ATLANTA — If the Los Angeles Rams are going to be at their best in Sunday’s Super Bowl against the New England Patriots, if they’re going to be the team that looked so balanced and so complete and near unstoppable on offense at times this season, they sure could use some help from Todd Gurley.
But can they count on that? That’s tough to say. It’s difficult to know which version of Gurley will be on display Sunday.
Will it be the Gurley who was one of the NFL’s most dynamic and productive players for most of the past two seasons and made it appear possible that, even in a league now dominated by quarterbacks, a running back still could be the MVP? Or will it be the diminished version of Gurley who sat out the final two games of the regular season because of an injured left knee and is coming off a forgettable performance in the NFC championship game?
The Rams are hoping for the best. They say they expect Gurley to be his old self, healthy and versatile and game-changing, against the Patriots.
“He feels great,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said Thursday. “He looks explosive. It’s a huge part of our success. We look forward to him having a great game.”
Gurley maintains that he’s healthy. Asked Thursday about the soundness of his knee, he said: “It’s good.”
But Gurley was a nonfactor at New Orleans in the NFC championship game. He had a rushing touchdown, but he ran for only 10 yards on four carries and had one catch for three yards. He had a couple of glaring drops and spent much of the game on the sideline while newcomer C.J. Anderson remained the centerpiece of the Rams’ rushing offense.
“I trust Todd Gurley just as much as I trusted him Week 1,” former Saints running back Reggie Bush, now an analyst for the NFL Network, said this week. “Just because you have one bad game, one game where you struggle, it does not mean that you are somehow not the same great player. ... Whether he’s healthy or not remains to be seen. Only he can answer that question. From what I’ve seen, he’s still a force. He’s still a great player. You’ve still got to respect him when he’s on that football field and he’s tough as hell to tackle.”
Gurley certainly has been tough to tackle during Sean McVay’s two seasons as coach. Gurley had 1,305 rushing yards, 788 receiving yards and 19 total touchdowns last season, finishing second to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in MVP balloting. He was superb again this season, running for 1,251 yards and 17 touchdowns and adding 580 yards receiving with four more scores.
The Rams ranked third in the NFL during the regular season in rushing offense. McVay’s offense functions at its smoothest when an effective running game opens things up for quarterback Jared Goff and his receivers.
“Everything is built around the running game,” Gurley said. “It’s a balance around both. At the end of the day, you ain’t going to stop both. Pick and choose which one you want to stop.”
The Rams amassed 273 rushing yards against the Dallas Cowboys in a divisional playoff game in L.A., 123 by Anderson and 115 by Gurley.
“The balance is important,” Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor, who is in line to become the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals after Sunday’s game, said this week. “And that always starts with the run game. If we can establish a run game, then everything else opens up off it. Sure, you can win games throwing the ball 50 times a game. But the consistent way to win has always been to line up and run the ball and build everything off that.”
Lately, the Rams have been building off the efforts of Anderson, the former 1,000-yard rusher for the Denver Broncos who’s on his third team this season after stints with the Carolina Panthers and Oakland Raiders. He was signed in December and totaled 299 rushing yards in the final two regular season games, then had 167 yards in the two playoff games.
“It’s just been fun,” Anderson said this week. “That’s all. Just doing what I love to do, have fun, play the game at a high level … [and] pick up as many first downs as I can and help the team in any way possible.”
Bush said he believed going into the NFC championship game that it was Anderson, not Gurley, whom the Saints needed to focus on stopping.
“I think it makes them more dangerous because now you have this sledgehammer of a backfield that can ground and pound,” Bush said. “They can wear you out. They can chew up time of possession. ... He’s the most fresh out of any player that’s going to play on that field on Sunday because he just hasn’t been used all season long. He’s been cut twice and kind of left for dead. And now here he is. Here he is making the most of his opportunity.”
The combination of the two Rams runners, with their contrasting styles, could be formidable.
“One guy’s going to possibly run you over every play,” Whitworth said. “And the other guy might run by you. So I think it just wears on a defense. It’s a constant decision of how to tackle them. They do a great job of feeding off each other’s energy.”
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