Cal faithfuls everywhere were beyond pleased to see Bear legend Marshawn Lynch on the sidelines for this season’s opener against Hawaii. No one has captured rival fan bases such as the Bay Area and Seattle the way Lynch has been able to. It was hard to say whether Lynch would be an overwhelming presence or actually helpful to Cal’s current crop of running backs, but 169 yards between Khalfani Muhammad and Vic Enwere seemed like a resounding testimonial for the latter. But if things had gone the other way, and Muhammad and Enwere had struggled to find the holes, I imagine it would have begged the question on everyone’s mind. Would the Bears be helped if Lynch actually strapped on a helmet and took the field?
Frankly, even though he is freshly retired, the answer to that is an easy yes. Lynch may be over the hill in terms of the NFL, but he still rushed for 1,306 yards in 2014 against much better defenses than can be found in the Pac-12. Even in his physically reduced state, very few college linebackers would be excited to try and take Lynch to the ground. So the better question follows: Who would be better to plug into this Cal team, the 2016 Lynch or the 2006 Lynch, otherwise known as Lynch during his final season at Cal.
Let’s break it down.
This one’s pretty easy. I’m most familiar with the bruising style of play Lynch showed with Seattle, and while Lynch was not quite slow, his game was not based on burning speed. So I was suspicious of Lynch’s 4.46 40-yard dash time at the 2007 NFL Combine until watching some more tape of him still wearing blue and gold. If college Eddie Lacy could run a 4.55, college Lynch could run a 4.46. 2016 Lynch isn’t quite LenDale White (who was so famously slow he refused to run a 40-yard dash and confirm what all knew to be true), but he couldn’t sniff 4.46 even by the most generous estimates. Father Time didn’t give current Lynch a fair shake at this one.
Beast Mode looked so slim coming out of college that I was actually surprised to see that he still weighed in at 215 pounds — the man looked downright skinny. Nowadays, I think it’s fair to say Lynch is coming in closer to 250, and while a little bit of that has come in the belly — you can see from pictures how much Lynch has filled out his shoulders and hips. It’s not a coincidence that Lynch’s Cal highlights show him sneakily evading defenders, while his pro reel shows him going right over them. 2016 Lynch gets the nod here. NFC West defensive coordinators wish they could go back in time and lock the weight room before Lynch realized what those workout sessions could do for him.
Deadlocked so far, we have to look to what sort of impact each Lynch has had in the passing game. Unfortunately, the numbers are frighteningly similar. In his last season at Cal, Lynch caught 34 balls for 328 yards and four touchdowns. In Lynch’s last full season in 2014, he caught 37 balls for 367 yards and four touchdowns.
Funnily enough, Lynch was not able to match his 2006 mark until that season, making it seem like his hands improved over the course of his pro career. Catching 37 balls in the NFL is a lot harder than catching 34 in the Pac-12. By an inch, we’ll give it to today’s player.
This is a tough one. From 2011 through 2014, Lynch played 63 out of a possible 64 regular season games, which is incredible for a starting running back. And as a starter for the Bears, he missed two matchups, so it seems the elder Lynch should get the call here. But Lynch missed the last seven games of the 2015 regular season after hernia surgery and didn’t look great in his return during the playoffs. Additionally, his decision to hang up his cleats made it seem like the demands of being a starting running back were starting to catch up with his body. Once again, the effects of aging really made this an unfair comparison — 2006 Lynch ties it up with two categories each.
Now, Lynch has always been a character. The nicknames “Money” and “Beast Mode” predate the NFL portion of his career, and who can forget Lynch driving the injury cart during a win against Washington? But the cult of personality Lynch developed while fighting the “No Fun League” simply cannot be matched. A present-day Lynch showing the Bears a good time would give NCAA officials everywhere a heart attack. Press conferences would be a no-go, as Lynch would say something along the lines of, “I’m just here so I don’t get fined on the money I don’t get paid.” Players would stop tweeting words and only go with vague low-resolution images (see Lynch’s retirement announcement). Average weight would go up five pounds solely because of Skittles. Our job covering the team would skyrocket in enjoyment. If the Bears ever tried to pass the ball at the goal line at the end of a championship, Lynch would literally snatch the ball out of the quarterback’s hands and run it in. 2006 Lynch was a character. 2016 Lynch is a legend. And that’s why I take him every time.