There's a sense of tragedy built into the brief careers of great running backs like Todd Gurley II. As soon as we really get to know and appreciate them, it's almost time to say goodbye.
When we last saw Gurley, the Rams' $57.5 million All-Pro running back looked like he was in danger of Thanos-poofing out of existence.
Gurley was an MVP candidate in the first 12 games of last season. After a pair of poor games in December, he sat out the final two regular-season games, resting what was thought to be a minor knee injury.
In the playoffs, Gurley split carries with C.J. Anderson, a lovable waiver-wire veteran who looked like he had been trying to stay in shape at Old Country Buffet before the Rams called him. Anderson saw the bulk of the action in the NFC Championship Game while Gurley rushed just four times for 10 yards, one goal-line touchdown and several blunders. Neither back could get anything going in the Super Bowl as Gurley rushed just 10 times for 35 yards and the Rams offense bricked in a 13-3 loss to the Patriots.
In the months since that loss, the Rams have acquired a suspiciously large amount of Gurley insurance.
First, the Rams matched an offer sheet from the Lions during free agency to keep running back Malcolm Brown in Los Angeles for two more seasons. Brown was Gurley's backup before a late-season clavicle injury prompted the Rams to rent Anderson's services.
The Rams then traded a pair of late third-round picks to move to the early third round of the draft to select Memphis running back Darrell Henderson. Between the trade for Henderson and the matched offer for Brown, the Rams clearly prioritized the back end of their running back depth chart.
Meanwhile, Gurley's knee remains a source of mystery.
Anderson said on Undisputed in February that Gurley was far more injured in the playoffs than "everybody in the building thought, including himself." John Breech of CBSSports.com reported in March the team could consider a stem-cell treatment for Gurley's knee; Sean McVay vaguely conceded "new methods" and a "program" for Gurley's knee were being discussed.
Maybe this is all just much ado about some minor transactions and a lingering sprain. Or maybe this is the beginning of the end for Gurley and the Rams.
Now before we get carried away and tell you to trade Gurley off your fantasy dynasty league or something, let's be clear: There are many reasons to think the Rams are just taking reasonable precautions about Gurley's health, not laying the groundwork to something earth-shattering:
- Gurley told reporters (per the Rams website) in mid-April that his knee feels fine, that he feels better after some rest, that he doesn't need any unusual procedure and so forth.
- Gurley has also been supportive of Brown (advocating for his backup to get a pay raise) and Henderson (he sent a congratulatory tweet, our culture's most sincere expression of true feelings), so he doesn't sound too worried about his job security.
- McVay said the team selected Henderson because of his unique skill set, which provides a "different threat" for their offense. The 5'8" Henderson does indeed look like more of a handy change-of-pace back than a threat to take anyone's starting job. And Brown has never been more than the guy who soaks up carries when Gurley needs a breather.
- Gurley rushed for 1,251 yards, added 580 receiving yards and scored 21 touchdowns in 14 regular-season games last year. He still looked pretty darn amazing as of early December.
- Here's the biggie: Gurley is in just the second year of the four-year, $57.5 million deal he signed in July. He's already guaranteed a huge hunk of cash for the 2020 season because of some shrewd contract triggers designed to protect Gurley from ruthless NFL running back economics (bum knee + two bad games + hotshot rookie = INSTANT CAP CASUALTY).
That's a lot of caveats to slalom through before we bid a premature farewell to the Gurley era. The official story—Henderson is just here to catch some screen passes; Gurley will be fine—is mostly convincing.
Yet the official story during the playoffs and Super Bowl, from both McVay and Gurley, was also that Gurley was healthy. Gurley claimed he just had a "sorry as hell" game against the Saints. McVay pretended giving C.J. Dadbod lots of extra carries was a tactical decision.
Sure, they were dis-informing the Patriots by concealing Gurley's injury. But it sounds like they are still practicing information control. And what happens if Gurley rushes 10 times for 35 yards in some September game and a "different threat" like Henderson has a big game? Will we be talking about keeping Gurley fresh for the late season and playoffs? Or will we be talking about stem cells, mystery injuries and perhaps second thoughts about a very expensive investment?
Not even a two-time All-Pro like Gurley is immune to the powerful forces that shape the careers of running backs:
Running back careers are short. Gurley is just 24 years old but already has absorbed 1,229 NFL touches, many of them grueling journeys between the tackles during the Jeff Fisher dark ages. The football encyclopedias are full of running backs whose careers peaked around their fourth seasons and/or 25th birthdays. For a recent, unfortunate example: Check out how things have gone for Devonta Freeman since the Falcons' Super Bowl.
The difference between good and great at running back is slight. The Rams watched Anderson walk off the street last year and gain 299 yards in two late-season games, so they understand the concept of replacement value at the position. Gurley at his best is a difference-maker worth every penny of an eight-figure salary. Gurley at about 90 percent of his best can be replaced by a third-round pick.
Rookie running backs are drafted to play. Henderson was selected in the third round, just like Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, David Johnson, Duke Johnson, Tevin Coleman, James Conner and others in years past. Third-round running backs have a habit of starting out as "different threats" and becoming the primary threat or the successor to an expensive, underperforming (or disgruntled) veteran.
In the wake of the Odell Beckham Jr. trade, there's no such thing as an indispensable superstar, and even players with guaranteed money left on their contracts can wind up on the market under the right set of circumstances.
The ideal situation for the Rams—and for fans who love watching outstanding running backs and hate seeing careers cut short so quickly—will be for Gurley's knee to spring back to health so he can enjoy another 1,800 scrimmage-yard season. Anderson can munch the fourth-quarter clock, Henderson can do Darren Sproles-like stuff, and everyone will forget last year's postseason disappearance as a fresh Gurley trucks and hurdles defenders in this season's playoffs.
That's what the Rams want, for Henderson, Anderson and the talk about alternative knee therapies to be just a contingency plan.
But after an offseason of vague stonewalling and bolstering the running back depth chart, the contingency looks less and less like a fallback option and more like the plan of attack.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.