Todd Gurley Remains an NFL Mystery, but the Future Isn't Promising

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterMay 19, 2020

ARCHIVO - En imagen de archivo del 29 de diciembre de 2019, el running back Todd Gurley, de los Rams de Los Ángeles, descansa en la banca durante la segunda mitad del partido frente a los Cardinals de Arizona, en Los Ángeles. (AP Foto/Mark J. Terrill, archivo)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Everyone's skeptical about Todd Gurley these days.

Hall of Fame running back and television analyst LaDainian Tomlinson expressed his Gurley skepticism on NFL Total Access on Friday. "I was the first guy that thought Todd Gurley would bounce back in 2019," Tomlinson said. "I just figured that what happened to him at the end of 2018 was a fluke, that he would be fine in 2019. And I didn't see that. ... I see a guy that doesn't have that explosiveness to him no more."

Rams general manager Les Snead also sounded skeptical about Gurley's abilities when he told reporters in April that the two-time All-Pro running back's release wasn't strictly a money-saving move. "In this case, I don't think it's a salary-cap issue," Snead said (via ESPN's Lindsey Thiry), "but in the puzzle ... in putting together your short-term and long-term vision of trying to consistently contend, what you pay players comes into play, obviously producing comes into play."

And then there's Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, Gurley's current coach and, judging from his comments in a media session last week, president of the Todd Gurley Skeptics Society. "The main question that no one seems to know is what's his health status?" Koetter said. "We're just going to have to find that out once we get here and get him working."

When it comes to Gurley, current and former employers speak in riddles about puzzles and unanswered questions. How did Gurley, a rising superstar just two seasons ago, become the NFL's greatest enigma? And if Gurley is such a mystery, why did the Falcons take the risk of signing him?

That second question is the easier one to answer. Gurley, who turns 26 in August, cost the Falcons just $5.5 million in guaranteed salary and signing bonus for one year. That's chump change for a player of his accomplishments. If Gurley can have a season like 2017 or 2018, he'll be the biggest bargain of this free-agent class, and he'll help Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and the Falcons keep pace in the escalating NFC South arms race. Even if he has an off year like last season, 1,064 scrimmage yards and 14 touchdowns would be a fair return on a modest investment.

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The larger mystery is whether the Gurley of 2017-18 still exists, or if there are nothing but off years and disappointments ahead.

You can probably guess what the analytics and historical research has to say: Gurley's best seasons are almost certainly behind him. There's plenty of research to back up that assertion, but let's keep things simple. From 2010 through last year, running backs aged 26 or older had just 21 seasons of over 1,200 rushing yards and 4.2 yards per rush (modest benchmarks for a "good" Gurley year). Review the list, and you will find multiple seasons by ageless wonders (Adrian Peterson, Frank Gore), players who had one or two good years left before fading (Jamaal Charles, Maurice Jones-Drew), backs whose careers peaked late (Michael Turner, Justin Forsett) and folks who never quite fit into any category (Marshawn Lynch).

Todd Gurley's yards-per-rush rate dropped by more than a yard last season compared to his All-Pro campaign in 2018.
Todd Gurley's yards-per-rush rate dropped by more than a yard last season compared to his All-Pro campaign in 2018.Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

Gurley could be a Peterson or Gore, but Tomlinson (who rushed for 13,684 career yards) should be the first person to spot such a marvel. There are some running backs on the list who enjoyed modest comebacks after changing teams, including LeSean McCoy (1,267 yards and 13 touchdowns) and DeMarco Murray (1,287, nine) in 2016. But neither Shady nor Murray ever reached their peak again. If the best Gurley can hope for is one more semi-successful year, the Falcons were wise to give him just a one-year deal.

There's more to the Gurley riddle than just another Never Overpay a Running Back cautionary tale, of course. Gurley's balky knee has been the NFL's greatest unsolved mystery for two consecutive offseasons. That knee is what perplexes Koetter and may have frustrated Snead and the Rams so much that they were willing to take a hefty dead-money cap hit to move on from their former superstar.

Gurley began suffering from inflammation in his left knee late in the 2018 season. He rested for the final two games after the Rams clinched their playoff berth, rotated with C.J. Anderson throughout the playoffs, and then was a non-factor (11 touches, 34 yards) in the Super Bowl loss to the Patriots.

Gurley and the Rams insisted that he was completely healthy both before and after the Super Bowl. But last offseason brought months of speculation and vague reassurances from Gurley or Sean McVay every few weeks that Gurley was "good" or "feeling good" or "feeling pretty good" or "ready to go." Gurley's trainer confirmed in June what had been reported last March: There was an "arthritic component" to Gurley's knee, caused by Gurley's collegiate ACL tear and surgery. Still, the Rams insisted Gurley would be a focal point of their offense. But once last season started, Gurley only carried the ball 20 or more times in three games, often sharing carries with rookie Darrell Henderson Jr. or longtime backup Malcolm Brown. He never cracked the 100-yard rushing mark and rarely looked like much of a difference-maker.

Few elements of this tale are actually mysterious. Once the Rams saw his performance drop last year, they knew his manufacturer's warranty had expired and that he was starting to break down. The Falcons did what background research they could on Gurley before the world shut down in March, but they knew they were getting him at sheriff's auction prices and couldn't be too picky about what was under the hood.

In other words, the Todd Gurley Mystery sounds a lot like the tale of every other running back who got overworked, banged up, overpaid at just the moment when he was about to lose the traits that made him special and who grew old before his time. Only the details and all those denials around the Super Bowl make all this look like a job for Sherlock Holmes.

NFL facilities are now allowed to open in many states, and the Falcons medical staff may soon finally get a firsthand look at Gurley's knee. Maybe they will find a problem. It's more likely they will find the surgically repaired knee of a soon-to-be 26-year-old running back: not too bad but far from showroom new with just enough wear and tear to make 2,000-scrimmage-yard seasons a thing of the past.

Though Gurley has not missed significant time with injuries, his workload has decreased steadily over the past two seasons.
Though Gurley has not missed significant time with injuries, his workload has decreased steadily over the past two seasons.Tony Avelar/Associated Press

"I believe that at this point in his career, he's going to need a committee of backs to help him stay fresh," Tomlinson said last week. "Now, we still may see situations where he might break out and have 125 yards or whatnot, but those days of him having seven-yard runs, I don't think we're going to see that ever again from Todd Gurley. I think his knee is just too bad at this point."

That sounds like what the Rams thought, too. And it jibes with what history and analytics tell us about backs like Gurley. Koetter and the Falcons had better stop speculating and start getting their other backs ready, because this mystery has been solved. Case closed.

           

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.

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