CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- They didn't give the ball to Marshawn Lynch at the goal line last February in the Arizona desert and it may have cost the Seattle Seahawks a Super Bowl championship. On Sunday, they gave it to him six times too many.
Lynch had zero impact in the Seahawks' 31-24 loss to the Carolina Panthers. His long-awaited return from abdominal surgery was a big dud, as Beast Mode became Feast Mode for the ravenous Carolina defense. He was stopped for a three-yard loss on his first carry, pretty much setting the tone for the Seahawks in their NFC divisional playoff loss at Bank of America Stadium.
It may have marked the end of an era.
With an $11.5 million cap hit in 2016 (third-highest on the team), Lynch could be playing elsewhere next season -- if he decides to play at all, that is. With Lynch, you never know. He parlayed a retirement threat into a two-year contract extension last March. He turns 30 in April and, in running-back years, that makes him an old player. An old player with a $9.5 million salary never is a lock to return. It would be a surprise if the Seahawks don't release him, especially with a younger and cheaper replacement lined up. Thomas Rawls, an undrafted rookie, was terrific before getting hurt.
Lynch's teammates know the deal; they know he could be a goner. And if that happens?
"I'll remember him being a beast -- Beast Mode," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "That's trademarked now."
Sherman laughed. Turning serious, he said of Lynch, "He's a beast, he's a workhorse. He's a guy who's going to go out there, if he's strapping up his pads, and give you everything he's got. He'll play his heart out and play until the last whistle. That's what you can appreciate. He's an outstanding teammate and an outstanding guy, on and off the field. I'll remember him as a phenomenal person who will give you the shirt off his back."
Lynch's mercurial personality makes him a high-maintenance player, a headache Pete Carroll probably can do without. He has been a terrific player for the Seahawks -- six seasons, more than 6,000 yards and 57 rushing touchdowns. But it's time to move on. This isn't Lynch's offense anymore. It belongs to Russell Wilson, who proved over the last two months he's capable of carrying the team. They went 7-1 without Lynch, including last week's gift win against the Minnesota Vikings.
On Sunday, they hoped he'd provide a spark. His mere presence in the huddle wasn't enough. He was rusty and a half-step slower than usual, finishing with only 20 yards.
"He didn't get much of a chance," Carroll said. "He didn't get the opportunity to get going. Even the first run, he kind of got loose in the backfield. Heck, he didn't have a shot. He tried hard."
On the second play, Lynch and Wilson had a costly miscommunication. Wilson, under pressure, threw to Lynch over the middle; it was his check-down option. Lynch didn't expect it, and the pass was intercepted by Luke Kuechly, who returned it 14 yards for a touchdown.
"It wasn't his fault," Wilson said. "It was my fault. So just, 'Head in the game, let's stay in the moment, a lot of game left.' Marshawn did great, just in terms of being in it. Obviously, him coming back was a tough situation physically, but he stepped up to the challenge. I'm grateful for that."
Truth be told, Lynch should've stayed back in the Seattle. No, he wasn't the reason for the 31-0 deficit, but it was a foolish notion to think a running back -- out two months -- could be a major factor in his return appearance. He should've been given a supporting role, behind Christine Michael, not top billing. Of course, there's no telling how he Lynch would've reacted to that.
The days of worrying about his moods could be over. Sherman offered no predictions on whether his teammate still wants to play.
"That's up to him," Sherman said. "If I could read Beast Mode's mind, people would give me a lot of money."