From 2007 to 2012, Marshawn Lynch played unencumbered football.
Despite being drafted 12th overall by the Bills, "Beast Mode" was barely a blip outside of Buffalo, due to the fact that he played for a franchise that flirted with mediocrity more often than a playoff berth. Not even an in-season trade to Seattle in 2010 was enough to raise his profile.
But then the Seahawks won the Super Bowl, and everything changed. Everything except Marshawn Lynch.
Lynch had never been a quote machine – unless you asked him about Applebee's– and his quiet demeanor apparently goes all the way back to his Pop Warner days. Though as his profile continued to rise, and Seattle played in more and more meaningful games, avoiding the spotlight became impossible, no matter how much Lynch detested it. Apparently unable to view his reticence as anything but open contempt, the media slowly cooked up a story about a non-story: Lynch's reluctance to speak to anyone outside of his teammates about football. And once he made it to the Super Bowl stage, his silence spoke louder than any stock quote about "teammates" or "hard work."
It didn't help that, in the rare instances he did speak – like when Deion Sanders caught him away from the podium during Super Bowl Media Day – Lynch didn't exactly apologize for shunning the media. Instead, he summed up his silence succinctly, delivering a quote that was more mission statement than mea culpa:
Of course, in the ultimate irony, Lynch's quote about not wanting to talk to the media became all the media wanted to talk about. And it capped a season in which the NFL fined him $50,000 for not speaking to the media, then withheld the fine on the assumption he'd realized the error of his ways. As you can probably guess, Lynch didn't, and after avoiding reporters following games against the Chiefs and Giants this season, the league doubled down, hitting him with a $100,000 fine for his silence. In response, he answered every reporter's question with the same one-word response – "Yeah" – the following week. Those mono-sponses were then remixed in a video posted on the Seahawks' website. And the non-story continued.
When Gregg Doyel of CBS Sports attempted to ask Lynch questions at the Super Bowl, he got the same player that everyone besides Sanders got: silent, stoic and steadfast. Lynch sat there for six minutes, and Doyel wrote a story about the "humiliating" incident, but his piece arguably did better than one larded with quotes about "teamwork."
"Watching Lynch watch the media watch him was one of the most through-the-looking glass moments I've ever been a part of," Doyel says. "Lynch not talking was a lot of fun to write, if for no other reason than I've never written that story before."
But why are we so interested in discussing Lynch if he isn't? Perhaps because he's an anomaly in today's NFL: an athlete who doesn’t care about promotion or his portfolio – just playing the game.
"I think it resonates because there's a certain 'I don't give a fuck, I'm just gonna be me' authenticity to him," NFL.com columnist Mike Silver says.
Silver, a Cal grad whose ties to the Oakland area have kept him close to Lynch, knows that firsthand. On November 16, he wrote a story that speculated Lynch was unhappy with a number of things, including his contract situation and Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. Some of that information came from an anonymous source – though a great deal of it was provided by Lynch himself, in a series of short quotes that seethed with frustration. It was a rare moment of candor from the back, and, of course, the few words he did speak about tensions within the team became a story too.
"I stand by everything I wrote," Silver says. "I've talked to a lot of people – including Marshawn Lynch – about a lot of things, so I'm not just gonna throw some shit out there about something I know just to be 'a thing.'"
But now, it is a thing. Lynch's issues with the Seahawks have become a driving narrative of the NFL season, which, considering the year the league's had, is saying something. Sources behind the scenes (of course) have Lynch either retiring at season's end, or following offensive line coach Tom Cable to a different team, or both. Not surprisingly, Lynch isn't talking – leaving others to discuss his status in depth.
So how has Lynch gone from the strong, silent type to a "jerk" in the span of a few seasons? In part, it's due to something Silver dubbed "the snitch factor:" A reporter gets shunned, tells the league, creates a fineable situation, then writes a sensational piece how Lynch doesn't talk to the media. By that logic, Lynch can't win – so why would he bother talking at all?
And really, what's wrong with a football player who only wants to talk about football (and Skittles)? If you think about it, Lynch is everything you could want in an NFL star – minus the mouth. And at this point, he probably realizes he's past the point of doing damage control, which means over the coming weeks, you can expect more stories about his silence, his contract status and his stature in Seattle's locker room. Not because they might be true (even Carroll acknowledges there was a growing rift in the offseason) but because they make for a great story. And what is Lynch going to do about the rumors? Nothing.
Because that would require talking to the media. That's just not something he's interested in. He's just 'bout that action, and that's exactly why the league, the media and the fans love him. Even if they won't come out and say it.