Feast or famine. That’s an apt way to describe the 18 games Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley has played in his still nascent NFL career. In reality, though, despite being named the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year last season, it has been mostly famine, except for a remarkable stretch of games that were his first four starts in 2015.
Held out until Week 3 as he recovered from a torn ACL suffered in November 2014 while at the University of Georgia, Gurley made his debut against the Pittsburgh Steelers with 14 snaps and 6 carries for 9 yards.
He exploded the next week at Arizona, compiling 146 yards on 19 carries with 4 runs of 20 or more yards: 20, 23, 30 and 52. The next week, there was a 55-yard run at Green Bay in his 30 for 159 yard day. At home against Cleveland, he rushed 19 times for 128 yards with a 48-yard rush, and then the following week had a 71-yard run against San Francisco, finishing that game with 20 rushes for 133 yards.
Since then, it has been a struggle. Gurley reached 100 yards in only one of his next 13 games, including the five he’s played this season. Those four games last season netted him 566 yards on 88 attempts. For the rest of the season, he had 531 yards on 135 attempts, an average of just 3.9 yards per attempt.
In the last 13 games, there have been just 4 runs of 20 yards or more, and he has none this season. Three were in that lone 100-yard game, when he totaled 140 yards on 16 attempts against Detroit, this week’s Rams opponent. The other was a 34-yard run against Arizona the week before the game against the Lions, a game in which his other 8 runs totaled 7 yards.
The reality is, while Gurley has the ability to make game-changing plays, when he doesn’t, his numbers are poor. His season total as a rookie was 1,106 yards on 229 attempts. His 11 runs of 20 yards or more accounted for 428 of those yards (38.7 percent), and his other 218 attempts averaged 3.1 yards. That is slightly higher than his 2.7-yard average in five outings this season, games in which his longest run is 16 yards.
His 288 rushing yards ranks 19th in the NFL, and the closest he has come to 100 was the 85-yard day he had at Tampa Bay in Week 3 when he averaged 3.1 yards on his 27 runs.
The Rams have an inexperienced offensive line, except for left guard Rodger Saffold, and the lack of an effective passing attack allows defenses to stack the box to stop Gurley.
That has resulted this season in 72 of his 105 attempts gaining 3 yards or less, including 12 for minus yardage. Another 8 were for no gain and he has 15 1-yard runs. Those 72 attempts totaled 75 yards. Last season, 140 of Gurley’s 229 runs were 3 yards or less with 27 of minus yardage and the 140 rushes totaled 133 yards.
Each week, head coach Jeff Fisher, offensive coordinator Rob Boras and Gurley are asked about the lack of success, and the answers don’t yield much because there isn’t much to say.
After last Sunday’s loss to Buffalo, when Gurley rushed 23 times for 72 yards (3.1 average) and had a 16-yard run, Fisher said, “You could see the flashes, so we’re coming there.”
Before the game against the Bills, Gurley said, “It’s life. Sometimes you kind of wonder what’s going on, but you know you got to look at the bigger picture. At the end of the day we’re still winning, and the running game hasn’t been going good. You always know that there’s room for improvement. You just kind of got to stay positive about everything.”
Then, after falling to 3-2, when he was asked why the team hasn’t been able to get the running game going, he reversed field and said, “I felt like we did a pretty good job. I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I felt like we did pretty good overall as an offense. We just got to not turn the ball over.”
Gurley, who fumbled only 3 times last season with none being lost, fumbled twice against the Bills, losing 1.
In a conference call with the Detroit media this week, Fisher said of Gurley, “He’s a big-play guy and we’ve just got to find ways to give him the football.”
However, he has been getting the football, averaging 21 rushes per game this season compared to 18.6 in 2015, not including the game against the Steelers. It is true they are trying to get him the ball more as a receiver, but that has only been marginally effective. Gurley did have a 33-yard reception in Week 2 against Arizona, but even with that play, he has only 11 catches for 94 yards this season.
For his part, Lions head coach Jim Caldwell hopes this isn’t the week for a Gurley breakout. The Lions have allowed 114.8 rushing yards per game, which ranks 21st in the league, but even worse is their 4.9 yards per run against, which ranks 31st.
“Don’t be fooled by it,” Caldwell said of Gurley’s decreased production. “That guy is dangerous. He’s really still powerful, has got speed, got versatility. They’re doing a few more things with him. They’ve detached him from the formation some. They’re throwing him a pass out in the flat. He’s just as dangerous as he’s been before. He’s a tough guy to handle.”
Reminded of last year’s game, Caldwell said, “You’re absolutely right; that’s one of the things that early on we kept him contained, the second half he kept getting stronger. Found a bunch of seams and put the ball in the end zone for them. Stopping the run is vital, it’s vital in each and every game we play and even more so in this game. This is one of the best backs in the league, so you’re going to have to do a good job up front.”
Gurley scored 2 touchdowns in the 2015 game, and had just 13 yards at halftime on 7 attempts before having all three of his big runs after the break and totaling 127 yards on 9 carries in the second half.
Obviously, the Rams will keep feeding Gurley, believing the famine will end soon and the big plays will occur.
Boras said, “It takes 11 guys to run the football. That’s the quarterback taking the right path with the running back and the O-line and the tight ends and the wide receivers. I’ve said it before, it’s one guy here, one guy there. It’s making sure we’re all getting on the same page and trying to take advantage of what the defense is giving us. We’re going to continue to run the football, that’s what we believe in and sometimes the number games aren’t in our favor, but we’re going to continue running.”
Fisher concluded, “We’ve got to get it going, and our feeling is if we can keep Todd involved in the game in the fourth quarter, then we’ve got a chance.”