Column: Rams’ Todd Gurley looks great in spurts, but Malcolm Brown also carries rushing load

Column: Rams’ Todd Gurley looks great in spurts, but Malcolm Brown also carries rushing load
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Without question, Jared Goff is behind Todd Gurley.

“I started him in fantasy this week,” the Rams quarterback said Sunday.

But Gurley wasn’t always behind Goff in the opener. Often, it was Malcolm Brown lined up behind the quarterback, with the All-Pro Gurley watching from the sideline.

In fact, Brown scored both of the Rams’ rushing touchdowns in their 30-27 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, leaving questions about the effectiveness of the once-unstoppable Gurley hanging in the thick Carolina air.

It was the biggest mystery of the NFL offseason: What happened to Gurley?

He was the NFL’s offensive player of the year in 2017, and a most-valuable-player candidate for much of last season. Then, in the NFC title game in New Orleans, he vanished. Surely, he would bounce back in the Super Bowl against New England. But again, he was a no-show.

Clearly, Gurley heard all the doubters. In the buildup to the season opener, he posted a hype video on his Instagram account that featured a soundtrack of all the critical pundits. This was his chance to slam the door on all that chatter.

He left that door ajar.

Yes, he led all rushers with 97 yards in 14 carries, but it wasn’t one of those dominant Gurley performances. He was strong in spurts, at times showing that familiar burst and elusiveness, but he wasn’t the same relentless playmaker he once was.

It’s one game. He didn’t participate in offseason workouts, took off every other day in training camp, and didn’t play in preseason games. It’s far too early to make any sweeping predictions about how he’ll play this season.

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But there’s no question the Rams are taking a different approach with him this season, focusing on load management. They re-signed Brown, matching the offer he got from the Detroit Lions, and drafted Memphis running back Darrell Henderson in the third round. They aren’t piling everything on Gurley’s shoulders.

Gurley is playing on a rebuilt knee from college. Speculation has swirled that he might be dealing with arthritis in that joint. The Rams insist he’s fine. It’s all part of the murky mystery.

For his part, Gurley isn’t offering any information. He laughed with teammates Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters after the game, making a trip to Peters’ locker for some cake, but was particularly irritable in the brief media scrum at his locker.

“Felt good,” he said curtly when asked about his performance.

Asked about Brown’s carries at the goal line, he said: “You seen the game. You seen how he did. He did damn good. Obviously, he’s a great running back. He’s been here the same amount of time as me. He went in there and did his thing like he always does.”

On playing in his home state of North Carolina: “It’s cool. Got a lot of family here. So if y’all hurry up I can go see my family, so it will be even better.”

It’s a safe assumption that Gurley has grown weary of all the talk of his vanishing act last season. He’s determined to put that behind him. And in the second half Sunday, he made strides toward doing that.

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Midway through the fourth quarter, after the Panthers scored a touchdown to trim the Rams’ lead to three points, Gurley strung some impressive runs. He had four consecutive rushes on the deciding touchdown drive — carries of 17, seven, two and 15 yards. That helped set up Goff’s five-yard scoring pass to Tyler Higbee to put the Rams ahead 30-20 with 6 minutes 37 seconds to go.

“There’s a lot of outside noise around him obviously, but we felt confident with him inside the team and he showed it today he looked like he always does today,” Goff said of Gurley. “I tried to tell everyone he looks exactly the same, and no one wanted to believe me.”

Gurley did look the same — in spurts. But there’s still ground to cover. On Sunday, he’ll get a chance to reintroduce himself to the Saints.

“The reality for him is just getting in there, feeling game speed, feeling real defenses and really, honestly, a couple of those first runs were our mistakes — things we messed up,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “We were telling Todd, ‘Hey, dude, that’s on us. We’re going to get it fixed.’ Sure enough, when we got it fixed, he started doing his thing.”

Will Gurley ever be the same virtuoso star, game after game, that he once was?

It might not matter.

If he’s part of an ensemble cast, and his team keeps winning games, the Rams will happily let that question linger.