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Evaluating Los Angeles Rams RB Todd Gurley’s season

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Let’s take a deep dive into Gurley’s season and what the future might hold.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most interesting storylines surrounding the Los Angeles Rams in 2019 was focused on recently-extended RB Todd Gurley.

Looking at surface-level stats, conventional thinking suggests Gurley had a down year as he had 394 fewer rushing yards, five fewer rushing touchdowns, his YPC dropped from an elite 4.9 to a measly 3.8, 373 fewer receiving yards, and two fewer receiving touchdowns when compared to his 2018 season. In every sense of the word, Gurley regressed, especially when looking at box-score stats.

When we take a deeper dive into the numbers, we can begin to evaluate Gurley’s season and potential regression in more detail, and whether it was over-exaggerated or rightfully stated.

Using Pro Football Reference, here is a comparison between Gurley’s 2018 and 2019 seasons:

Rushing yards before contact:

2018: 634
2019: 457

Rushing yards before contact per rushing attempt:

2018: 2.5
2019: 2.0

Rushing yards after contact:

2018: 617
2019: 400

Rushing yards after contact per rush:

2018: 2.4
2019: 1.8

Broken tackles on rushes:

2018: 17
2019: 21

Rush attempts per broken tackle:

2018: 15.1
2019: 10.6

Yards after catch per reception:

2018: 9.9
2019: 6.3

Receptions per broken tackle:

2018: 7.4
2019: 31

As you can see, majority of Gurley’s statistics took a hit, not only in his totals, but his per-touch efficiency. The one interesting stat that does stand out is that Gurley broke more tackles and did it much more frequently in 2019 than in 2018.

Using Warren Sharp’s Sharp Football Stats, let’s take a look at Gurley’s performance broken down by direction, compare him to the league average, and compare the situational rushing success rates between the Rams’ runners.

(Link to the information from the picture can be accessed here)

This may seem like a lot of information to process, so allow me to break it down. The first picture to the left is Gurley’s success by direction. As you can see, Gurley’s most success came on outside runs to the left and to the interior (LG, C, RG), whereas his least effective runs came behind RT and outside runs to the right.

The picture right underneath that one (on the left), shows the league average success rates. As you can see, Gurley had more success running outside to the left, behind LG, C, and RG when compared to the rest of the league. He was less productive running behind RT and outside runs to the right.

Lastly, the picture to the right side shows the entire rotation of the Rams’ backfield compared to the success rate over average (rest of the league). In general, the backfield had decent success running outside left, had moderate success behind LT, and great success behind RG, but were terrible behind RT and outside runs to the right.

When looking at all directions, the backfield received a -0.9% grade, meaning they’re a below average run game.

(Link to the information from the picture can be accessed here)

This graphic shows the entire backfield of the Rams and displays the amount of successful runs, how many offensive plays, the average yards, touchdowns, and the successful play rate each player had. When comparing situations, Malcolm Brown actually had the highest successful play rate with his team-leading 50%. Gurley isn’t too far behind with a 44%, and rookie Darrell Henderson places last with a 39% success rate.

These numbers shouldn’t really come as a shock because each runner’s usage differs, and situations/play calls certainly effect these numbers. For ex: the Rams were quick to use Brown up the gut and Henderson on the boundaries. It’s a lot easier to get a negative grade (success rate) on a run to the boundary as those runs can either gain big or lose big, proving to have a higher degree of variability.

Still, these numbers are interesting and they do show just how often Brown is able to churn his legs and create extra yardage when it may not be there, and how that may differ from Gurley who has more negative runs (though he also receives much more usage).

(Link to the information from the picture can be accessed here)

Once again, this image presents a ton of info from the entirety of the running game. The first table displays the amount of carries each player received and on which down it came from, with the totals to the right.

The second table shows the YPC by each player on each down, with the totals to the right.

The third picture displays the offensive lineman and the YPC by direction. As you can see, boundary runs to the left and behind right guard were by far the most productive, whereas runs behind left tackle and right tackle were the least productive.

The last two images display the frequency in which direction run calls went (left) and how many explosive runs (10+ yards) came from each direction (right). Interestingly, the Rams elected to run behind C and LT the most, yet had the most explosive plays behind C and to the left boundary.

Strangely enough, Henderson is by far the most productive on first down, Brown is by far the most productive on second down, and Gurley by far the most productive on third down.

(Link to the information from the picture can be accessed here)

This last image displays two separate charts, with the one on the left displaying the amount of runs of 4 yards or less vs. total attempts and the chart on the right displaying runs of 5 yards or more vs. total attempts. These charts display the inefficiency and efficiency of each runner.

On the left side, you can see Gurley has the best rate among the three runners as he has the least % of his runs go for 4 yards or less.

The right side shows something similar, with Gurley leading the pack as he owns the highest % of his runs going for 5+ yards among the trio.

So what does all of this mean?

Well, to conclude, I believe Gurley is a good but not great runner. To classify as a great runner, my standard requires an elite creator that can supersede a weak offensive line and although every running back can and will improve behind a strong offensive line, an elite one will maintain elite production (specifically on a per-touch basis) regardless of situation.

Now, that isn’t to say Gurley cannot return to 2018 form. His basic box-score stats would lead you to believe he was an elite runner in 2018, and maybe he was. But in my truthful opinion, a lot of his production had to do with a dominant offensive line, great play-calling, and a strong scheme (as well as a terrific passing attack). Like I said above, every runner will benefit from that situation, and what leads me to believe that Gurley isn’t much of a different player now than he was last year was a lot of these stats, particularly the broken tackles per touch statistic as well as the amount of yards before contact. Gurley’s numbers have taken a massive hit this season — as have his touches — and he’s still broken more tackles this season than he did in 2018, a campaign some believed was MVP-worthy.

I understand the Rams couldn’t — and shouldn’t — have kicked Gurley to the curb after his awesome 2018 campaign, but they certainly shouldn’t have paid him so handsomely at such a strange point in time. Running backs have proven to wear down at a much quicker rate than other positions, and the Rams still had a fifth-year option as well as two potential franchise tags they could’ve taken advantage of prior to investing into Gurley long-term.

The decision has passed and the Rams made their choice when they handed Gurley a massive extension prior to the season, but I have a slight suspicion they may be regretting that move and I haven’t even mentioned the potential issues with his knee.

The wisest move for not only the Rams but most teams (99%) in the NFL is to invest in a stable of running backs — generally two — that are willing to rotate and their skill-sets present the ability to complement each other. This is why I believe the Rams would be wise to look for a way to exit Gurley’s deal and to spend another day two or day three draft selection on a running back, which they can then pair with Henderson and Brown.

Talent from the RB spot has been historically easy to locate, with teams hardly ever needing to invest high-draft selections or big-money paydays to running backs. You may not get an elite runner in this scenario, but this philosophy allows you to allocate more funds to positions that have a direct impact to the success of the position, such as offensive lineman.

When looking at Gurley’s “down year”, it’s easy to locate what happened and why. His touches are down likely because of the knee issue, his statistics are down because of a terrible offensive line, and neither of these things really matter because Gurley is the same player he was last year, but it doesn’t matter because of the dependency on extenuating factors (such as OL play) that both Gurley himself and the running back position often showcase.


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