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Can Todd Gurley’s Season Be Saved?

The Rams have changed QBs, but it’s their RB that needs a jump-start

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The answer to “How much Case Keenum is too much Case Keenum?” has finally arrived. Jared Goff, the no. 1 pick in the 2016 draft and a player for whom the Rams traded six picks, the pink slip to Jeff Fisher’s car, and the Ark of the Covenant, will start his first NFL game on Sunday against Miami.

Goff takes over an offense that’s been downright horrid the past two seasons. After finishing 29th in both scoring offense (17.5 points per game) and offensive DVOA in 2015, Fisher’s team has somehow been worse upon moving to L.A. The Rams, dead last in points per game (15.4) and 30th in offensive DVOA, have played three games in which they haven’t scored an offensive touchdown. As a reward for their patience, fans in Southern California have been bludgeoned with the most unwatchable team in football.

To say nothing of how long it took Goff to displace Keenum, the design and infrastructure of the Rams offense should temper any early expectations for the rookie. The goal of the next seven games — aside from satiating an increasingly restless mob in the Coliseum — should not only be for Goff to accrue some game-speed experience, but also to prevent him from being infected by the stink of the Rams offense.

Even if Goff can become the focal point of L.A.’s offense down the line, the Rams aren’t built for that to happen anytime soon. Everything still runs through Todd Gurley. And along with providing an ember that might restart the fire for the downfield passing game, the hope for Goff is that his early returns could ignite the offense enough to give Gurley new life.

Because watching the Rams offense is now the type of punishment normally reserved for the deepest circles of hell, it’s easy to forget the phenomenon Gurley was early in his rookie season. Five games into his career, he already looked like one of the better running backs in the NFL. From Week 4 to Week 8 — when his workload increased after he returned to health following the ACL injury suffered in his final season at Georgia — he averaged 6.43 yards per carry.

Since that stretch, though, it’s been a slog on the ground for both Gurley and the Rams’ running game. Over his past 16 games, Gurley is averaging just 3.44 yards per carry. Nine games into this season, he’s averaging 3.08. For players with at least 297 carries (Gurley’s current pace), it would be the second-worst mark since the merger.

Because the Rams offense must destroy anything beautiful, the excitement that Gurley brought early in his career is all but gone. The Rams’ eventual fortunes likely hinge on Goff’s performance, but figuring out whether the Gurley we saw last October is lurking just beneath the surface is just as pressing a concern.

Any dive into Gurley’s struggles this year has to start with the Rams’ play up front. For the second straight season, the Rams have an offensive line that ranks near the bottom of the league. With every passing week, hope for improvement from left tackle Greg Robinson — the no. 2 pick in the 2014 draft — dwindles further. Although there are some bright spots (left guard Rodger Saffold remains a solid starter and right tackle Rob Havenstein can be a sentient skyscraper in the running game), this is a group that’s routinely outmanned.

The conventional wisdom regarding Gurley’s struggles is that with a leaky offensive line and defenses free to stack the box and dare the quarterback to beat them, the Rams’ running game is often dead on arrival. That shows up both on film and in the numbers.

There isn’t much any back can do when six members of an opposing defense are playing in his backfield. According to Pro Football Focus, Gurley is averaging a ridiculous 2.2 of his 3.1 yards per carry after contact and has gained a silly 70.3 percent of his yardage after being hit.

The problem with attributing Gurley’s cratering to poor blocking is that this offense looks almost identical to the supporting cast Gurley had when he was torching defenses early last year. Keenum took over for Nick Foles 10 games into the 2015 season, but that was a lateral move from one anemic passing game to another. Along the offensive line, there’s a chance the Rams have actually been better this season. After injuries forced them to shuffle players and positions at times last year, only one member of the Rams’ starting five has missed a game this fall. The running lanes still don’t exist, but for Gurley, at least it’s the evil he knows.

What made Gurley virtually unstoppable during his first four career starts is that he was able to conjure massive gains that didn’t seem possible. Look at the play above, a 48-yard romp against the Browns last October. Linebacker Karlos Dansby (no. 56) meets Gurley square in the hole about a yard deep into the backfield, but somehow, Gurley finds a tiny crease back the other way and makes the first of two devastating cuts.

Watching all of Gurley’s carries this year, it’s those spectacular plays that are missing. Even at his best, Gurley wasn’t chewing out yards and first downs as a rookie. He ranked 36th among 44 qualified backs in Football Outsiders’ success rate, a sign that a good chunk of his production came on a few huge runs. And it did. Gurley had seven carries of at least 30 yards last season, and those runs made up 339 of his 1,106 total — more than 30 percent.

Through nine games this year, Gurley doesn’t have a single carry of more than 30 yards. Shit, he doesn’t have a carry of more than 20. A measly 18-yard gain against the Panthers two weeks ago has been the longest run of Gurley’s season. On the year, he has 10 runs of at least 10 yards. That’s the same number as Jacquizz Rodgers, who has 79 fewer carries.

So, if the blocking is no less putrid and the passing game is just as hapless, the only factor left is Gurley himself. And in watching this year’s tape, the answer seems to be — distressingly — that there is a difference in the back we’re watching now and the one we watched during that magical stretch last fall.

The Rams deserve some credit (I’m not sure how much) for the effort they’ve made to shake Gurley loose in recent weeks. Offensive coordinator Rob Boras has consistently used jet motion with Tavon Austin and fake end-arounds to pull linebackers from the middle of opposing defenses, and at times he’s had Gurley take direct snaps out of the wildcat and keep the ball on runs up the middle.

All the commotion occasionally puts a crack in the stacked boxes the Rams routinely face, but even when there’s been a sliver of daylight, Gurley hasn’t taken advantage the way he has in the past.

Auditing a back’s decision-making with the tape stopped from a bird’s-eye view is a fool’s errand, but the play above (a first-quarter run against the Jets last week) is still a great example of what’s hampered Gurley this season. By sending Austin in motion to the left, the Rams get the result they want from linebacker David Harris (no. 52). He flies to his right, creating a crease up the middle that Gurley should be able to hit for a nice gain. Instead, Gurley follows a blocker coming across the formation, buries his helmet into the tight end’s back, and stumbles forward for a 3-yard gain.

Plays like this have happened a lot this season. Compared to last year, it seems like Gurley has been less willing — and less able — to find and exploit running lanes that aren’t directly created by the play’s design. It’s almost like he has a compulsion to squeeze every inch he can out of a given run, rather than search for the monster gains that made him so lethal as a rookie. And in his defense, that’s understandable.

Almost like a quarterback who’s regularly pummeled, Gurley may be getting a little gun-shy. The constant shots that he takes 2 yards deep have appeared to creep into his thought process. When the norm is a 2-yard loss, a modest 3-yard gain starts to look pretty good. It’s a lot to ask for Gurley to train his mind for 50-yard gains when nabbing 4 yards has become a foreign feeling. It’s not that he’s developed bad habits over the past season and a half — it’s that the circumstances have encouraged him to develop the most boring habits imaginable.

When on form, Gurley showed he has both the awareness and the burst to turn any play into a home run, independent of the way it was designed. He had no problem shaking off the aiming point of a given run if a massive chunk of grass was available a gap or two over. Like any transcendent back, the rules didn’t apply. Right now, he’s only living by the rules. Even Gurley’s creativity hasn’t been able to escape the wrath of the Rams offense.

The good news is that running backs can eventually emerge from a sophomore swoon. Of the 10 players since the merger with the worst YPC average on at least 250 carries, three — Jerome Bettis, Curtis Martin, and Marshall Faulk — are now in the Hall of Fame. None dipped quite like Gurley has this season, but in his third year, Faulk actually dipped to 3.0 yards per rush on 198 carries. I’d say it worked out fine for him.

It’s hard to say what could help Gurley snap out of his funk, but ripping off even one huge gain resembling his monster runs from a year ago would be a start. If the increased toss plays and motion-heavy window dressing are any indication, the Rams staff seems to know that. Gurley’s improvisational spirit seems to have been knocked out of him, along with his stuffing. The focus this weekend will be on Goff, but for anyone who remembers the joy of watching Gurley last year, it’s worth seeing whether the shake-up can do anything to rekindle his imagination.