The Gut Check No. 251: Strange Sanctuaries Series: RB Marshawn Lynch
By Matt Waldman
July 5th, 2012

There's no such thing as a "safe play" in fantasy football. There are only degrees of perceived safety. Tom Brady was perhaps the safest play in fantasy football four years ago at least before Bernard Pollard made quick work of the Pats quarterback's ACL in the first game of the 2008 season. Adrian Peterson has been regarded as the safest play of the elite fantasy running backs as far back as 2008. One could argue this past label has earned him credit among fantasy owners that the collateral might not support.

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This is all semantics we all want to know whom are the safer plays heading into a football season. It's easy to name the top three to five players at each position and call it a wrap. But who are the guys that might be safer than most fantasy owners expect? Individuals who seem like counterintuitive choices at first, but with a deeper look might offer a sanctuary from risk in what many will see as the strangest of places.

The Odd Bird: Marshawn Lynch

"I never set out to be weird. It was always other people who called me weird."

- Frank Zappa

There's no denying that Marshawn Lynch has a big personality. He's not afraid to speak his mind or joke with the media. With his locks, his grill, and the fact he enjoys being on camera, his mannerisms are only magnified to the public.

The public sees him as a character. And once a football player becomes the life of the party and a media favorite, it's difficult for the young man in front of the camera to have the maturity to separate himself from the character he helped create. Especially with the media enabling him.

We see it all the time with popular actors and musicians and athletes haven't immune from this phenomenon. Terrell Owens, a shy kid raised by a strict grandmother from a small Alabama town, became "T.O." and that shadow side of his personality overtook his life. Although "T.O." earned Owens fame, fortune, and opportunity, it also cost him opportunities because he was trying to be a character rather than have character.

Former wide receiver Chad Johnson became celebrity Chad Ochocinco. It was good for attention, but bad for his football career. And if Rob Gronkowski continues to take off his shirt in public and dance like he belongs in the new movie Magic Mike, he'll have crossed the line where "Gronk," is no longer a nickname, but a media character he's addicted to portraying to the public. The best tight end in football might find that his life will become another reality television punch line if he's not careful.

"I don't know what other people are doing - I just know about me."

-Thelonious Monk

Unlike these players, I think that Lynch, much like Frank Zappa, never set out to be weird in order to get attention. He's just comfortable in his own skin and lacks pretense. In profession where one can become a public figure, this is a double-edged sword especially for a young man still growing up and coming into fast fame and even faster money.

To those unfamiliar or uncomfortable with a player of Lynch's background and looks, it's easy to slap a label on Lynch that engenders a host of assumptions about his character. But somehow we don't do the same thing when it comes to Brooks Brothers-wearing, BMW-driving, cocaine binging, prostitute-addicted, businessmen. If it's just a matter of "boys being boys," for businessmen then the excuse has to be the same for Snapback Cap-wearing, pimped-ride-driving, pot smoking, strip club addicted athletes.

I'm not saying this is all what Marshawn Lynch does, but I believe this is what a lot of people that watch football assume he's about based on what they see on television for a two-minute interview or a five-minute YouTube clip. Whether they're right or wrong, there's hypocrisy present in our society about who can handle fame and fortune and still perform at a high level and who can't.

For every Chris Johnson that earns a new contract with a football team and underperforms, there are at least a few dozen "Chris Johnsons" with jobs as investment bankers, Wall Street brokers, and analysts earning huge bonuses while losing clients large sums of money. Ironically, it's the football player that often earns less yet is more accountable to the public and his team when things go south.

Lynch is falling victim in some fantasy football circles as the next Chris Johnson to earn a payday and fail. Some of the low expectations were his doing. After a strong college career and rookie success in Buffalo, Lynch had six well-publicized incidents between 2006 and 2009 that could have earned him prison time, an exit from the league, or even a one-way trip to the grave. Here's the rundown courtesy of Wikipedia:

  • On June 14, 2006, Lynch was the victim of mistaken identity when unknown assailants shot at his car outside his high school alma mater, as he was about to visit his little sister on her graduation day. He was not the intended target of the shooting, and no one was injured. The shooter phoned Lynch's mother to apologize.

  • On January 25, 2007, Lynch was accused of sexual assault by his former girlfriend. The incident reportedly happened on December 13, 2006, outside the woman's home in Emeryville, California. On January 29, 2007, an Alameda County Deputy District Attorney who specializes in domestic violence cases declined to press charges, citing a lack of evidence and "grave inconsistencies" in the alleged victim's accusations.[36] Lynch was never arrested or charged.

  • On March 3, 2007, an Alameda County judge threw out a restraining order that Lynch's ex-girlfriend had issued against him because it was obtained improperly.

  • During June 2008, Lynch was investigated for his involvement in a hit and run accident that occurred in Buffalo on May 31, 2008. His 2008 Porsche Cayenne struck and injured Kimberley Shipeley, of Ontario, Canada, before leaving the scene. It should be noted that Shipeley was extremely intoxicated, and dancing in the middle of the street.[38][39] After the 27-day saga, on June 26, 2008, Lynch apologized and accepted a guilty plea to a single count of failure to exercise due care to avoid striking a pedestrian, a traffic violation. He was assessed a $100 fine, and his driver's license and car registration were revoked. Because a Buffalo police officer gave testimony that Shipeley did not suffer "severe physical injury," Lynch avoided criminal charges for the incident.[40] Lynch was later sued by Shipeley on December 28, 2009 for negligence.

  • Three days after his 2009 Pro Bowl appearance, Lynch was arrested on February 11 in Culver City, California. Lynch and two companions were sitting in a running 2006 Mercedes-Benz when police approached; after smelling marijuana, the police searched the car and discovered a loaded gun that was determined to belong to Lynch. He was released the same day after posting $35,000 bail.[42] Lynch's felony charge was reduced to three misdemeanors, and no drug charges were filed.[43] On March 5, Lynch pled guilty to a single misdemeanor gun charge and was sentenced to three years of probation, and 80 hours of community service. He also agreed to submit to police searches at any time. The two other misdemeanor gun charges were dismissed.

  • Lynch was accused of stealing $20 from the wife of a Buffalo police officer in a local TGI Friday's on December 7, 2009. A complaint was filed against him the next day but no charges were ever filed.
  • It's easy to look at this string of trouble and presume now that he's getting paid that he'll slack, get in trouble, and underachieve. But here's a question no one seems to ask. Wasn't Marshawn Lynch getting paid before he got his new contract?

    Wasn't he earning a salary that at least 90 percent of this country will never see in a year? Couldn't Lynch afford to "go wild" or quit working if he wanted before his new contract? Yes, yes, and yes.

    If you think about it, the issues from 2006-2009 were a combination of a young, immature player lacking pretense and filters to protect himself encountering the pitfalls of fame and narrowing escaping further trouble. Since 2010, there hasn't been an off-field issue involving Lynch. That's three years.

    I think that's enough evidence to suggest he's grown wiser about how he leads his life in public. Tomorrow that could all change, because I don't claim to know Marshawn Lynch. However, I'm sure there were a lot of people that would have bet money that Atlanta Falcons safety Eugene Robinson, a former NFL Man of the Year Award recipient, would not be the player arrested for soliciting an undercover female police officer in Miami the night before the Super Bowl.

    Given what we do know, I have to believe that Marshawn Lynch is what I believe he is: a guy with a fun personality who had to learn the hard way that fame and fortune made him a target and his behavior made the target even bigger.

    This is why I believe Lynch isn't considered a safe pick, but there are a lot of facts that counter this perception:

  • The Saints and Packers negotiated for Lynch before the Bills eventually shipped the runner to the Seahawks.

  • Lynch had 11 consecutive games where he scored at least one touchdown.

  • Lynch had nine games with at least 85 yards rushing and six games over the 100-yard mark.
  • Best yet, Lynch did achieved these milestones with a quarterback suffering from a torn pectoral muscle, an injured Sidney Rice and Mike Williams at receiver, and an injury-riddled offensive line with inexperienced talent. He had 22.7 fantasy points versus the Baltimore Ravens defense and 19.1 fantasy points versus the 49ers unit in December.

    Then there's the more subjective analysis if Lynch's talent. I get that many of you may think Lynch is weird. I look at it this way: If Thelonious Monk were a tailback immersed in Hip-Hop culture rather than a jazz pianist immersed in Be-Bebop or Frank Zappa were a football player, I think they'd be a lot like Marshawn Lynch in terms of playing style.

    To the uninitiated, Monk or Zappa's work doesn't make sense. It seems like they are purposely creating nonsense. Plus they cultivate an act that isn't slick or stylized to please businesses trying to market them.

    However, listen to Monk or Zappa and truly examine what they are doing and it becomes clear that these musicians are geniuses of the highest order when it comes to expression, theory, and composition. Like Monk and Zappa, Lynch's early environment of friends, culture, and neighbors is something that few understand if not hold in some form of contempt.

    I don't claim to understand it him, but I won't be judging him off the field, either. What I can judge is what I saw from Lynch at Cal: a player that I thought was more polished than Adrian Peterson at the time both were entering the league.

    Don't be mistaken; I wasn't saying Lynch was a better pure runner than Peterson.

    The former Oklahoma back and Vikings start was someone I labeled a potential once-in-a-generation talent. But I did and still do believe Lynch had a more NFL-ready game as an every-down back and I think these players' initial season illustrated this point to my thinking. Peterson still had ball security issues, wasn't as disciplined with pressing the hole, and lacked great skill as a third-down player.

    Peterson is already one of the greatest backs of all-time. If you're a stats nut, then it might take 3-5 more years for you to come to that conclusion. I feel a little sorry for you, but I understand that you live according to the method to mitigate your symptoms of madness. However if you can recognize truth by what your eyes tell you and you don't need to wait for something you can measure with your mental slide rule to proclaim it, then you know.

    And if you recognize great skill at the running back position, then there's a good argument that Lynch is a physical genius at the position in the same way Thelonious Monk or Frank Zappa was a genius at composition and improvisation. At first look, Lynch's style often seems like he gains yardage because of the ineptitude of others.

    Further examination reveals a back with a rare combination of skill sets that maybe a third of the NFL starters possess at the same or greater proficiency:

  • Stop-start agility
  • Upper and lower body fakes
  • Great elusiveness in tight lanes of traffic
  • Patience
  • Upper and lower body strength
  • Persistence
  • Pad level
  • Stiff arm
  • Burst
  • Few of NFL starters have all of these skills at the same level that Lynch does. His shorter runs are often as fun to watch as some of Peterson's 50-yard gains. Statistically, there will be runners that that will out perform him that have less of a total package of skills than Lynch. However, Lynch's talents as an all-around player make him among the best in the league.

    Currently at an average draft position of 2.02 in 12-team leagues, Lynch is a player I'd seriously consider drafting ahead of Darren McFadden, Maurice Jones-Drew, Chris Johnson, and DeMarco Murray. Maybe even Ryan Mathews, who Norv Turner wants to give a zillion carries but has yet to show he can handle it and as most of you know, I had Mathews as the best rookie runner in the 2010 NFL Draft.

    With a healthier line, better depth at quarterback, and the fact that Lynch has a little wear and tear for a 26 year-old NFL, these are a few among several reasons why he may offer a strange, but true sanctuary for fantasy owners in 2012.

    As always, feel free to provide comments or suggestions to waldman@footballguys.com.

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