RENTON, Wash. (AP) - Even though he just concluded his fifth NFL season, Marshawn Lynch said he grew up and became a pro in 2011.
He took care of himself off the field. Little things like extra stretching, eating a bit better - sans the Skittles that are always nearby - and a willingness to be coached that might not have been there in the past.
The same could be said about much of the Seattle Seahawks' youth-based roster, and is the big reason why even after another losing season there is some optimism about Seattle's future.
"The direction that the team is going in, you can continue to see week in guys continuing to get better, following the motto of the program, just competing," Lynch said. "You continue to see that."
Seattle dropped its final two games of the regular season to finish 7-9 after losing 23-20 to Arizona on Sunday. But before the season-ending losses to San Francisco and the Cardinals, the Seahawks ran off five wins in six games to climb back into the NFC playoff picture after a dismal 2-6 start. The Seahawks went from midseason jokes to late-season contenders thanks to the legs of Lynch and a stout young defense.
It's giving promise to what might lie ahead. An even stronger belief in what the Seahawks are trying to accomplish than a year ago, when Seattle finished with a 7-9 record, an NFC West championship and a first-round playoff upset of New Orleans.
The massive overhaul of the Seahawks' roster that coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider engineered is mostly complete, with only a few spots left to solidify. Of course, the biggest piece is at quarterback, where there remain questions if Tarvaris Jackson is the best option for the Seahawks' hopeful future.
Jackson started the most games of his NFL career this season and did it playing through an injured chest muscle that had doctors initially believing his season was over. He threw for 3,091 yards, 14 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Jackson didn't do much spectacular, instead playing within a system that morphed throughout the season and eventually made Jackson a complementary piece to Lynch.
But for all his capable management, Jackson couldn't find a way to win a close game when trailing in the fourth quarter. All three of Seattle's losses in the final six weeks were opportunities for Jackson to lead a winning fourth-quarter drive. He didn't.
On Monday, Jackson seemed settled with the idea Seattle might bring in a quarterback either through the draft or in free agency.
"That's what our motto is - competing. If I get an opportunity I'm fine, but if not I'm always going to be professional about the situation. I'll be the best teammate I can be," Jackson said. "I've been through different situations close to that, so I know how to handle the situation. It won't be a problem."
At midseason when Seattle was struggling at 2-6, there were questions whether Carroll's plan was the right answer. The Seahawks were lost offensively and on their way to a top-five draft pick.
That's when Seattle abandoned its gimmicks and rode the legs of Lynch, who quickly became the face of a franchise known more for finesse than brutish strength through much of the past decade. Lynch rattled off 100-yard games in six of the final nine to close the season and ran for at least 80 yards in eight of the nine. His franchise record streak of a touchdown in 11 straight games, greeted with a shower of candy from the fans at home as the season progressed, finally came to an end Sunday against Arizona.
His 1,204 yards and 12 touchdowns were career bests and also provided Seattle with an identity.
"This team took a turn from last year. It went from the coaches pretty much directing us to this year I think we took ownership and this became our team," fullback Michael Robinson said. "That's what you like to see at this level. Nothing else can motivate you like your peers."
It could be short-lived, however. Lynch is one of five key unrestricted free agents the Seahawks need to make decisions about. Along with Lynch, Robinson, defensive end Red Bryant and linebackers Leroy Hill and David Hawthorne all could walk. All five expressed their desire to stay on Monday, although Bryant was blunt about having no interest in seeing the free market.
They all have strong ties to staying: Hill was given a second-chance after off-field problems; Hawthorne was an undrafted free agent Seattle nabbed; Bryant was moved to a position specially created for him on the defensive line and thrived; and Robinson was plucked off waivers from San Francisco and became a team captain.
Yet Lynch remains the toughest to gauge. The off-field problems that hung over his time in Buffalo subsided when he arrived in Seattle and he's coming off the finest season of his career. At age 25 this is likely Lynch's best shot at a big payday.
"Hopefully I don't have to. Hopefully I can get taken care of where I'm at," Lynch said of possibly leaving Seattle. "But if that's the case then that would be the next step, to see what it would be."
Defensively, the Seahawks finished the year ranked ninth overall with a unit that featured Pro Bowl starter Earl Thomas at safety and two other Pro Bowl alternates in the secondary in cornerback Brandon Browner and safety Kam Chancellor. While the secondary got the notoriety, Seattle was nearly as good at stopping the run, both ranking in the top half of the league.
"What coach Carroll's been able to do for us, talent-wise, to get the talent to where it is on offense and defense, I know this football team is heading in the right direction," Bryant said.
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