In the biggest game of his life, Todd Gurley disappeared. What happened?

In the biggest game of his life, Todd Gurley disappeared. What happened?
Video why didnt todd gurley play last week

ATLANTA – The double doors to the Los Angeles Rams locker room swung open, and out strode Todd Gurley. The rest of his teammates were still in their royal blue jerseys, sitting inside a silent locker room at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday night after finding themselves on the losing end of the lowest-scoring Super Bowl in NFL history.

But there was Gurley, dressed in distressed faded jeans and a denim jacket, with the word Hollywood painted on the back, taking long, fast strides as he was escorted by an NFL employee into a room where he’d face questions about why, in the biggest game of his life and of the Rams’ season, he disappeared.

Was it his knee? Had he been obscuring a lingering injury that might need postseason surgery? Was it a need for more carries? Did he want all of the touches instead of having to share them with C.J. Anderson?

There must be something, anything, to explain how the player who was a serious MVP candidate at midseason managed just 35 rushing yards (on 10 carries) and a negative receiving yard (on one catch) in the Super Bowl.

An injury would have made sense, and been at least an understandable excuse for Gurley’s significant dropoff in the Rams’ past two games. But he, along with Sean McVay, insisted that the knee injury he suffered against Philadelphia in Week 15 wasn’t a factor, and Gurley said he won’t need surgery in the offseason.

“I know there are a lot of people concerned about my health, but I’m fine,” Gurley said, clarifying that he had an MRI after playing the Eagles in December, and will have an exit physical this week.

Maybe it would be better if he had said his knee actually has been bothering him, and that he wasn’t feeling like himself when he had just five touches (four rushes and one catch, and two crucial drops) in the NFC championship game, or why he had just one touch, a two-yard carry on the Rams’ first play of the game, in the first quarter of the Super Bowl.

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And while any sort of lingering knee issue would be worrisome for Gurley given his torn ACL during his junior year at Georgia in 2014, the fact that he wasn’t playing much — or well — in the Rams’ biggest games while both he and his head coach insisted he’s healthy is far more concerning.

That means the Rams either suddenly just couldn’t figure out how to use their best offensive player or didn’t feel confident enough in Gurley to stick with him when the offense was struggling. That’s unconscionable after the Rams in August made Gurley the highest paid running back in NFL history.

“A lot of it was the result of things they did, but mostly it was play selection,” McVay said. “I was not pleased at all with my feel for the flow of the game. … They did a good job and I certainly didn’t do enough for us.”

Gurley’s six-year contract will pay him $57.5 million through 2023, with $45 million guaranteed, and the Rams got their money’s worth in the 2018 regular season, when he scored 21 touchdowns in 14 games. It was a good-faith move to reward a unique homegrown talent who had been both the sole productive piece of the Rams’ dormant offense during the end of the Jeff Fisher era and the engine that powered Sean McVay’s explosive offense over the past two seasons.

The running back was the reason the Rams were the NFL’s best team on first down this season, averaging 6.8 yards per first-down play. He consistently helped put the Rams’ offense on the move, opening up the playbook for McVay on second and third downs.

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That spark was not there during Super Bowl LIII. In the first half against New England, the Rams managed an average of 2.3 yards per first-down play. And in the second half, when those bigger chunk plays came early in drives, like 16- and 19-yard passes to Brandin Cooks, or a 17-yarder to Robert Woods, they were almost always followed by a miscue, like a holding penalty or a thwarted run play or an incomplete pass.

Without Gurley, the Rams were unrecognizable.

C.J. Anderson’s arrival in late December, signed as a free agent to start the final two regular season games, allowed Gurley to rest, and Anderson’s back-to-back-to-back 100-yard rushing games, in Weeks 16 and 17 and in the divisional round against Dallas, had the Rams convinced that a two-back system was the answer for the rest of the postseason.

Anderson had proven trustworthy in pass protection and ran with power and just enough speed to be elusive. So the Rams headed into these final two games with a plan to split carries between the two tailbacks, hoping that by rotating them in and out of the game every couple of series, neither would get worn down.

Running backs coach Skip Peete was responsible for tracking each player’s reps, and both backs were told they’d alternate every eight plays or so. Sure enough on Sunday night, Gurley played the first eight snaps, spanning two drives in the first quarter. Anderson came in for play No. 9, the final snap of the first quarter. And so it went throughout the game, in and out and in and out. Gurley finished the game with 11 touches (10 rushes and one catch), to Anderson’s nine (seven rushes, two catches).

“I think one of us was just trying to get into a rhythm, we didn’t care who. Obviously, none of us could get going,” Anderson said.

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The Patriots’ defense, particularly the game plan from coaches Bill Belichick and Brian Flores, deserves plenty of credit, and the Rams’ offensive line was flustered by the Patriots’ combination of blitzes and stunts. But it still doesn’t explain the Rams’ lack of commitment to Gurley, particularly early in the game when he could have been most effective. Nearly 21 minutes of game clock passed between Gurley’s first touch, a two-yard run, in the first quarter, and his second, a five-yard run in the second quarter.

Rams general manager Les Snead said there would eventually be a “reflection period” for the Rams, time to look back over the big moments of this season and the small ones, the moves that worked and the decisions that failed. Expect this two-game disappearing act from Gurley to be among them.

Before Gurley stepped off the podium and headed toward the extended rest of the offseason, he was asked if there was any one thing he’d change about Sunday’s outcome. Gurley shrugged. No, he said, because what was done was done. If he was angry or upset or sad, he hid it well.

“It’s not the first time I’ve done lost. Obviously it’s the first time I lost the Super Bowl, but I’ve dealt with so much in my life. I don’t really let too much get to me, man,” Gurley said. “At the end of the day, God blessed me so much to be able to be in this position and be able to play and be one of the top running backs, so God is good.”