In this era of the NFL, it’s nearly impossible for a running back to win MVP. The past five (and 10 of the past 11) winners have been quarterbacks, thanks largely to scheme adjustments and rule changes opening up the passing game. The chasm between the value of a QB and that of any other position is only widening. When Patrick Mahomes II throws 22 touchdown passes in seven games, it’s tough to argue against quarterback supremacy.
But Rams running back Todd Gurley is making a convincing case. He recorded three touchdowns in Sunday’s 39-10 win over the 49ers, bringing his season total to a league-high 14 rushing and receiving touchdowns, and through seven weeks he’s been one of the most dominant players in the league. Gurley has come close to winning the award before; he was named Offensive Player of the Year in 2017 after racking up nearly 2,100 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns in his first season under head coach Sean McVay. Those numbers weren’t enough to beat out Tom Brady for the league’s most coveted trophy, but Gurley had a claim as the most outstanding offensive player in the NFL—even if he wasn’t necessarily the most valuable.
That question of value is often the crux of the case against running backs, in terms of their place in the MVP conversation and the capital that should be spent on them in both the draft and free agency: They’re seen as replaceable. No matter how talented a given running back is, he’s still viewed as just another cog in the offensive machine. If a team has the right infrastructure, that cog can be switched out, and the machine will keep on chugging. And for most NFL offenses, that’s true.
The way the Jaguars use Leonard Fournette (when he’s actually on the field) doesn’t make him worth the fourth overall pick, and even Ezekiel Elliott doesn’t give the Cowboys what a top-five pick at another position probably could. James Conner has been a more-than-adequate fill-in for Le’Veon Bell in Pittsburgh; as great as Saquon Barkley has been for the Giants, they’re still 1-5 and cruising toward another top pick. The difference with Gurley is that, unlike most backs, he’s the centerpiece of his team’s machine. The Rams’ explosiveness and their identity starts with him, and that’s why he’s more valuable than other running backs.
Gurley’s performance Sunday was a prime example of what he brings to McVay’s offense, in both overt and subtle ways. He didn’t have a massive day statistically (86 yards from scrimmage on 19 touches), but he did get into the end zone three times. Gurley’s touchdown numbers are partly the product of playing in an elite offense and spending a lot of time in the red zone, but they’re also a result of the Rams leaning on Gurley near the goal line more so than any other team looks to their back. On the season, Gurley has 43 red zone carries, 18 more than the next-closest running back, and he’s handled 93.3 percent of the Rams’ carries inside the 10-yard line, which is one of the highest marks in the league. When McVay gets near the goal line, he lets his best offensive weapon do the work, and typically that ends with him hitting pay dirt a couple of times a game.
That’s all great for Gurley’s fantasy point totals, but he also influences McVay’s offense in less obvious ways. Rams quarterback Jared Goff dropped back 27 times against the Niners; 10 of those plays involved a play-action fake. That 37 percent play-action rate is under Goff’s mark for the entire season; he leads the league at 39.1 percent, according to Pro Football Focus. Among QBs with at least 150 dropbacks, the next-closest is Carson Wentz, at 29.8 percent.
McVay leans on play-action more than any other play-caller in the NFL, and his team’s 2018 rate has been historic. As recently as two years ago, no quarterback in the league who recorded more than 32 dropbacks finished above 28 percent. Not only are the Rams using play fakes at an unprecedented clip, they’ve also had an immense amount of success doing so. Against the Niners, Goff completed 77.8 percent of his play-action throws for 126 of his 202 passing yards; he averaged 14 yards per attempt on those throws with a 155.8 passer rating. Goff has been excellent in his third professional season, and it sure helps when so many chunk plays are going to wide-open receivers over the middle of the field.
That effectiveness on play-action wouldn’t be possible without the multifaceted threat of Gurley in the backfield. The Rams offense succeeds in large part because of how unpredictable it is. For the most part, McVay’s scheme looks identical on nearly every snap. The Rams use 11 personnel on more than 95 percent of their plays (the highest rate in the league) and shotgun just 33 percent of the time (the lowest rate in the league). They line up under center with three receivers the vast majority of the time, and, whether it’s a run or a pass, the action that follows the snap is likely going to look identical for the first few steps. McVay wants a perfect marriage between the run and the pass game, and that’s exactly what Gurley gives him. The threat of Gurley as both a runner and a receiver makes it impossible for defenses to account for what type of play is coming. Gurley isn’t a product of McVay’s system. Gurley is the system.
If Gurley continues at his current pace, he’ll finish the year with more than 2,250 yards from scrimmage and 32 touchdowns. Statistically, those numbers would be more than strong enough for him to win MVP. The challenge will be convincing voters that Gurley transcends the typical discourse about running backs. Quarterbacks have dominated this award in recent years partially due to an argument about the name of the award itself. If the trophy goes to the most valuable player, then, based on the structure of the modern game, a quarterback has to win. With the way guys like Mahomes and Drew Brees are playing this season, that trend could very well continue. But dismissing Gurley because of which position he plays misses the point. Gurley does for his offense what no other back in the NFL can. The Rams are steamrolling the rest of the league with a system built on his versatility. And if they can keep performing at this rate, Gurley will have a case that deserves to be heard.