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Did the Best Running Back in Football Really Lose His Job to a Street Free Agent?

Todd Gurley, the reigning Offensive Player of the Year, was out-snapped and outplayed by C.J. Anderson in Sunday’s NFC championship game. He says it wasn’t because of his health, so what happened?

Todd Gurley runs the ball and gets tackled against the New Orleans Saints Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Six months ago Todd Gurley signed a four-year, $60 million contract extension with $45 million guaranteed that gave him the highest average annual salary for a running back in NFL history. On Sunday, he was out-snapped, out-touched, and outplayed by C.J. Anderson. Of all the story lines heading into the Super Bowl, none are more confounding than the rise and subsequent free fall of the reigning Offensive Player of the Year. How did Todd Gurley get usurped by a guy who gained 10 pounds of “man pregnancy weight” this season? And what does it mean for the Rams’ chances in the Super Bowl?

Gurley carried the ball just four times and was targeted thrice for one catch and 13 total yards (2.6 yards per touch) in the Rams’ 26-23 overtime win against the Saints on Sunday. His five touches were well below his previous season low of 14 and just a fraction of his season average of nearly 23 touches per game this year. Meanwhile, Anderson carried the ball 16 times for 44 yards and had one catch for 5 yards (2.9 yards per touch). Gurley started off about as poorly as possible on the Rams’ first drive of the game. He lost 4 yards on his first carry and then let a ball from Jared Goff go right through his hands and into the arms of Saints linebacker Demario Davis for an interception.

Gurley followed that up with another drop on a ball in his breadbasket on third-and-6 midway through the second quarter that could have been a first down if he had reeled it in. The Rams kicked a field goal instead.

He also struggled in pass protection at times during the game and let up a pressure from cornerback Eli Apple. Gurley scored a rushing touchdown in the second quarter ...

… but still went into halftime with 4 yards on three carries. Even with the game on the line in the second half, Gurley didn’t touch the ball in the third quarter and had just one carry and one catch on one target in the fourth quarter. As Anderson was on the field, Gurley was on the exercise bike. The Rams were one inexplicable missed pass interference call from an offseason of questions over Gurley’s no-show in New Orleans. Instead he’s posting (excellent and likely fine-worthy) memes to his Instagram.

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It would make sense if the Rams felt Gurley’s poor performance was because of his health. Gurley injured his knee in a Week 15 loss to the Eagles and sat out the next two games with inflammation, but Gurley told ESPN’s Lindsey Thiry after the win on Sunday that his lack of volume was because he played “sorry,” not because his health was a concern. Gurley could be downplaying an injury, but his explanation is in line with what head coach Sean McVay told reporters after the 30-22 win against Dallas last week when he said Gurley splitting time with Anderson had more to do with lack of conditioning from missing practice time than Gurley’s knee.

“It was good just to get Todd back,” McVay said last week. “I think just getting his wind underneath him—you know, not having played for so long—he was able to get a bunch of work.”

Again, McVay could also be downplaying Gurley’s injury, but McVay has been fairly forthcoming about the injuries in comparison to his counterparts around the league, and Gurley was taken off of the Rams injury report entirely in the week leading up to the Saints game. If Gurley’s health did affect his play, the Rams aren’t saying so.

For another running back with a lesser pedigree—say, C.J. Anderson—Gurley’s first-half performance might have earned a benching. But this is not another running back. This is Todd Gurley, who led all players with 2,093 yards and 19 touchdowns from scrimmage last year and who once again led the league in touchdowns this season. When his extension kicks in, he’ll be the highest-paid running back in football. Gurley has too much drip to be benched for a couple of drops. Yet after Gurley got 43 snaps to Anderson’s 34 against Dallas, he got just 32 snaps to Anderson’s 36 in New Orleans. He’s trending in the wrong direction, and if his health isn’t the reason, could it actually be because Anderson has been better?

Anderson has quickly ingratiated himself as the most inexplicable and heartwarming story of the playoffs. America’s favorite bowling ball has rumbled his way to 466 rushing yards in his four games with the Rams since signing in mid-December to back up running backs Malcolm Brown and Gurley. As always, context is key. The Rams were the best run-blocking team in the league according to Football Outsiders, which calculates adjusted line yards with context-adjusted statistics. They were also the best run-blocking team according to Pro Football Focus, which assigns grades by watching game tape. In other words, both the math nerds and the tape nerds agree that the Rams’ offensive line is the best in the league. It’s also the healthiest. None of the Rams’ starting linemen have missed a game due to injury since McVay became coach in 2017. This is the situation that Anderson walked into when the Rams signed him. His first three games came against the Cardinals, who had the worst run defense in football and the NFL’s worst record; the 49ers, who tied for the league’s second-worst record, and the Cowboys when the Rams offensive line had tells on what Dallas’s front seven was doing before the snap. If luck is when opportunity meets preparation, then Anderson was certainly prepared to take advantage of this Rams run.

But if Anderson’s success can be explained largely by the Rams’ offensive line, it makes it even harder to understand Gurley’s lack of snaps. The Rams are sending Anderson up the middle of the offensive line more often than they sent Gurley. Perhaps the Rams wanted to attack a Saints defense that was worse than average against runs up the gut and missing defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, but New Orleans held Anderson to 12 attempts for 36 yards on runs between the guards.

Yet it might be tough for Anderson to fully take advantage of the Patriots’ defensive weaknesses in the Super Bowl. The Patriots don’t have the athleticism on defense to stick with running backs who get involved in the passing game, and they rank 22nd in pass defense DVOA to running backs this season, according to Football Outsiders. That weakness was particularly evident against the Chiefs this season. Kareem Hunt caught five passes for 105 receiving yards and a receiving touchdown in their first matchup in Week 6, and Chiefs running back Damien Williams caught five passes for 66 receiving yards and two touchdowns on Sunday. Here’s Patrick Mahomes II finding Williams for a nearly uncontested touchdown midway through the fourth quarter.

The play design makes the touchdown easy, and the buildup—pre-snap motion and a play-action fake to the running back before the quarterback rolls out and dumps it back to the running back on the other side of the field—is a staple of the Rams offense. The Rams need these kinds of plays to defeat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, and they need Gurley to do it. Gurley was targeted 168 times in the two years McVay has coached the Rams, which is more than Anderson has been targeted in his six-year NFL career. Anderson is many things, but he’s never been a pass catcher, and he’d be the first person to tell you he doesn’t have the athleticism to put the Pats linebacker on skates, though he does have the bulk to put them on their back. If the Rams are going to follow the blueprint of the Chiefs’ 31-point second half, they’ll need to rely on the guy they signed to a $45 million guaranteed deal in August, not the guy they signed to a $92,942 deal in December.