When the LA Rams had their quick Sean McVay-fueled turnaround in 2017, they did so with a trio of new receivers that we all talk about a lot. Then they did replace one of those receivers with an even better receiver and we talked about them some more. Of course, we also talked about Todd Gurley.
In spite of his talented teammates on the outside of the pocket, Gurley finished second on the team in targets in 2017 with 87 throws his way. He caught 64 for 788 yards and six touchdowns. The following year, Gurley “slipped” to third in targets behind Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks (Cooper Kupp did miss half of the season) but he still got 81 passes thrown at him in 14 games. The rate of throws his way per game remained steady.
But as we already know, things last year did not go the way that Gurley or McVay wanted them to on offense and even though he was active for 15 games, the running back slipped to sixth in targets behind Woods, Kupp, Tyler Higbee, Cooks, and Gerald Everett. The team now focused more on the trio of receivers and duo of tight ends. Malcolm Brown and Darrell Henderson finished with just six targets each.
The Rams were disappointed in their offensive output but it wasn’t a bad passing offense. LA ranked 13th in passing DVOA in spite of Gurley getting just 49 throws and catching 31 for 207 yards. Compared to the 2017-2018 Rams, we may think that not utilizing the RB in the passing game in a Christian McCaffrey world is a bad thing.
But comparing to the best offenses in the NFL, we see that a McCaffrey-led offense is not necessarily the most efficient path to success.
This morning I made a spreadsheet of the top-10 target-getters for all 32 teams. My inspiration being that the Rams didn’t have a running back in the top five of targets, which seemed rare for today, and sure enough only six other teams were spread out this way.
Teams that didn’t feature a RB in their top five (Passing Offense DVOA ranking):
Baltimore Ravens (1)
Tennessee Titans (6)
LA Rams (13)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (18)
Miami Dolphins (25)
Cincinnati Bengals (28)
Among these seven teams, we see the two best offenses in the NFL, both of whom were also led in targets by a tight end. We also see the Titans, the league’s hottest offense in the second half of the season and Ryan Tannehill dumped passes off to backs at a lower rate than Marcus Mariota. We did see arguably the league’s two worst teams, but the Dolphins were pumping a lot of passes to Kenyan Drake before trading him to the Arizona Cardinals, then shifted that attention to Mark Walton, Kalen Ballage, and Patrick Laird. The Bengals didn’t have a single RB draw attention, but together Joe Mixon and Gio Bernard had 88 targets.
I’m not saying this is monumentally different than the Chiefs, who spread the ball around to LeSean McCoy, Damien Williams, and Darrel Williams (90 combined targets), but any idea that the modern NFL offense may “need” or even “want” a McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, or Alvin Kamara-type is short-sighted. The New Orleans Saints had 97 targets for Kamara, but also feature an elite QB and WR. The Ravens seem like a team ideal for running back dump-offs but Mark Ingram was only targeted 29 times and they instead had three tight ends in their top five for targets.
The Rams want to get back to where they were in 2017-2018 when Gurley was at his best. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that they need the next Gurley.