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Los Angeles Rams HC Sean McVay commits to RB Todd Gurley being “focal point” of offense despite injury

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After Gurley suffered from a “wear and tear” issue late last year, it sounds like McVay is committing to more of both in 2019.

Los Angeles Rams HC Sean McVay and RB Todd Gurley during Super Bowl LIII, Feb. 3, 2019.
Los Angeles Rams HC Sean McVay and RB Todd Gurley during Super Bowl LIII, Feb. 3, 2019.
Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

So here’s how it was explained is that this was a wear and tear issue.

Todd Gurley had 315 touches, fourth-most of any player in the NFL and that’s sitting out two games. Since 2015, he’s had nearly 1,229 touches. That’s the most of any player.

So they said as the season wore on, that knee became a little bit worn down. Remember, that’s the knee he injured in college. So again, there was no specific injury. He was sore. He was feeling something right there, but when it came to the usage, it was not injury-related. This was more coaching decision-based in terms of the usage or lack thereof of Todd Gurley in those final two playoff games.

That was NFL Network’s Steve Wyche nearly two months ago on the injury Los Angeles Rams RB Just Todd Gurley was suffering from at the end of the regular season.

The saga of Gurley’s knee has taken plenty of twists and turns since Super Bowl LIII, the latest coming yesterday when Rams HC McVay and Gurley, among other Rams, addressed convened media as the Rams began their official offseason program.

Given Gurley’s jobshare in the postseason with RB C.J. Anderson who wasn’t even on the team until Week 16, it was fair to anticipate a reduced role for Gurley in 2019. Whatever the “wear and tear” issue which might or might not have been related to the arthritis he’s supposedly suffering from, continuing to give Gurley as many touches seemed perhaps unlikely.

Welp:

(4:55 mark for the relevant question)

(On RB Malcolm Brown’s usage this season and if it will be a two-back approach with him and Gurley)

“I think Todd has shown that he is capable of carrying the workload. We have a lot of confidence in (RB) Malcolm (Brown). For us, you want to be smart about that, but I think, like we talked about the other day, Todd is a guy that’s been a focal point of this offense. He’s going to continue to be. Really, what resulted in (a two-back approach at the end of last year), was because (Gurley) was forced to miss some games at the end of the year and we wanted to be smart about managing that load. Todd has shown that he can handle that. How we navigate through a season, it’s hard to say, but we anticipate like we said the other day, (Gurley) being the focal point of our offense. Unless I’m told otherwise, he’s a pretty versatile back and we’re going to continue to utilize all of his skillsets.”

It’s an interesting answer and one that matches what McVay said recently on the Rich Eisen Show:

(2:22 mark for the relevant quote)

You can expect Todd to be the focal part of our offense again as we move forward. He’s feeling good. He’s in a good place. I just think the natural ebbs and flows when you play 19 games, and I know he missed a couple with the amount of work that he got, it just worked out that way at the end of the year.

He got a very similar workload in ‘17. The anticipation for us is he’s in a good place. He’s feeling good. He’s going to continue to be a central part of our offense going into the ‘19 season, and I don’t see that changing.

So it’s worth clarifying where things stand with the 2019 NFL Draft coming in just a week.

Neither McVay nor Gurley in his remarks yesterday alluded to the idea that he’s going to be fully healthy for Week 1. Obviously, as Todd himself noted, it’s somewhat impossible to know how his knee will heal over the next four months. But there was a notable lack of similarity between McVay’s comments on Todd’s injury and his response on WR Cooper Kupp where he was decidedly more specific and upbeat. That’s not to say McVay wasn’t as upbeat or optimistic about Todd, but perhaps more respectful of the unknown.

Because that’s really what this is all about. The unknown of how Todd Gurley’s knee will respond. Gurley aggravated the knee in Week 1, but it responded well enough for Gurley to continue to be the bellcow. After Week 15, not so much.

The anxiety is going to be unavoidable. We just don’t know when Gurley’s knee will react like it did in Week 1 and when it will react like it did in Week 15.

But clearly, less is more in this case. The less Gurley exposes himself, the more likely he remains healthy.

If we’re to take McVay’s words to account though, it sounds as if we shouldn’t expect to see Gurley much less than we did throughout the last two seasons.

Here were Gurley’s carries per week:

That’s a pretty stark decline over the course of the season without any major loss of work due to personnel. While Brown was injured in Week 13, the Rams didn’t respond with any personnel change at running back; moreover, neither John Kelly nor Justin Davis picked up any more work than Brown had in backing up Gurley.

In the first 12 games of the season, Gurley accounted for 83.83% of the team’s carries. In the next two without Brown, that number barely moved at all increasing to 85.19%. In the playoff jobshare with Anderson across three games? Gurley accounted for 56.96%, 46.38% and 66.15% of the Rams’ carries.

So what does being a “focal point” or “central point” mean? Does it mean work rates above 80% and workloads of more than 15 carries per game? Does it mean less and allow for an expanded role for Brown? Do the Rams intend on taking a running back in the draft to take on that role?

It’s hard to say right now.

But the Rams can’t simply use Gurley with reckless abandon. They re-signed him to a massive deal in July worth $60m with 75% of it guaranteed at signing. The earliest the Rams could get out of the deal would be the 2021 offseason and that would incur dead cap space of more than $8m.

So the Rams likely are committed to Todd Gurley for the next three years. Managing his workload and limiting the wear and tear will be an absolutely vital part of Sean McVay’s job. Clearly in 2018, they didn’t manage it well. It’s probably too far to suggest it cost them the Super Bowl, but only just. And the distance between that idea and reality is probably something close to the distance between Todd Gurley helping to decide the Rams’ future and a future in which he’s sitting on the sideline.

After all, it’s a game of inches.