John Vidale watched perhaps the greatest run in NFL history on YouTube an hour after it happened. Vidale, an earth sciences professor at the University of Washington, saw the same thing millions of others had already witnessed: Marshawn Lynch taking a handoff on second-and-10 and breaking almost a dozen tackles on his way to the end zone—a run that iced the Seahawks’ wild-card win over the defending champion New Orleans Saints after the 2010 season. But the seismologist saw something more, too, in a clip recorded by a fan inside the Seahawks’ stadium: It seemed like the stadium itself was trembling.
At the time, Vidale was the director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network. So he decided to drive to his lab to see whether there had been any seismic recordings. “It just seemed like something that might register,” Vidale says.
He was right. Vidale checked readings from a seismograph located across the street from the stadium. Sure enough, it had registered seismic activity during the run, an effect from the tens of thousands of fans jumping up and down in celebration. In short, the fan reaction from Lynch’s touchdown registered as a man-made earthquake.
Friday is the 10th anniversary of that legendary play, which eventually became known as the “Beast Quake.” It was one of the most epic runs in NFL history, both for its in-game significance and its legacy. But the Beast Quake also served as a turning point for the Seahawks franchise. It is the specific moment players highlight to explain when the culture of Seattle football changed. Before that play, the Seahawks were a mediocre group known for being the first team to make the playoffs with a 7-9 record. But in the 10 years since, the only franchise with more wins than Seattle is the New England Patriots.
The Beast Quake was an earthquake, but it was also a foreshock of what was to come. “Earthquakes, their impact is instant,” Vidale says. “But sometimes it lasts years.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more fun play to rewatch than Lynch’s 2011 wild-card run. It both encapsulates Lynch’s spirit as a runner—the combination of power and finesse that led to him being nicknamed “Beast Mode”—and just kicks ass.
After taking the ball from quarterback Matt Hasselbeck behind the line of scrimmage, Lynch is immediately met in the hole by two defenders. He breaks both tackles as a third defender takes aim at his ankles. Lynch breaks that tackle, too. A fourth defender reaches for Lynch’s right leg while a fifth reaches for his left. Lynch trips, but stays upright. Another cornerback grabs onto Lynch’s waist, but Lynch drags him along until the defender loses his grip. Cornerback Tracy Porter tries to wrap up Lynch in the open field, but Lynch stops and throws Porter off him like a cowboy tossing a man through a saloon window. Two more Saints defenders try for ankle tackles, but, well, you get the idea. Lynch flies into the end zone for a 67-yard touchdown to clinch the upset victory.
The play that generated the run was called “17 Power,” a concept that the Seahawks had at their disposal but rarely used. Lynch had played in a power scheme when he was with the Buffalo Bills and had been begging to run power the whole game. But Seattle’s coaches didn’t want to call it because the team kept screwing up the play in practice. “[The coaches] don’t think we’re good at it,” Hasselbeck told The Ringer last month. “And they were right. We weren’t doing it right.”
Sure enough, when the Seahawks finally did call “17 Power,” seemingly everything went wrong. The blocking was off. Lynch didn’t make the right read. Nothing went as the coaches designed. And yet, the result was literally earthshaking. “There’s a saying,” Hasselbeck says, “that if we’re all wrong together, we’re right.”
It’s fitting that the Beast Quake came on a play named “power.” Power is a classic run play that is more than 100 years old. It is Big Boy football. But it’s not the kind of call that usually produces long touchdowns. “[17 Power] is not designed to hit for a home run like that,” says former Seahawks offensive lineman Tyler Polumbus, who was the left guard on the play. “Power is really designed to get 3, 5 yards, and not a whole lot more than that. So the fact that it busted as far loose as that one did was pretty insane.”
The play was designed to go left (17 is an odd number, and odd numbers mean left in football-speak). And the Seahawks had to go left at the time because Hasselbeck’s left wrist was broken, meaning he couldn’t hand the ball off on runs to the right. But even though the play was supposed to go left, Lynch likely would have had a better hole had he cut back and run to the right side of the center. “For some reason [the read] carried me to the front [left] side,” Lynch told NFL Films in April 2017. That wasn’t a mistake, but it did lead Lynch directly to two defenders.
“It wasn’t exactly how you draw it up,” Hasselbeck says.
After Lynch broke through the mosh pit at the line of scrimmage, Saints cornerback Jabari Greer became the person with the best chance to bring him down. “When you’re in that open field, in that third line of defense, there’s a sense of panic that starts to come in as a defensive back,” Greer says. “It’s like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ Because there’s a lot more space, the sense of urgency becomes heightened. And the room for mistakes is lessened.”
But Greer did make a mistake. Defenders are taught to wrap up with both arms for a tackle, but instead, Greer went for the ball to try to force a fumble. It didn’t work. Lynch dragged Greer behind him as though Greer was holding on to a pickup truck. “If I would’ve just wrapped up, we wouldn’t be talking about this,” Greer says. “I was trying to make a play, and a play happened on me.”
Hasselbeck didn’t expect Lynch to score, but he ran with Lynch through the end of the play anyway. He says he could feel the stadium get louder with each one of Lynch’s stiff-arms. “The noise level just kept going, and I felt like my speed kept going,” Hasselbeck says. “I’m running at seven miles an hour, and then they’d break [a tackle] and then I’m at 11 an hour, and then I’m 12 miles an hour.” Hasselbeck nearly screwed the entire play up by committing a block in the back against Saints lineman Alex Brown, though fortunately for him, the (tiny) penalty wasn’t called. “I don’t have a lot of experience blocking downfield like that,” Hasselbeck says with a laugh.
Someone who had a little more experience blocking downfield was Polumbus, the left guard. He followed Lynch past the line of scrimmage and eventually ran ahead of him to deliver the final block of the play. “I wish I could say I pancaked a dude or I had some dominating physical block,” Polumbus says. “But I got just enough. … Offensive linemen, man, we’re not built to go further than 10 or 12 yards. And so [I’m thinking] we better freaking score on this play or else I’m not going to make it on the next one.”
Score they did. And when Lynch went flying into the end zone, he grabbed his, uh, how to put this delicately—genitals. Or as Lynch calls it, his “ding ding sauce.” Lynch made a similar gesture four years later when he had another thunderous run against the Arizona Cardinals, which also registered a (smaller) level of seismic activity.
After the Beast Quake, players on the field were unaware of Lynch’s crotch grab, but everyone in the vicinity—and perhaps the entire county—was aware of the crowd noise. Seattle is known for having perhaps the loudest stadium in the NFL. And Greer, the Saints cornerback, says his ears were ringing by the end of the play. Justin Forsett, Lynch’s backup who had played for Seattle the previous two seasons, says it was the loudest he’d ever heard a crowd. “Being in that atmosphere after that play, it was pretty surreal,” Forsett says. “Hair standing up on the back of your neck.”
The ball from the Beast Quake should be in the Hall of Fame, or at least mounted somewhere in Lynch’s home. But instead, it is probably sitting in Matt Hasselbeck’s daughter’s closet. After Lynch’s touchdown, Hasselbeck stashed the Beast Quake ball on the sideline for Lynch to keep. But when Seattle got possession back, Lynch wanted to run with the same ball to ice the game. Hasselbeck had no idea Lynch put the ball back in for the final series. And since it was Hasselbeck’s last home game in Seattle, he kept the ball from the final kneeldown. It’s been floating around his house ever since, but he didn’t realize it was the ball Lynch scored with until a few years ago.
“It’s probably scuffed up from playing with it in the driveway,” Hasselbeck says. “My dog’s probably tried to have it in its mouth. This [ball] is not in mint condition now. But it’s appropriate because we weren’t in mint condition at that point either.”
Indeed, the Seahawks of the 2010 season were a rag-tag group—but the Beast Quake was a flash of who they were becoming.
After the past decade of Seattle football, it’s easy to forget that the Seahawks were 10-point underdogs coming into this game. The Saints were the defending Super Bowl champions, and they had an electric offense led by quarterback Drew Brees. “They were [like today’s] Chiefs,” Hasselbeck says. The Seahawks, meanwhile, had just become the first 7-9 squad to make the playoffs in NFL history. “Every talk show was like, ‘These guys don’t deserve to be in it,’” Hasselbeck says. “Exactly what’s going on with the NFC East right now.”
“Maybe not that bad, but pretty bad.”
The Seahawks definitely backed their way into this game, but it was head coach Pete Carroll’s first year with the team, and they had nothing like the offense or defense we associate with Seattle today. In the 2010 regular season, Seattle ranked 28th in offensive yards gained and 27th in defensive yards allowed. “We didn’t really expect to be in the playoffs,” Polumbus says.
It was supposed to be a year of transition. Carroll came into Seattle and immediately tried to shape a new team culture. He wanted his players to be competitive, so he turned everything into a competition—even non-football things. The Seahawks had free throw contests, even rock-paper-scissors tournaments. Competition became an obsession, and that translated to the practice field. Carroll would even film players doing agility drills, then review the tape with the team and award credit to the offense or defense based on which group was giving more effort. “It just kind of became natural or normal for us to play to the whistle,” Hasselbeck says. “We were exfoliating who we were, and effort and competing was at the heart of it.”
But finding the right players to fit that culture wasn’t easy. The team made 284 roster transactions in 2010, the most in the NFL. Every Tuesday, current players would be cut and new players would be introduced to the team. “If you survived Tuesday, everybody was getting a high five,” Polumbus says.
In October 2010, Marshawn Lynch became one of the guys introduced to the team. The Bills drafted Lynch with the 12th pick in 2007, but he’d long been an obsession of both Carroll and Seahawks GM John Schneider. Carroll had tried to recruit Lynch when he was the head coach at USC, and Schneider had wanted Lynch back when he was a scout in Green Bay. Both felt Lynch could be a tone-setter for the team—a hard-nosed runner with a tough attitude who would not fumble the ball (Carroll was obsessed with turnovers, even going 53-0 at USC when the Trojans won the turnover battle).
The Bills became more willing to entertain a deal for Lynch after the first-rounder dealt with some legal issues—namely pleading guilty to a charge related to a hit-and-run in 2008, and pleading guilty to a misdemeanor gun charge in Los Angeles in 2009. At Carroll’s behest, Schneider called then–Bills GM Buddy Nix roughly 10 times over a couple of months in 2010, always asking about Lynch. Finally, in October of that year, the Seahawks got him in exchange for a fourth- and a fifth-round pick.
“When we got here, we talked about an identity, and creating an identity, and getting ourselves into a position where we were a consistent championship-caliber football team,” Schneider said in 2012. “In order to do that in this league, you need to knock people around. You need to play strong, tough, smart, physical football. We thought, in acquiring Marshawn, that he would add that, not only on the field, but in the locker room as well and in the way he practices.”
Forsett, who was Lynch’s freshman roommate at Cal before he was his Seahawks teammate, thinks Lynch’s legal troubles unfairly damaged his reputation in Buffalo. “He wasn’t a saint,” Forsett says. “There were some issues, wrong place, wrong time. He made some bad decisions. But I do think it was an unfair characterization. They thought he was this bad guy. Like he was a bad fit who could spoil a team or a culture. And that was absolutely false. Everybody loves him.”
Talk to Lynch’s teammates, and they tell you about a man with a big heart. They mention the Lynch who spends his Thanksgivings handing out turkeys in the Oakland neighborhood he grew up in or in Hawaii. Polumbus says that in the week after the Beast Quake, Lynch walked into the offensive line meeting room and handed out cash. Forsett once witnessed Lynch literally give someone the shirt off his back. “Somebody that liked his shirt said, ‘Hey, man, that’s a really dope shirt, man. Where did you get that from?’” Forsett says. “[Marshawn’s] like, ‘Here. Just have it.’”
On the field, teammates saw the epitome of someone who plays to the whistle. The Beast Quake was merely the proof that Carroll and Co.’s brand of football would work. While the Seahawks would lose the following week to the Bears in the divisional round, Seattle’s cultural transformation had reached an inflection point. “That was the official changing of the guard,” Forsett says.
The Seahawks were changed by Lynch, and then the Seahawks went and changed football. In the decade since the Beast Quake, Seattle has gained the most rushing yards, allowed the fewest total yards, and accrued the second-best winning percentage in the NFL. The team went to two Super Bowls, won one, and would have won the second had they given Lynch the ball at the goal line in Super Bowl XLIX. Seattle’s Legion of Boom defense became one of the best secondaries in football history at a time when the passing game was reaching historic figures. And that group allowed the fewest points in the NFL for four consecutive seasons, a feat matched only by the Cleveland Browns in the 1950s.
Those Seahawks teams changed the way franchises build rosters (every team is looking to replicate the salary cap structure of Seattle’s 2013-14 Super Bowl team, on which Russell Wilson made less money than the long snapper). And plenty of teams have tried to copy Seattle’s counterintuitive model of having big, physical defensive backs to counter fast receivers rather than matching speed with speed. But at the heart of all of those teams was Lynch, and at the heart of Lynch’s career is the Beast Quake.
“When you take into consideration of the circumstances,” Polumbus says “the missed tackles, the fact that we weren’t supposed to be in that game, the fact it was the Saints, that we actually won with a losing record, there was a stinking registered earthquake—nothing will ever be able to match that type of memory of a single play.”
In many ways, Seattle’s decade-long run of success was impossible to see coming—until it announced its presence with earthshaking power. But Vidale, the scientist who discovered the seismic activity, says he isn’t surprised the play still resonates. “It really does change the landscape when you have an earthquake.”