at the end of last preseason, then nagging injuries throughout the regular season. That it took a toll on Penny mentally.
The 2019 Penny agrees with that.
“It was definitely frustrating,” he said this spring.
“It is frustrating, and it was frustrating as a rookie. I didn’t know how to take it. ... When that happened, I just hit a wall...”
He believes he got “too anxious” as persistent injuries continued into the fall and winter.
“You get anxious; over-excited. You have high expectations, being a first-rounder,” he said.
“Just be more patient. ...I’m just now learning how to be a pro. And I think that’s a big step for your second year. Just playing at a different type of speed (than) I played at last year.”
He says another part of him being a better pro in 2019 is him losing 12 pounds since last season. Last year Carroll voiced displeasure with Penny being, the coach said, 237 pounds (the team listed him inaccurately at 220 pounds all last season).
Penny says he’s now under 230, though the Seahawks still list him at 220. He credits a new nutritionist and two healthier meals each day, plus offseason workouts and an offseason partnership with Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk, another former San Diego State running back.
Carroll said that speed is showing up this preseason, and that Penny has greatly improved as a pass blocker. He was working with running backs coach Chad Morton on it early in Wednesday’s practice.
His pass blocking could become more important this season, and could get Penny on the field more as a third-down back. So could returning kickoffs; Penny did that, and for touchdowns, while at San Diego State.
So far, Penny hasn’t had much success running the ball in the preseason.
He had 15 yards on six rushes when Carson did not play in the preseason opener against Denver. Sunday at Minnesota, Penny finished with minus-2 yards on six carries. Carson gained 25 yards on five rushes— behind Seattle’s starting offensive line.
Thing is, Gale Sayers would have had a hard time gaining yards behind the blocking Penny received from backup linemen against the Vikings. Some of those blockers he had may not be in the NFL, let alone Seattle, when final preseason cuts come due Aug. 31.
Carroll saw that in real time, from the sideline that night.
“Couldn’t get going. He had nothing to do with it,” Carroll said. “There were plays we had leakage.”
Leakage? More like dam-bursting. Vikings flooded into the backfield to swamp Penny. They sped through names like Elijah Nkansah, Marcus Martin and Demetrius Knox to emphasize a concerning lack of high quality depth among Seattle’s injury-filled backups on the offensive line.
“He (Penny) just needs some space. Need to block better for him,” Carroll said Sunday night after the game.
“Didn’t have a chance.”
Already, on the eve of his second NFL season, Penny is too wise to explicitly single out lack of blocking as the reason he’s run to nowhere through two preseason games.
He didn’t have to.
“I can’t judge my game after what happened last week. I mean, everybody was watching,” he said Wednesday.
“I believe in these guys like they believe in me. That’s the way the NFL goes.
“I mean, it’s not over yet. I’m young. I’m fresh. I just got to keep going. I can’t let that bother me. That’s one thing these coaches told me. They are always on me: ‘You are doing great. You are doing amazing.’
“The great thing is, my pass protection wasn’t as good as it is this year. I’ve been good at third downs running routes last year. I’m better at it this year. So I’ve developed as a running back in so many areas. I feel like I am way better than I ever was last year...
“I mean, I’m only taking what I can get.”
Carroll hasn’t wavered from his intent to partner Penny with Carson in an almost 1-and-1A arrangement in the running game. Seattle will again feature the run perhaps more than any other NFL team this year. The coaches would rather not run Carson 30-plus times as they did last season to get their first win, in week three against Dallas. That’s the game that turned the Seahawks into what became the league’s top rushing offense.
Carson’s punishing, run-you-over style has gotten him injured in every one of his seasons back to junior college. He missed two games last season with a hip issue. That durability concern is why the Seahawks drafted Penny.
For those aboard the Rashaad Penny Hate Bus weeks before his second NFL season begins, Carroll had this to say Wednesday:
“He’s had a lot of plays that he hasn’t had much space. I know how to look at that. I know how evaluate it,” the coach said. “He’s done great. He’s in great shape. His pass protection has skyrocketed from where it was before...
“He’s doing fine,” Carroll said. “To me, he’s right there matched up, fighting (Carson) for play snaps. He’s fighting with Chris every day. I hope that that competition continues. I don’t know which way it turns out. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me. I love the way Chris plays, and I love the way Penny plays.
“We are very fortunate to have two guys that can really carry the load back there.”