NFL Nation

NFL Nation

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – It was a March morning on the track of UCLA, four months before the start of a new training camp. Nabie Fofanah, a former sprinter who now trains professional athletes, looked at Todd Gurley, smiled, and uttered the six words that would set the tone for his upcoming season:

“I have a gift for you.”

In his hand was a round, blue custom-made keychain. Engraved in yellow on the front were the words “Todd Gurley 2017 Stats.” Gurley turned it over and saw a milestone so audacious that it made him question Fofanah’s sanity: 1,500 rushing yards, 1,000 receiving yards.

“This,” Fofanah said, “is your goal.”

Gurley wasn’t just coming off a down year. His 885 rushing yards in 2016 were the fewest ever for a running back with at least 275 carries in a single season. The Los Angeles Rams’ entire offense was broken – their scheme unimaginative, their passing game unproductive, their offensive line ineffective – and Gurley’s magic faded within it. Now the expectation was an unprecedented season, because no player had ever combined 1,500 rushing yards with 1,000 receiving yards.

“I know, I know,” Gurley said, chuckling as he recalled that moment after a recent practice. “That’s why I told him, ‘Who do you think I am? I ain’t no Superman.'”

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Gurley didn’t reach 1,500 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards, but his quest made those numbers seem attainable.

Now he has a chance to become the first non-quarterback to win the league’s MVP award since former Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson in 2012, an achievement his teammates have aggressively vouched for over these past three weeks.

“That was the last time a back won the MVP, and this year should be the next time,” said Rams center John Sullivan, who blocked for Peterson that year. “Who knows how it will play out, but look, Todd is the best back in the league. And that’s what Adrian was at that time.”

Rams running backs coach Skip Peete is one of only three holdovers from last season’s coaching staff, retained by McVay largely because Gurley pushed so hard for it.

Like everyone else, Peete struggles to pinpoint what precisely went wrong with Gurley last season. He thinks back to Gurley’s rookie year in 2015, when he burst onto the scene with 566 rushing yards in his first four starts. Opposing defenses hardly knew anything about him. Then they adjusted, and it took a while for Gurley and the Rams to adjust back. A general lack of offensive talent, and flaky chemistry between Gurley and his blockers, only delayed the process. A franchise relocation didn’t help.

Amid struggle, Peete challenged Gurley to look internally and identify one skill, nothing more, to improve on each day.

But Peete never sensed the frustration boil over with Gurley that season. He described someone who stayed focused and levelheaded, who pushed through tough times enough to remain diligent with the details.

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“I felt like he got a little frustrated, and it’s natural,” Brown, one of Gurley’s best friends on the team, said. “But I don’t for one second think that he just gave up and said, ‘OK, this is not the year.’ I don’t think that’s the person he is. I know that’s not the person he is. He kept working.”

“He handled it very well, in my opinion,” said Rams inside linebacker Alec Ogletree, also Gurley’s teammate at Georgia. “He never complained. Of course he wishes it could’ve gone better, and that’s understandable. But he didn’t come here and mope or pout. He just kept working.”

One of McVay’s first public thoughts about Gurley, over breakfast with the media during the owners’ meetings in late March, was that a bounce-back year was “going to take everybody.”

“The run game takes all 11,” McVay said then, and it wasn’t just coachspeak. One missed assignment, one bad read, one late decision, and the entire play is ruined.

Even though he sat out the Rams’ Week 17 game, Todd Gurley finished the 2017 season with an NFL-best 2,093 scrimmage yards. Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire

Gurley has a newfound respect for what that all means.

“I don’t care whether you’re in the NFL, PeeWee – if things are not clicking and going the right way, then nothing’s going to work for anybody,” he said. “If you can’t get offense, O-line, receivers, QB, tight ends, everybody on the same page, then nothing’s going to work. The thing about offense is it takes one guy to mess up the whole play. Everybody else can be doing the right thing, but it takes all 11.”

Aaron Kromer, who now coaches Rams offensive linemen, spent the past two years guiding a Buffalo Bills line that helped lead the NFL in rushing. While watching film of the Rams’ 2016 season, he didn’t focus on why plays broke down. He focused on individuals. He sought to find his five best offensive linemen, discarding any biases, then incorporated a scheme that matched the personnel he selected.

Gurley’s numbers were never a focus.

“If you worry about numbers, you’re worrying about the wrong thing,” Kromer said. “What you’re concerning yourself with on a daily basis is, ‘Are we tied together?'”

Now, Kromer said, “We’re very tied together.”

The Rams’ five starting offensive linemen – Whitworth, Sullivan, Brown, Rodger Saffold and Rob Havenstein – have played more snaps together than any unit in the NFL, even though most of them sat out Sunday’s regular-season finale against the San Francisco 49ers. Behind them, Gurley gained an NFL-best 786 rushing yards before first contact, 344 more than he gained the prior season. He averaged 4.68 yards per carry, one year after averaging only 3.18.

Gurley exhibited a little bit more patience to let holes develop.

More important, though, he showed a lot more discipline.

Last season, with defenses stacking the box and penetrating quickly, Gurley did a little bit too much freelancing, going away from the play because he didn’t trust that the holes would be there. This year, Kromer said, “He’s done a very good job of running where he should and running where he sees fit, and being on the same page with the line. And I think that’s where the success has come.”

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Saffold, in his eighth year with the Rams, senses “a clear understanding of just how we want to run” this season.

A key has been merging meetings. Rather than have the offensive linemen meet on their own, Kromer has had the running backs, wide receivers and tight ends join in, so they all have a clear understanding for the way their run-blocking schemes will work. It established a synergy that was lacking.

“I think Todd understands the blocks a little bit better now,” Saffold said. “It’s been a learning game, but I think we’ve really found our niche.”

Gurley’s involvement in the passing game only happened out of necessity. The Rams signed Lance Dunbar in the middle of March, as a potential change-of-pace back who specialized in catching passes out of the backfield. But a lingering knee injury kept Dunbar off the field during organized team activities.

“It gave Todd more reps, whereas Lance would’ve probably been in there in a lot of situations,” Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur said. “It’s been a gradual process, and it’s been a slow build, but he’s been so dependable time and time again in the passing game.”

McVay came out of those OTAs ecstatic.

So ecstatic, in fact, that he made a bold prediction about Gurley’s upcoming numbers.

The Rams drafted Gurley with the No. 10 overall pick in 2015. Steve Dykes/Getty Images

It was sometime around June, and McVay was out back at his new home in Encino, California. Rams general manager Les Snead was there with his wife, Kara Henderson, and McVay was raving about Gurley, who had blown him away with his combination of speed, power, instincts, work ethic and, most recently, hands. Pressed, McVay predicted 1,300 rushing yards, 800 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. The numbers seemed so outlandish then that Henderson felt compelled to type them in the notepad of her smartphone and save it.

She showed McVay after the Rams clinched the NFC West on Dec. 24, and he kicked himself for shortchanging Gurley on the touchdowns.

“Savant-ish,” Henderson said.

It was Gurley’s impact as a receiver that took his game, and this offense, to an entirely different level. Gurley gained an NFL-leading 371 yards through screen passes. And his availability as a dangerous checkdown option was a major reason Jared Goff limited turnovers and finished with a 4.00 touchdown-to-interception ratio that was on par with that of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Gurley’s biggest threat for the MVP award.

“Last year was tough for damn near everybody on the team,” Goff said. “We were bad as a whole team, and most individuals didn’t do what we were supposed to. This offseason, I was able to see what Todd was doing working out, and all the work he put in, and it was truly impressive. So no, it wasn’t a surprise. It’s not a surprise to see what he’s done up to this point this year. It’s really not.”

The average is about 94 rushing yards and 63 receiving yards. Assuming he played in all 16 games, that’s what Gurley needed each week to finish as the first player with both 1,500 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards.

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But he started a little slow, totaling 128 rushing yards and 104 receiving yards in his first two games. Then Gurley gained 113 yards on the ground in Week 3 against the 49ers, snapping a string of 20 consecutive games without triple-digit rushing yards. He followed with 121 rushing yards and 94 receiving yards in Week 4 against the Dallas Cowboys. He combined for 222 rushing yards from Weeks 6 to 7, then averaged 54 receiving yards from Weeks 9 to 13.

As he approached the final quarter of his season, Gurley was 186 yards off the pace in rushing yards and 187 yards off the pace in receiving yards, lagging behind but not totally out of it.

“Oh, he knew,” Fofanah said. “He definitely knew.”

Gurley texted with Fofanah each week, expressing excitement over the offense and sometimes conveying shock at how close the unreachable goal seemed.

“That’s the beautiful thing about that goal, is that you might not know you’ve been thinking about it this whole time,” Fofanah said. “The subconscious mind is powerful, way more powerful than what you’re thinking consciously.”

This offseason, Sean McVay predicted Gurley would notch 1,300 rushing yards, 800 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. The Rams coach wasn’t far off those marks at all. AP Photo/Mark Zaleski

Gurley thrust himself into the MVP conversation in Weeks 15 and 16, amassing 456 scrimmage yards and six touchdowns on the road against the Seattle Seahawks and the Tennessee Titans, two games that locked up the Rams’ first division title since 2003. Had he received his normal workload in the finale, Gurley could’ve conceivably surpassed 1,400 rushing yards, 800 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns.

Perhaps 1,500 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards is a bit too lofty, but 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards doesn’t appear to be. Only two players have attained those numbers together – Roger Craig in 1985 and Marshall Faulk in 1999. But many on the Rams believe Gurley can be next.

“Talent-wise,” Peete said, “he’s capable.”

“Todd has the talent and the desire to do whatever he wants,” Kromer said. “Whatever.”

“Sky’s the limit for him,” Havenstein said. “Obviously that’s a special season, and I think he can have it.”

“He’s good at both areas,” Ogletree said. “If he gets the ball enough times, is able to get downfield, I can definitely see him getting it.”

Gurley is admittedly in a better mood these days, a product of having fun playing football again. Of being in an offense that gives him a chance. Of winning. He didn’t necessarily chase 1,500 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards, but he did find joy in being on a team that allowed him to stay within arm’s reach.

“Just to see that,” Gurley said, “to be on pace for that, and make some of those dreams actually reality, that meant a lot.”

Gurley could’ve never imagined something like this last season, so he never really thought about it. The system around him was broken, and it dampened his own expectations. When Fofanah gave him that keychain, Gurley sheepishly countered with something like 800 rushing yards and 600 receiving yards. He’s come a long way since then, pacing an 11-win team that led the NFL in points.

Gurley thought about that and smiled.

“You love last year for times like this.”