What Happened to Todd Gurley?
Entering the season, Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley was a consensus first-round fantasy pick, if not a top five player. Five weeks into the season, his numbers have barely moved the needle—but it's not entirely his fault.
Photo by Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
It was only about a year ago, in Week 4 of the 2015 NFL season, that Todd Gurley busted on to the scene looking like the next great running back. In his first four games, he rushed for 566 yards. He built this on big plays. In his first four games, Gurley had seven carries that went for 20 or more yards, and 15 that went for 10 or more yards.
Gurley isn't just a physical marvel; he combines athleticism with patience to read blocks, and vision to see them developing—two skills that less dynamic backs have used to great success. He's a transcendent talent at his position, and was a consensus first-round pick, if not top five, for every fantasy football draft this year.
But five weeks into the current season, Gurley's numbers have barely moved the needle. He has rushed for just 290 yards through the first five weeks, less than half of what he racked up through the same span in 2015. If you prefer a more advanced slant to your statistics, he was 27th of 30 qualifying running backs in Football Outsiders' DVOA. His carries, weighted for game situation, have averaged about 20 percent worse than a league-average outcome.
And yet Gurley displays his talent every time the Rams give him the ball. His only real issue is pressing for quick yards after he already has taken a beating. Per Premium Charting Data of Sports Info Solutions, Gurley broke 22 tackles through Week 4, third most in the league behind only David Johnson and Matt Forte. The rest of the Rams have 11 broken tackles put together. And that's really the problem here: the rest of the Rams.
Gurley is a back that does most of his damage in space, but with the current state of the Rams offense, he can only find that space as a receiver; his longest rush through Week 5 this season is for 16 yards, and his second longest is 11. When the Rams are able to get Gurley into space, as they did on this wheel route, he has room to use his athleticism and make defenders miss, adding an explosive element to the offense:
However, in Los Angeles' current base offense, the offensive line and blocking backs struggle, and the traffic is congested. Even when a tiny crease is made, Gurley usually already had to make an adjustment just to enter it. Against the Cardinals in Week 4, for instance, to skim past Markus Golden (44) off the edge, Gurley has to propel himself to the left, which slams him right into a pile:
The Rams tried to build an offensive line on the fly in the 2015 draft, but so far that strategy hasn't worked out. Of the four linemen they selected that year, only two are starters: sixth-round pick Cody Wichmann beat out third-rounder Jamon Brown at guard, and Rob Havenstein seems to be the lone bright spot at right tackle. The rest of the line—Greg Robinson at left tackle and known mediocrity Tim Barnes at center—looks rough.
It's not just the offensive line that's at fault, though; it's the actual design of the Rams offense. If you know anything about head coach Jeff Fisher, you know he's an old-school guy: a defense-first coach who favors the run game and makes "establishing the run" a priority.
To that end, the Rams flood the field with extra blocking on every non-passing down. Through Week 4, the Rams used fullback Cory Harkey on 19.8 percent of their offensive snaps, and second tight end Tyler Higbee on 34.8 percent of their snaps. Throw in the fact that Harkey and Higbee have combined for 28 yards on 11 targets and ... well, if it's obvious to me that a team is going to run, it's going to be obvious to opposing defensive coordinators. In a league where slot cornerbacks usually play 60-70 percent of the snaps, against the Rams they're only on the field about 45 percent of the time.
All those extra blockers also enable defenses to play more aggressively in the box, and this shows up in the down-and-distance splits. On second and third down with six or fewer yards to go, Gurley ran 16 times for just 25 yards through Week 4. Higbee and Harkey aren't even necessarily bad blockers—it's just that the predictability and the extra defenders stop plays before they even begin.
Gurley is a prime example of how NFL statistics don't always capture the entire picture. When we say that Gurley has only so many carries for so many yards, it's a symptom of a larger problem in Los Angeles. It's the same reason why, when we look at yards per carry in a vacuum, it takes 177 games for the rate to stabilize enough for confident predictions. Running backs rely on so many factors outside of their control to get their numbers: game script, pass offense, the blocking, the scheme. All of these things are working against Gurley right now. (Not always to the detriment of the team, though: quarterback Case Keenum has been able to deliver one-on-one balls to wide receivers for big gains almost entirely because everyone is focused on the Rams' star running back.)
Fans haven't made too much of a ruckus about Gurley being bad or overrated yet, mostly because a) the Rams are 3-2 and b) he has scored enough touchdowns to mildly satisfy fantasy forecasters. But Los Angeles can't keep winning games like this, and when they lose—and the grumbling inevitably grows louder—it'll have less to do with Gurley and everything to do with the Rams.
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