It's been 11 months since the Rams gave Todd Gurley a four-year, $57.5 million extension, and in the process resetting the market for running backs after Le'Veon Bell failed to do so in Pittsburgh. (Bell subsequently held out for the entirety of the 2018 season, and signed with the Jets in March. More on that later.)
Gurley's contract runs through 2023 and he averages $14.4 million per season. And while NFL contracts are almost never fully guaranteed, the Rams can't easily get out from this one anytime soon; the team would incur a $34.9 million dead-cap hit if they parted ways with Gurley in 2019. That number is $25.7 million in 2020 and $8.4 million in 2021, according to Spotrac.
We mention this because Gurley's finish to the 2018 season was, in a word, troubling. It all started well enough. In the first 14 games Gurley rushed for 1,251 yards (4.9 yards per carry) and added another 580 yards on 59 receptions. All told, he scored 21 touchdowns and finished No. 1 in total value and value per play among all running backs, according to Football Outsiders' metrics. Gurley also ranked 12th in total value among all backs as a pass catcher.
Put another way: His contract matched his productivity.
But Gurley missed the final two games of the regular season with a knee injury. He returned in the divisional playoff game against the Cowboys and looked like his old self rushing for 115 yards and a score. But he ran the ball just four times for 10 yards against the Saints in the NFC Championship Game and was only slightly more effective in the Super Bowl when he had 10 carries for 35 yards. In three postseason games, Gurley had four receptions for five yards.
That Super Bowl performance did nothing to assuage concerns about Gurley's knee. In fact, the speculation only intensified during the weeks that followed. At the combine in March, CBSSports.com's John Breech reported that there was so much concern over the knee that a stem cell procedure was being considered. That was in addition to a report that Gurley is dealing with arthritis.
Concern about Gurley's health for the upcoming season would be understandable -- except that Gurley doesn't sound worried at all.
"I had bigger problems to worry about coming out of college," he told reporters last week, via NFL.com. "This is small."
Gurley continued: "I've be hearing stuff all my life. Just whatever growing up. Hearing comments or whatever that is. All of the stuff don't really get to me. I feel like I do a great job, got a great supporting cast. ... It's football. It's the game I've been playing my whole life, so it's nothing new to me. I know what I'm capable of. I know what type of person I am. No big deal to me."
But is it "small," as Gurley suggests?.
"Everybody knew when Todd came out of Georgia that there would be some kind of arthritic component to his knee, which is part of every surgery whether it's a shoulder, a knee, an ankle," Gaines said late last week. "He's now at the year-five mark, all we're doing is managing that. If we can pound him less in the offseason while keeping his weight down, working on his strength, working on his agility in short areas, that's going to give him a better chance to be healthy Weeks 14 through 17 when they really count."
So what's Plan B if Gurley doesn't return to the form that saw him rush for 2,556 yards the last two season, average 4.8 yards per carry and score 40 touchdowns?
It starts with Malcolm Brown, who had 43 carries for 212 yards (4.9 YPC) in '18, and signed a two-year deal this offseason. But the Rams also used a third-round pick on Memphis running back Darrell Henderson whose college production was off the charts. Henderson averaged 8.9 yards per carry his last two college seasons. And while some of that was a result of running behind a really good offensive line, Henderson deserves a lot of credit too. He averaged around 20 receptions a season during his career but the biggest question about his game translating to the NFL may be his ability to pass block. That said, he has zero reservations about fitting in to McVay's scheme.
"If you go back and watch my college film and you watch the Rams film, it's the same," Henderson told the Los Angeles Times in May. "I thought that was the best system I could get in. So everything worked out great. When I was talking to them, everything was clicking and we developed a relationship. The coaches told me they knew they were going to get me so it was the perfect fit."
Ideally, Gurley would be completely healthy heading into training camp. And it sounds like that's the plan.
"Talking to Todd, he looks really good, and feels really good," McVay told reporters last week. ... The intention is to get him back, ready to go. This was the intention, this was part of the long term plan to get him for the opener against the Panthers, but when we start camp that represents when he can get on the field and do some things and start to compete with his teammates."
Gaines sounded a similar tone, despite the addition of Henderson.
"It's never been told to me that there's a plan to decrease his workload come Week 1," Gaines told Richard. "At the end of the day, you need solid running backs, and they grabbed a home-run running back in the third round. ... If you watched the games last year, Todd typically sat out two to three series last year. I don't see anything changing with that, so you need a back who can catch, and I believe Darrell averaged around 9.0 yards per carry, a home-run type guy."
Gurley is only 24 years old but it's hard to know how his knee will respond until he's on the field. For the Rams the good news is that this offense doesn't run through the running back, even one as talented at Gurley. It starts with McVay.
In 2015, McVay was in his second season as the Redskins offensive coordinator. The team finished 9-7 and the offense, behind Kirk Cousins and Alfred Morris and his team-leading 751 rushing yards, ranked 12th in total offense -- No. 6 in passing and ... dead least in running the ball. But a year later, that offense ranked No. 5 overall -- fifth in passing and fourth in rushing -- again, Cousins was under center but Robert Kelly led the team with 704 rushing yards. The point: McVay can work without a Pro Bowl rusher but, like every other NFL offense, a franchise quarterback is imperative.
(We can argue about about the franchise-ness of Cousins and Jared Goff but the former was third in total value in '16 and the latter was sixth in total value last season when the Rams made the Super Bowl.)
A backs-by-committee approach probably makes the most sense for Gurley and the Rams going forward and that's OK. There's no need to run Gurley into the ground when you have Brown and Henderson on the roster -- and Goff under center and McVay calling plays. It's also why, like last year, you're not likely to see Gurley take part in preseason games.
"Todd is asked to do a lot in that offense, so to preserve him as much as possible is what the goal of the game is," Gaines said. "Their sports science department and sports medicine department are made up of very sharp individuals, so whatever they subscribe and ask me to help out with to do with Todd as Todd's with me every single day, I'm going to do it. I think the Rams have a great formula and are a phenomenal franchise."
We mentioned Le'Veon Bell in the first paragraph above. He signed a four-year, $52.5 million deal with the Jets this spring, making him the second-highest paid back behind Gurley. The Steelers offered him a bigger contract (with reportedly less guaranteed money, however) last summer but Bell chose to sit out the season because he felt he was worth more than that. The running back position is the most fungible in the NFL and that's been the case for a while now. You could argue that Bell overvalued his worth but it's also fair to say that Gurley's late-season woes did Bell no favors. As we watched C.J. Anderson, who was signed in December after the Panthers cut him the month before, step right into Gurley's role, it reinforced the notion that backs are replaceable.
Simply put: Rams are a better team with Gurley firing on all cylinders. But even if if he's less than 100 percent, Los Angeles remains one of the NFL's most formidable offenses.