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Christine Michael sparks Seahawks' offense to life against woeful 49ers

Seattle's offense gets a boost from an unlikely source—a journeyman running back whose path has come full circle.

SEATTLE — Inside the Seahawks’ locker room late Sunday, Jay-Z blasted over the sound system as eight television cameras closed in around running back Christine Michael. That would be Christine Michael, professional football yo-yo. In the last 12 months, he was traded by the Seahawks to Dallas (last September), cut by the Cowboys (November), signed to the Redskins practice squad (also November), re-signed by the Seahawks (December), made a free agent (March) and again re-signed by the Seahawks (also March). That’s 12 months of running back whiplash.

On Sunday, Michael wore a red knit cap, a gold chain as thick as a licorice rope and white Jordans as he tried to explain his uneven career. The reporter mob surrounded him, trying to make sense of how a second-round pick could nearly fall out of the league and then return to the same team that gave up on him for his reemergence. That’s so Seahawks, by the way. They don’t care where they find a guy, as long as he can help them.

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As Michael answered questions, he held a football under his left arm, like he didn’t want to let it go. Like he planned to carry the ball into the players’ parking lot the way he twice carried footballs into the end zone on Sunday, which he called a “great day” and “the best day” and a “good day.” Hopefully, the last description was a nod to Ice Cube rather than an appraisal of Seattle’s offense, which was far better than “good” in a 37–18 battering of the 49ers.

This was the Seahawks offense from late 2015, the same rhythm and pace, the same quick passes and long runs. There were different faces, sure, and familiar staples, too. But for one week at least Seattle’s other unit pushed pause on the panic button.

“It’s amazing, man,” Michael says. “When it all comes together, there’s no limit to how good we can be.”

On Sunday, it seemed like only the clock could limit the amount of points the Seahawks scored. There was quarterback Russell Wilson before he suffered a knee injury in the third quarter, zinging passes, calling the right audibles, carving up the 49ers with a brain surgeon’s precision. He finished with 243 passing yards and a 114.9 quarterback rating.

There was tight end Jimmy Graham, a player whose performance in the first two games this season was much like the Seahawks’ offense—lackluster and lacking. Perhaps Graham was still recovering from the patella tendon he tore in his right knee last November, an injury that actually signaled the beginning of Seattle’s offensive revival. On Sunday, Graham out-jumped two defenders for a 40-yard catch and caught six passes for 100 yards even and a touchdown.

He didn’t even lead the Seahawks in receiving. That honor went to Doug Baldwin, who caught eight passes for 164 yards and a score. Earlier this summer, Baldwin told me he worried about whether the Seahawks’ offense could carry over the momentum from last season’s final month, when it ranked among the top units in the NFL. “I think about that all the time,” he said. “But I have the same feeling. That we’re good, and we know how to play, and it’s all going to work out.”

“It’s a very powerful feeling we have right now,” he added.

It took awhile—two games, to be precise—for that feeling to translate into actual production. On the Seahawks’ first 22 offensive possessions, they scored one touchdown—a pass from Wilson to Baldwin that proved decisive against Miami in Week 1. On Sunday, they scored touchdowns on both of their first two possessions.

The first drive was particularly instructive. After a Wilson incompletion, the quarterback found Baldwin deep up field for a 34-yard gain on a crossing route. On the very next play, Michael took the handoff on a stretch left, split two San Francisco defenders and sprinted untouched into the end zone from 41 yards out. Seattle had already scored a touchdown 36 seconds in. Then the Seahawks built a 37–3 lead in a game that was effectively over by halftime.

This is what Baldwin envisioned: an afternoon like Sunday. That the Seahawks started slowly is not surprising; it’s practically a trademark of their recent stretch of playoff runs. But Seattle’s players didn’t panic, even after their loss to the Rams last weekend, in which it was debatable whether the offense boarded the plane to California. “It was only Week 2,” receiver Tyler Lockett said as he shrugged his shoulders. “We can’t just sit there and, like, freak out. We know what we’re capable of.”

The Seahawks proved what they’re capable of against the 49ers, although an obligatory disclaimer should be included here: Their breakthrough offensive performance came against the 49ers. That said, Michael looks every week more like the back the Seahawks took 62nd overall in 2013 and less like a player who almost washed out of the league.

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Seattle center Justin Britt says he noticed a difference in Michael from the first day of training camp. Every time Michael ran in practice, he would sprint to the end zone after initial contact. But it wasn’t just how hard he worked. It was how he acted in the locker room—no goofing off, no fights with teammates, no lollygagging through a workday. Michael looked like a different player and acted like a different, more mature guy. “I don’t know what he did this off-season,” Britt says. “But whatever he did, it worked. You could just see a difference in him out there.”

The Seahawks will need Michael in the immediate future, as Thomas Rawls works through a shin injury and Wilson can’t go a week without taking some sort of hit that makes every Hawks fan from Seattle to Spokane wince. He took another one on Sunday, in which his knee twisted underneath his body, and he limped off the field, missing a play due to injury for the first time in his five-year career.

Seattle took a risk this off-season when the front office again reconfigured the offensive line with draft picks and younger players at unfamiliar positions (like Britt at center). The Seahawks took another risk when they kept only one quarterback besides Wilson, an undrafted rookie free agent no less in Trevone Boykin, who played most of the fourth quarter Sunday and didn’t look half bad. Still, it doesn’t take an analytics guru to argue that Wilson ranks among the more indispensible players in the league. In three games, he’s been dinged up three times. So while Wilson’s response to his latest scare was to say, “I don’t think it’s as severe as it may have looked,” for all the strides the offense made on Sunday, the Seahawks still have one major issue to shore up. They can’t afford to lose him.

That can wait for another week, of course, and it certainly beat the alternative, or another game filled with offending offensive play. The Seahawks’ defense has yet to face an offensive juggernaut but appears to be as stout as ever. If the offense plays anywhere near the level it performed on Sunday—and if the line can keep Wilson healthy and upright—the Seahawks should remain a factor deep into January. On Sunday, Seattle reminded the rest of the NFL about that.