Around this time last year, most of us were asking ourselves “Can Todd Gurley be fixed?”
The Georgia prodigy had a sensational rookie season with the St. Louis Rams (final season there before moving to Los Angeles), rushing for 1,106 yards for 4.8 yards per carry and 10 touchdowns, picking up Offensive Rookie of the Year. Things changed in his sophomore season, however, as Gurley posted 885 yards for 3.2 yards per carry, and only 6 touchdowns. The 2016 Rams offense was largely unchanged from the 2015 season, so what happened?
If Gurley’s third season is of indication, then head coach Jeff Fisher was a huge problem for the back. He was put in a middle school offense that required perfect run blocking from a unit that at the time could not provide it. The run plays were extremely predictable, allowing defenders to crowd the box and prevent gaps from being opened, resulting in a massive statistical decline for Gurley.
Fisher was fired in the latter half of the 2016 season, paving the way for Washington Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay to take the vacant job and become the Rams new head coach. In the following offseason, it was revealed McVay gave Gurley a more versatile role in minicamp, hinting at how some of the stress would be lifted off of his shoulders and how he would have increased involvement in the new look offense.
A year later, #30’s narrative has changed for the better. Gurley rushed for a career high 1,305 yards for 4.7 yards per attempt and a career high 13 touchdowns on the ground. But what really skyrocketed his season was how involved he was in the passing game. Without any receiving touchdowns in 2015 and 2016, Gurley matched the combined receptions from his first two seasons (64) and put up more yards in one season (788 to 515 combined) for six touchdowns, giving him a total of 2,093 yards from scrimmage and 19 total touchdowns.
Gurley’s incredible statistical performance grabbed him a Pro Bowl appearance, as well as the Associated Press’ First Team All Pro and Offensive Player of the Year awards. McVay’s promises of giving his running back an expanded role were kept, and we were once again reminded how great of a running back he is.
And while Gurley’s situation was easier – The offensive line brought in Cincinnati Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth and Redskins center John Sullivan, as well as Buffalo Bills offensive line coach Aaron Kromer to fill the respective role – that additional help from the supporting cast allowed him to constantly be put in positions where he could thrive (And when Gurley thrived, he really thrived).
Make no mistake, though. Gurley was not put in a role where he could simply run straightforward and never get touched. McVay gave him what Fisher could not, allowing him to have more space to unleash his skill set, making everything look easy as a result. Maybe too easy.
But that’s the beauty of the 23-year-old back, who may just be the best back in football. It may be bold to put him above an icon like Pittsburgh Steelers’ back Le’Veon Bell, but when you’re above a guy like that, it’s a huge compliment.
And besides, Gurley’s athleticism can match a guy with the quality of Bell. In some cases, he exceeded Bell’s in 2017.
One thing I’ve noticed while watching Todd Gurley throughout his professional career is how quick he is as a runner. Before you get too far ahead, though, note that there is a difference between guys with raw speed like Robert Turbin and being able to quickly adjust how you’re running the ball. What Turbin had in speed he lacked in quickness to adjust, which is why his career never took off the way Gurley’s has.
For instance, on this play the back notices that the defensive tackle (#92) is working outside, giving the back a wide open lane inside. What makes this run particularly impressive is Gurley’s speed doesn’t slow as he adjusts and makes an inside cut. The back powers forward, breaks a tackle, and finally gets stopped, but the damage had already been set in place.
This play warrants the same results as Gurley notices the inside leverage he has. Gurley’s acceleration in open space is phenomenal. He can work in tight gaps because of his ability to turn on the jets when a hole is presented to him. Here, he pushes off his right foot, allowing him to dart through the gap and turn a 1st and 20 into an easy (For his standards) first down conversion.
Speaking of darting, Gurley is one of the fastest backs in open space. In high school he was a star hurdler and sprinter in track, and his abilities in those areas paved the way for his home run ability in the NFL.
Gurley has the kind of speed that almost convinces you you’re watching a 100m dash. After showing impressive patience on this play and somehow finding a tiny crease to slip through, he blasts off outside. It’s important to note his long strides on this play are lifted from sprint relays, and as you might guess, a lesser back would be stopped earlier. The result is an explosive run that easily gains over 30 yards on the ground.
Similarly, Gurley engages the turbo on this touchdown run in a week 7 matchup against the Arizona Cardinals. Right as he gets the handoff from quarterback Jared Goff, he’s got his eyes on the right defensive end Josh Mauro (Fun Fact: Mauro was born in England). Mauro believes he’s got an easy tackle for a loss, but Gurley makes him foolish. After grabbing the handoff, he stops his momentum, jump cuts outside, and races to the sideline, stiff arming safety Tyvon Branch in the process.
Gurley’s ability to work the sideline is as professional as you’ll see from a running back. He’s able to keep his breakaway speed without sacrificing his balance, and on this play it results in an 18-yard touchdown.
Of course, Gurley cannot be defined without his ability to create powerful runs. Even the tiniest bit of space allows him to unleash his inner beast mode, and coincidentally, one of those moments came in Week 15 against the Seattle Seahawks.
Sensational linebacker Bobby Wagner was battling a hamstring injury at the time, but on this play, Gurley managed to make Wagner, corner Shaquill Griffin, and safety Earl Thomas all miss on the exact same play. The amount of heart put into this play only results in nine yards, but it’s also one of the best nine yard carries I’ve seen.
Gurley understands Seattle has sent eight defenders in the box, and as he approaches, the back bounces outside, breaking Wagner’s tackle. As he notices Griffin coming towards him, he pushes off his right foot and makes the rookie miss. Griffin does manage to make him stumble a bit, but Gurley is able to show his technical ability in the process. His balance after Griffin’s attempted tackle is terrific because of how he approaches Thomas’ attempt. Again, he pushes off his right foot, giving Thomas a gentle stiff arm while breaking his tackle. After what seems like an eternity, he’s finally forced out of bounds.
The power Gurley demonstrates on this play is matched by his balance. No matter how quickly he’s compelled to process and avoid incoming tacklers, he’s able to tightrope and stay on his feet. It’s a skilled art the best running backs share, something that takes years and years of practice and determination to develop and eventually perfect.
Finally, Gurley’s quality as a receiving back in 2017 skyrocketed in comparison to previous seasons. With a greater use of volume and additional open turf, the back rarely wasted an opportunity to create explosive plays when the ball was put in his hands through the air.
What makes Gurley so good as a receiving back is for the same reasons he’s so good as a runner: He’s powerful, fast, quick, intelligent, and technical in this area. Sean McVay gets how expansive Gurley’s skill set is and how just giving him a chance to create a play can make him the most dangerous offensive player in the game. As a result, McVay worked on getting Gurley open in the receiving game as much as possible, then letting his skill set do the rest.
Both of these plays emphasize that. In the first GIF, Gurley is already open in the middle of the field, then as he’s about the get wrapped up (shortly after picking up a first down), he puts his hand to the ground, pushes himself up, and takes off outside, picking up far more insurance than the defense intended. On the second play, similar to some of his runs in the backfield, Gurley pushes off his right foot and accelerates, making a man miss and turning on the jets for yet another gigantic play.
So as far as I am concerned, Todd Gurley is the best back in pro football. As a runner, he’s the most complete back you can find in today’s game. His explosive ability combines insane raw athleticism with detailed, technical running ability, giving him the best of both worlds with a razzle dazzle playing style. As a receiver, his role has greatly expanded, ascending him into the conversations as one of the best receiving backs in the league as well.
To answer the question from the beginning, yes, Todd Gurley can be fixed. Sean McVay deserves so much credit for turning the Rams offense around, and one of the biggest changes was in Gurley. This isn’t a different player though. This is simply a Todd Gurley that is free from Jeff Fisher. This is a Todd Gurley that is no longer part of an offense that calls plays like it’s in the 50s’. Instead, the new look Rams front office has used unconventional wisdom to structure their offense and cater to their skill players’ success. As such, Gurley under McVay is being used to his maximum potential, and he once again reigns supreme as one of the finest standout players in the NFL.
With Aaron Kromer taking over as run game coordinator (while remaining the offensive line coach), the future is bright for Todd Gurley and the Rams running game.