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Should the Rams Worry About Todd Gurley’s Mega Contract Extension?

The 2017 Offensive Player of the Year signed a record-setting deal this past offseason. But after Gurley no-showed in Los Angeles’s two biggest games of the season—with the running back insisting he was healthy—it’s fair to wonder whether the team will come to regret the deal.

Illustration of Todd Gurley running the football, leaving cash in his wake Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After signing a contract extension worth $45 million guaranteed last year, Rams running back Todd Gurley contributed 45 rushing yards in the NFC championship game and the Super Bowl combined. Now fans have an offseason to wonder whether Gurley was more injured than he let on or whether he was just terrible in the two most important games of L.A.’s season.

In 2017, Gurley led the NFL in yards from scrimmage (2,093) and rushing touchdowns (13) and was named the Offensive Player of the Year. Through his first 14 games this season, Gurley was well on his way to defending his belt by putting up the second-most rushing yards (1,251), second-most yards from scrimmage (1,831), and the most touchdowns (21) in the league. But Gurley suffered a knee injury against the Eagles on December 16 that kept him out of the Rams’ final two regular-season games. He returned for the playoffs, but was reduced to splitting snaps with C.J. Anderson, a couch free agent who had been cut by the Panthers and Raiders earlier in the season. Gurley played well in his sharply diminished role against Dallas behind a dominant blocking performance from the Rams offensive line before no-showing in New Orleans and turning in a mediocre performance in the Super Bowl, when he finished with 35 rushing yards on 10 carries and one catch for negative-1 yard. Take away a 16-yard run on the second play after halftime, and Gurley ran for 19 total yards on his other nine carries. On the whole, his touches dropped from 22.5 per game in the regular season to 11.3 per game in the playoffs. During the regular season, Gurley averaged 89.4 yards on 18.3 carries per game (4.9 yards per carry). But in three playoff games this year, he fell off a cliff, posting 53.3 yards per game on 10.0 carries (5.3 rushing yards per game). Gurley’s impact as a receiver tells an even starker story: He averaged 41.4 receiving yards on 4.2 catches per game in the regular season but caught four passes for 5 yards combined in three playoff games.

None of this is strange for a running back recovering from a knee injury. What is strange is that both Gurley and head coach Sean McVay have consistently said that Gurley’s health is not the reason his snaps were halved. One week after the Eagles game, Gurley nearly played against the Cardinals in Week 16 after being listed as questionable, but he sat out after testing the injury during his pregame warmup. Gurley was ruled out for Week 17, and after splitting carries with Anderson in the divisional round in Dallas following a bye week, McVay said that Gurley’s reduced role was related to his conditioning.

“It was good just to get Todd back,” McVay said after the win over Dallas. “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.”

Entering the NFC championship game against the Saints, Gurley wasn’t even listed on the Rams’ injury report. After his dismal showing in that game—five touches for 13 yards on even fewer snaps than the previous week—both Gurley and McVay insisted that Gurley’s health was not the issue. It was a strange deflection after the worst game of Gurley’s career, especially considering that the injury would be a convenient and understandable scapegoat. For the Super Bowl, Gurley once again did not appear on the injury report, and running backs coach Skip Peete said that conditioning was the reason for the snap-count decline—even though the running back had returned from his three-week layoff four weeks beforehand. Sunday’s game was more of the same, as the Rams star was on the bench for long portions of the action. CBS’s Tracy Wolfson reported during the Super Bowl that Gurley was favoring one leg walking toward the huddle, but after the 13-3 loss to the Patriots, both Gurley and McVay once again denied that his knee was an issue.

Perhaps McVay and Gurley were lying about Gurley’s health in an effort to force the Patriots to game-plan differently. While there is plenty of gamesmanship on team injury reports, it’s unclear what the benefit of keeping a hobbled Gurley off would have been after he was benched for entire stretches of the NFC championship game—it’s not like the Patriots were going to check the Rams injury report, see Gurley not listed, and rework their plan. There’s also the strange fact that Gurley was the fastest player on the field in Super Bowl LIII, according to NFL Next Gen Stats player-tracking data—though that’s based on straight-line speed and likely doesn’t account for possible limited lateral movement, which is a huge part of some knee injuries. But the info certainly puts a dent in the idea that Gurley has been ineffective because of his knee.

Taking Gurley at his word paints a more concerning picture than assuming he’s hiding an injury. If Gurley was hurt worse than we think, his performance in January would make a lot more sense, and we could expect him to return to top-shelf form in 2019. But if Gurley was healthy for this playoff run, that means he was just flat-out bad. The running back just signed a four-year extension worth $57.5 million with $45 million guaranteed in July, and that hasn’t even kicked in yet. Here are Gurley’s cap hits for the next few years:

Todd Gurley’s Upcoming Cap Hits

Year Gurley's Age Cap Hit
Year Gurley's Age Cap Hit
2019 25 $9.2 million
2020 26 $17.3 million
2021 27 $13.2 million
2022 28 $14.2 million
2023 29 $12.5 million

Big-money deals for running backs rarely (if ever) work out long term and are questionable investments even when they’re playing at a high level. But if Gurley has already declined before becoming the league’s highest-paid running back, this is a salary catastrophe for the Rams. In 2020, Gurley’s deal will cost the Rams more than a million a week—not the kind of money you pay someone to split carries, and especially not to split carries with a running back signed in mid-December as an insurance policy who self-identifies as “slow.”

Some have argued that Anderson’s running style is different—even complementary—to Gurley’s. Anderson runs up the middle better, while Gurley is better running to the outside. Together, they create a whole bigger than the sum of its parts by bringing out the best in each other. This sounds so dandy and perfect and full of gumdrop rainbows that it just might be too good to be true. But accepting that the NFL’s highest-paid running back can’t run up the middle requires some incredible mental gymnastics.

The Rams reportedly want Anderson back in 2019. He’d be a great backup, but splitting carries with Gurley anywhere near as often as he did this playoff run would be obscene. The situation is even more dire because the Rams can’t afford for Gurley’s contract to become an albatross. He has a reasonable $9.2 million cap hit in 2019, but in 2020, it will become $17.3 million. That’s a good deal if they’re getting the Offensive Player of the Year and a debacle if they’re getting C.J. Anderson’s partner in crime–slash–outside zone specialist. Meanwhile, quarterback Jared Goff’s cap hit is going to shoot from $8.9 million next year to over $21 million in 2020, when they’re set to pick up his fifth-year option. Goff and Gurley will combine for roughly $40 million of the Rams’ cap in 2020, or nearly a quarter of L.A.’s total money, and they were arguably the team’s two biggest liabilities in the Super Bowl, given that Goff had the worst game of his life on the biggest stage. The only reason to panic is if we take the Rams at their word.