ALAMEDA — Marshawn Lynch is known as a downhill runner, and the Raiders are gambling that at age 31, that same description won’t describe his career arc.
Lynch turned 31 on April 22, meaning the former Oakland Tech and Cal star is getting up there in years as a running back.
It remains to be seen whether the time away will allow Lynch to heal up, freshen up and be the “Beast Mode” who gained 5,357 yards from 2011 to 2014 or the guy who battled injuries and had 417 yards in seven games in 2015 and retired.
Plenty of running backs have had big years at age 31. Many others have shown signs of serious decline. Of the 36 running backs who have more career yards than Lynch, 10 of them broke 1,000 yards rushing at age 31.
The best season at age 31 was by Curtis Martin, who had 1,679 yards for the New York Jets in 2004. Other big years from 31-year-old backs include Tiki Barber in 2006 (1,662 yards), Walter Payton in 1985 (1,551 yards) and Thomas Jones of the Jets in 2009 (1,402 yards).
On the flip side, running backs such as O.J. Simpson (593 yards with the 49ers in 1978) and Eric Dickerson (536 yards for Indianapolis in 1991) and Eddie George (432 yards for Dallas in 2004) had hit their expiration dates.
Lynch’s contact reportedly carries a $2 million bonus if he breaks 1,000 yards.
Michael Robinson, a former Seattle teammate as a fullback and NFL Network analyst, believes Lynch-to-the-Raiders is a perfect match.
“All the chips fall into place for this to be a great homecoming, and on top of that, the team needs him,” Robinson said on the air. “From a P.R. standpoint, they’re leaving Oakland in a couple of years. They need this guy. And from a talent standpoint, this guy definitely still has it.
“I saw some workout videos of Marshawn, and man, he’s excited.”
Working in Lynch’s favor is that he’s not only got one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, but second-year backs in Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington who keep his workload reasonable.
With the Raiders, a healthy Lynch will probably get in the ball park of 200 carries. Latavius Murray, the man he’ll replace, carried 195 times for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“It’s not like he’s going to come in here and play all three downs,” said Kirk Morrison, a former Raiders linebacker and ESPN Radio host. “Remember the job that Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington did last year. Those guys are going to get touches as well.”
Morrison is looking forward to seeing Lynch in a Raiders uniform late in games.
“When it gets to playing keep away, it’s going to be Marshawn Lynch time,” Morrison said. “When there’s four minutes left and that Black Hole is rocking, when you send No. 24 our there behind that offensive line and a couple of extra tight ends, that’s how you’re going to seal games.”
Mark Schlereth of ESPN believes Lynch could give the Raiders the kind of power that can make a big difference in their offense.
“The running game to me is second and short, third and short, in the red zone, can we dictate?,” Schlereth said on air. “You know we’re running, we know we’re running. You’ve got an eight-man box, we don’t care. Marshawn, the toughest (to) tackle in football, he’s got wiggle to him between the tackles and then he finishes. He just punishes you. He wears defenses out.”
Former NFL coach Herm Edwards, also on ESPN, said Lynch’s arrival could help the defense as much as the offense.
“Now all of a sudden, when you have a lead, Marshawn can close out a game for you on offense and keep the defense off the field,” Edwards said. “It’s when you have to run and everyone knows you have to run, do you have a back that can do that? He can do that.”
Morrison has known Lynch for years and isn’t concerned about the year off because the circumstances.
“He had a year with no wear and tear, and I think he’s a guy who loved football, who missed football,” Morrison said. “It would scare me a little more if he was taking a year off and going to a different team. But now he’s playing for his home town team. He’s playing for something bigger, and with a ton of eyeballs on him. He’s playing with a sense of pride.”
Still running at 31
Marshawn Lynch is the NFL’s 37th all-time leading rusher with 9,112 yards and is coming back to play for the Raiders at age 31. Listed below are the seasons played at age 31 by NFL backs who rank ahead of Lynch on the all-time rushing list:
2004: Curtis Martin, N.Y. Jets 371-1,679-4.6-12
2006: Tiki Barber, N.Y. Giants 327-1,662-5.1-5
1985: Walter Payton, Chicago 325-1,551-4.8-9
2009: Thomas Jones, N.Y. Jets 331-1,402-4.2-14
1985: Tony Dorsett, Dallas 305-1,307-4.3-7
2000: Ricky Watters, Seattle 278-1,242-4.5-7
2000: Emmitt Smith, Dallas, 294-1,203-4.1-9
2007: Fred Taylor, Jacksonville 223-1,202-5.4-5
2006: Warrick Dunn, Atlanta 286-1,140-4.0-4
2014: Frank Gore, 49ers 255-1,106-4.3-4
1981: Franco Harris, Pittsburgh 247-987-4.1-8
2010: LaDainian Tomlinson, N.Y. Jets 219-914-4.2-6
2016: Matt Forte, N.Y. Jets 218-813-3.8-7
2003: Jerome Bettis, Pittsburgh 246-811-3.3-7
2004: Marshall Faulk, St. Louis 195-774-4.0-3
1958: Joe Perry, 49ers 125-758-6.1-4
2004: Corey Dillon, New England 209-733-3.5-12
2014: Stephen Jackson, Atlanta 190-707-3.7-6
2008: Ricky Williams, Miami 160-659-4.1-4
1997: Thurman Thomas, Buffalo 154-643-4.2-1
1978: O.J. Simpson, 49ers 161-593-3.7-1
1991: Eric Dickerson, Indianapolis 167-536-3.2-2
2004: Eddie George, Dallas 132-432-3.2-4
2008: Ahman Green, Houston 74-294-4.0-3
1991: Marcus Allen, Raiders 63-287-4.6-2
1988: Ottis Anderson, New York Giants 65-208-3.2-8
2009: Edgerrin James, Seattle 46-125-2.7-0
2016: Chris Johnson, Arizona 25-95-3.8-1
2016: Adrian Peterson, Minnesota 37-72-1.9-0
2008: Shaun Alexander, Washington 11-24-2.2-0
Note: Barry Sanders, Jim Brown, Jamal Lewis, Clinton Portis and Earl Campbell had more career yards than Lynch and were done playing at age 31. John Riggins missed his 31-year-old season because of injury but returned to have productive years.