LOS ANGELES — Todd Gurley wears his braided hair in a high ponytail and peers through blue-tinted sunglasses. He cocks his head to the left, takes a few hard chews and sighs. He couldn’t be more bored.
He’s soft-spoken and circumspect and too cool for elaboration, but mostly, he’s bored. The Los Angeles Rams running back can be animated when talking about his team, but when it comes to himself, he’s just a couple of notches above Marshawn Lynch on the indifferent scale.
Gurley may be the most dynamic offensive weapon in football, and over the past two seasons, he has emerged as the standard of the versatile NFL running back. The league is now brimming with young and intriguing ball carriers who can catch, block and test offenses with their power and their speed. But Gurley so consistently drops jaws — hurdling defenders, making one-handed snags, standing up pass rushers, zipping past other speedy players with ease — that even his teammates are nonchalant about his play.
“Todd is Todd,” Rams defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said.
As part of a two-man rushing attack with C.J. Anderson that ran over the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC divisional round, Gurley, the most important and irreplaceable player on the star-studded Rams’ roster, has L.A. one win from the Super Bowl. His 115-yard performance last Saturday included a 35-yard touchdown run in which Dallas made one mistake, and Gurley blazed through a hole and didn’t look back. It happened so fast. It was exhilarating.
For Gurley, it was normal.
“The Red Sea parted, and I ran, man,” he said after the game. “All I had to do was cut one time and just run.”
Just a few years ago, the accepted belief was that tailbacks possessed diminished value in this evolving, pass-centric game. The lead back was becoming a specialist, an opening act to the supposed third-down back, whose popularity had risen because of his multipurpose talents in up-tempo, spread-out offenses. But now, there is a generation of running backs who have done it all their entire lives, and they are leading a renaissance for the position.
Gurley is at the top of that list. He led the NFL last season with 2,093 yards from scrimmage and scored 21 touchdowns in 15 games, and was honored as the league’s offensive player of the year. Then he redefined the market for his position by signing a four-year, $57.5 million contract extension, including $45 million in guarantees, last July. This season, he finished fourth in yards from scrimmage with 1,831 and reached the end zone 19 times despite missing the final two games with a knee injury.
This is an era in which Christian McCaffrey just set a record for running backs with 107 receptions during the 2018 season, in which Le’Veon Bell basically averages 1,300 rushing yards and 80 receptions when he’s not holding out, in which Ezekiel Elliott flashes the talent and production of an all-time great and Saquon Barkley set the league afire as a rookie. But skill for skill, Gurley has an unrivaled toolbox.
“His ability to make an impact at every level — as a runner, as a receiver, as a blocker, in all kinds of different situations — sets him apart,” said Rob Rang, a senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, which is affiliated with the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “A lot of backs can catch the ball or have speed and elusiveness, but they’re not also the pile-driver and red-zone primary threat that Gurley is. I don’t think there’s a back next to him. Anything you need him to do, Todd Gurley can do.”
Gurley does it, and then he shrugs. No big deal. For this new crop of do-it-all running backs, versatility is a requirement. Historically, they’re special. In their minds, this is simply the job.
Five running backs surpassed 1,500 yards from scrimmage this season: Barkley, Elliott, McCaffrey, Gurley and Alvin Kamara. All of them complemented their running ability by gaining at least 500 receiving yards. Ten years ago, eight backs broke the 1,500-yard mark, but none of them reached 500 yards receiving. Most of them didn’t even come close.
That statistic illustrates how much the game has changed. It used to be that, once a generation, a Marshall Faulk or a LaDainian Tomlinson would come along and show off dual-threat running back traits. Now that skill set is expected — and not just because offenses have become more pass-heavy. The freakish ability of pass rushers has changed the game, too. Quarterbacks need to get rid of the football quickly.
“Running backs in today’s era now have to catch the ball out of the backfield,” Rang said. “They have to stay on the field for all three downs to help speed the game up, because substitutions can slow everything down and allows defenses to go to their sub-packages.”
The Rams and New Orleans Saints will play an NFC title game that features two explosive offenses built around the run. Los Angeles ranked third in the NFL in rushing offense during the regular season. New Orleans was sixth. Despite the quality quarterback play of Jared Goff and Drew Brees, and all the receiving talent on the field, both teams play through their running backs. The Saints have a 1-2 punch with Kamara and Mark Ingram. The Rams’ late-season acquisition of Anderson, who has rushed for more than 120 yards in three straight games, has added a fresh dimension to their offense.
Anderson carried a heavier load than Gurley against the Cowboys and finished with 123 yards and two touchdowns. For most of the regular season, and for most of his four years with the Rams, the 24-year-old Gurley has been the every-down centerpiece of the offense. He still is, but with Anderson assisting Gurley, the team can wear down defenses without wearing out their superstar.
“It’s allowed both of them to be fresher,” said Aaron Kromer, the Los Angeles run-game coordinator. “If one guy has to play the whole game, that’s a tough [task]. You could see where in games throughout the second half of the season, when Todd had to stay in there as long as he had to stay in there, he wasn’t as effective because he was tired. And any running back that I know gets subbed in and out. And what this has allowed us to do is give both of them a rest.”
Don’t confuse that with any dissatisfaction with Gurley or ongoing concern about his health. Reporters wondered this week whether Anderson, who is small at 5-foot-8 and powerful at 225 pounds, provided something that Gurley can’t do.
Kromer chuckled at the suggestion. Gurley, unable to do something? No, no, no.
“I can’t picture anything that Todd doesn’t bring to the run game,” Kromer said. “He brings it all. He’s got speed. He’s got power. He’s got size. He’s intelligent. And he has been productive all year for us and has done a great job.”
The Rams just want to preserve a player they’ve turned into the NFL’s ultimate weapon. Rang considers it “a perfect marriage of player and scheme.” Because Coach Sean McVay has Gurley terrifying opposing defenses, he can do so much. The Rams are one of the most frequent and effective users of the play-action pass, and they take their base personnel package (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) and run so many creative looks from it.
McVay relies heavily on Gurley, and Gurley benefits from what McVay has installed around him. Similar to Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith, Gurley thrives with the combination of incredible individual talent, play-calling and great playmakers around him. The Rams had two 1,200-yard receivers this season, Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods. Before an anterior cruciate ligament injury sidelined him at midseason, Cooper Kupp was on pace to catch 80 passes for 1,100 yards.
Earlier this season, Gurley joked about his impact on the balanced attack. Sometimes, he finds himself playing decoy.
“I tell those guys they need me out there,” he told reporters. “I tell them, ‘Thank me all the time.’ When I go in motion, and they get their little touchdowns.”
Then he’ll turn serious.
“The balance means everything,” he said.
Herschel Walker, a running back icon at Georgia long before Gurley, used to watch the Bulldogs and see Gurley’s NFL future. Back then, he wasn’t used much as a receiver. But Walker saw the soft hands and raw skills.
“You know what’s so funny about watching him now?” said Walker, who caught 512 passes during his NFL career. “I said. ‘He don’t realize it, but he can catch the football.’ When he was at Georgia, I would get to sit with him and talk with him, and I knew he had it all. Running backs who can catch, you don’t have to take out. You’re not running them off the field on third down.
“Gurley, he’s such a threat. He sets up everything the Rams do.”
Gurley shares Walker’s otherworldly physical gifts, and he’s listed at 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, which was Walker’s height and weight in his mid-20s. Walker is one of the greatest college football players ever and a physical marvel even at age 56. But Gurley is on pace to have a better NFL career.
Perhaps the only threat to that is Gurley’s health. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee at Georgia in 2014, which didn’t stop the Rams from picking him 10th overall in the following year’s draft. Since returning, he has missed only three games, although the Rams will need to monitor his workload in future seasons, as this new wave of versatile backs will face similar physical punishment to their run-first predecessors.
Gurley’s NFL career has gone just the way that his former coaches at Tarboro High School in North Carolina figured it would. Andrew Harding, his former track and field coach and a current football assistant, still remembers watching him as a teenager.
“He has the athletic ability to do whatever he wants,” Harding said. “I used to think, ‘He can be an NFL Hall of Famer or an Olympic champion in the hurdles.’ It was that clear. Everything he did was straight up off of natural ability.”
Tell Harding about Gurley’s soft-spoken demeanor as a pro, and he laughs. The running back would laugh and joke with friends, but on the field, he has always been humble and disinterested in boasting. He was the guy who, as a junior, would take himself out of the same so that his senior friend could get some snaps at running back.
Tarboro Coach Jeff Craddock once saw a huge hole on a play and declared, “Touchdown.” Then he realized the senior was in the game, not Gurley.
“Listen, you don’t come out of the game until I tell you to,” Craddock said.
“Coach, that’s my boy,” Gurley replied. “He’s a senior. I’m a junior.”
Gurley has always helped others shine. It’s no surprise to his old coaches that he continues to do so with the Rams.
“That’s just who he is,” Harding said. “Todd is Todd.”
Earlier this week, Gurley posted an Instagram picture in which he stood next to Barry Sanders. When Harding and Craddock first saw the image, they nudged each other, both giddy. After marveling that their pupil was hanging with one of their football heroes, they realized something: Their guy belonged. The image felt natural. Of course, the NFL’s current ultimate weapon would be standing next to one from the past.
Todd is Todd. He’s extraordinary, but it’s understood now. Todd is Todd.
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