It's not often that an NFL rookie plays one season and is then considered the face of his franchise. That's exactly what happened with Buffalo Bills running back Marshawn Lynch, however. In a season when the Bills dealt with tragic injury, shuffled quarterbacks and missed the playoffs yet again, Lynch was the steadying force for a franchise still headed in the right direction. He's a hard-working, fun-loving guy, and his gritty, never-say-die running style has made him an instant fan favorite in blue collar Buffalo.
Entering his second season in the league, the expectations for Lynch continue to grow. He'll once again be counted on as the centerpiece for offensive coordinator Turk Schonert's re-tooled scheme. He's expected to improve on his rookie season production, regardless of whether or not the team makes significant improvements around him offensively. If he can stay healthy, improve on certain areas of his game and he's used in a slightly different fashion, you may very well see Lynch toting the rock in Honolulu next February.
Rookie Season Retro
It's sort of lost in the translation of Lynch's excellent rookie season, but it certainly is worth discussing: Buffalo's coaching staff ran Lynch into the ground last year. It's hard to blame them, since Lynch was clearly their only offensive threat (I point my finger at you, Lee Evans), so it makes sense that Lynch carried the ball 280 times in 13 games, over 21 carries per game. With opposing defenses stacked against him, Lynch was still able to rip off an average of four yards per carry - giving testament not only of his ability to make something out of nothing, but to make at least one or two big runs per game. Add in the fact that Lynch was involved in eight of the team's 20 offensive touchdowns, and you begin to see his value.
Lynch was a dynamic rookie. You saw it when opposing defense chose to shut him down rather than Evans, the seasoned explosive threat (though they certainly concentrated on him as well). You saw it when he threw touchdown passes, ripped off big runs and constantly provided energy to the offense. You even saw it when Lynch was out of the lineup - Fred Jackson played well in his absence, but there was just something missing. That dynamic element is what makes Lynch a fan favorite, and it's something that he'll need to continue to display entering his sophomore season.
Lynch and the Passing Game
The one area of Buffalo's offense where Lynch is expected to have a bigger impact next season is in the passing game. No, I'm not talking about his pass protection - Lynch proved last season that he's more than capable of effectively picking up a blitz, which he'll need to continue to do for young QB Trent Edwards - I'm talking about his 18 rookie receptions.
Lynch entered the NFL with the hype that he was an excellent receiver out of the backfield, and he didn't disappoint. Sure, he only had 18 receptions, but he averaged over 10 yards per reception and had some excellent run-after-catch moments on screen passes against the Giants and Eagles. Expect Schonert to at least double his receptions out of the backfield this season - it adds another element to Lynch's game that defenders must consider, and it will make Lynch more dynamic than he already is.
"Beast Mode", version 2008
What can we expect to see from Lynch next season? My early guess is that, considering the club would like to feature more of a two-back system with Fred Jackson, Lynch won't get many more carries than he did this past season. We've got to keep the kid fresh, much like the Chargers do with LaDainian Tomlinson (except Lynch wouldn't keep himself off the field in the playoffs). If Lynch plays all 16 games next season - boy, do we need him to - I would expect 320 carries for about 1,350 yards and 8 to 10 touchdowns. Add in the 35 receptions, 360 yards and maybe another score or two, and you're looking at Pro Bowl numbers. Certainly another team MVP as well.
That's the kind of ability that Lynch has. Now it's time for Turk Schonert to realize that potential, even while employing his two-back scheme. Lynch has emerged as the face of the franchise, and the one player that Bills fans follow most closely. He's a perfect fit in Buffalo. He should only get better in 2008. But before we get there, let's take one last look at Lynch's stellar rookie season with a video provided by the fine folks at Bills Insider: