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LA Rams RB Todd Gurley, Under Pressure

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Todd Gurley heads into the second season of his young career on a growing sentiment of stardom colliding with the pressures of delivering on the hype.

Los Angeles Rams RB Todd Gurley
Los Angeles Rams RB Todd Gurley
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Legend time begins now.”

LEGEND.

That’s the term Jason Reid, the Senior NFL Writer at ESPN’s The Undefeated, applied to his piece on Los Angeles Rams RB Todd Gurley.

That’s the level of expectations Gurley is being forced to live up to headed into just his second season in the NFL.

Legend status.

There’s an inherent conflict here between Gurley’s stardom and the Rams’ inability to produce winning football for more than a decade, between his skills as a running back and the fecklessness of the Rams’ offense as a whole. It’s a conflict that’s going to get resolved in 2016 one way or another.

If you need to visualize the conflict, consider the cover for ESPN The Magazine’s 2016 NFL Preview using Reid’s Gurley piece as the cover story:

ESPN The Magazine’s 2016 NFL Preview cover with Los Angeles Rams RB Todd Gurley
ESPN The Magazine’s 2016 NFL Preview cover with Los Angeles Rams RB Todd Gurley

That’s Todd Gurley gracing a magazine screaming “the offense strikes back” at you. That’s Todd Gurley who won the 2015 AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award in the NFL’s worst offense in yards. The offense struck back for the Rams in 2015, alright.

That’s the conflict, though, a football generation after Steven Jackson starred for some horrible St. Louis Rams teams - brilliance swamped by surrounding inability.

As we get ready for the 2016 season and Gurley’s first full healthy NFL season, there are three aspects that will define the ultimate resolution of that conflict that we’ll see take shape in 2016.

Can Todd Gurley win games on his own? Does he have to?

Consider this passage from the first section in Reid’s piece:

The problem isn’t Gurley’s potential. It’s that the Rams, after 21 seasons in St. Louis, are all about the LA life now. And they’re not returning home with a winning touch—they haven’t had that in a long time. So Gurley doesn’t have time to try to get there. After last year’s 7–9 season, the Rams need him to carry the offense, at least until rookie QB Jared Goff gets his stance under him.

That’s the perceived level of pressure facing Gurley in 2016, that he alone needs to hoist the offense. That after five full offseasons under Head Coach Jeff Fisher and General Manager Les Snead coming off of that 2015 season offensive mark, Gurley has to be the savior.

As I said four months ago, it’s not Gurley’s fault. It’s an unbelievable, and unfair, convergence of timelines. But it’s reality.

Gurleywood

Bigger than Gurley, bigger than Goff, the biggest star for 2016 Rams football is the city of Los Angeles.

The Rams have newfound fame in Hollywood. It brought Hard Knocks to them, albeit perhaps the most boring season of Hard Knocks since debuting on HBO. More important than the fame is the opportunity to build a new home fan base in the US’ second-biggest market. Reid again:

Forgive the requisite Hollywood tie-in to the Rams’ return to LA, but Gurley is a running back straight out of central casting...

...In the short term, all the fuss around “The Return of Football to LA” will drive attendance. But as any team owner, big market or small, will tell you, it takes victories and marquee names to keep the people coming back.

It’s only fair to consider — would Gurley have been on the cover were the Rams still in St. Louis? Would the national media care enough about a team in the bottom fourth of power rankings, a team whose entire starting offense is comprised of members of the aforementioned worst offense of last year?

If the answer’s no, and it may well be, than Los Angeles is carrying the Rams more than Gurley or Goff or anywhere else.

And if that’s the case, Gurley will have the first opportunity to define a post-Kobe Bryant Los Angeles sportscape. That may be a bigger impact long-term than whatever he can accomplish on the field in 2016.

Peer pressure

When Todd Gurley was selected with the 10th overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft, it made him the highest-selected running back since Trent Richardson went third overall three years prior. It helped re-establish the position as one of legitimacy and first-round value.

I’ve long been antagonistic regarding first-round running backs. It certainly didn’t help the Rams’ fortunes that Gurley was the fifth running back they drafted in four years, ensuring that the draft capital they spent prior to Gurley went entirely wasted: a second-round and seventh-round pick from the 2012 NFL Draft, a 2013 NFL Draft fifth-rounder and the third-round selection from the 2014 NFL Draft. Much like Jared Goff, Gurley needed to outperform his own draft stock on the opportunity costs alone. Consider how differently the Rams’ 2016 depth chart could look if those four picks had been spent on another position...

But more than that, the case for Gurley, made by Rams Head Coach Jeff Fisher himself, surrounded the idea that Gurley was the kind of talent you couldn’t afford to pass on. A once-in-a-generation running back (Reid again):

“These guys only come out once every 10 years,” Fisher told the NFL Network last season.

Think about that. That’s the Rams Head Coach claiming Todd Gurley is going to be the best running back of the next decade. The next draft immediately following Gurley’s selection in 2015 saw a running back taken fourth overall, six spots higher than Gurley.

Are you 100% certain that Gurley will be a “better” running back than Ezekiel Elliot for the next nine years?

Are you 100% certain the Gurley will be better than LSU RB Leonard Fournette? Than Florida St. RB Dalvin Cook? Than Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey? Than every running back who is going to come out of college for the next eight years?

Because it sure sounds like Jeff Fisher is.

Fisher didn’t suggest Gurley can be a reliable running back. He didn’t suggest he’d be good. He said he’d be “special.” “Special.” The best.

Gurley’s under pressure on all fronts. There’s pressure on Gurley to deliver wins single-handedly. There’s pressure to carry the LA market. There’s pressure to outperform his peers.

Forget the numbers in 2016. If Gurley can just survive that much pressure in his second NFL season, that will be an unqualified success.