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Can Sean McVay coach a successful run game without Todd Gurley and top OL

Can Sean McVay coach a successful run game for the Rams in 2023?

NFL: Preseason-Los Angeles Chargers at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

One of the keys to the Los Angeles Rams success in 2023 will be whether or not they can successfully incorporate the run game in the offense and be more balanced. Head coach Sean McVay seemed to find something at the end of last season with Cam Akers. However, ever since Todd Gurley’s injury at the end of the 2018 season, the Rams have struggled to find a consistent run game.

When McVay joined the Rams in 2017, his Shanahan-West Coast offense inspired run game took the NFL by storm. Gurley won the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2017 and may have won it again in 2018 had he not gotten hurt. In those two years, the Rams ranked sixth and first in EPA per rush.

In those same years, the Rams also had extraordinarily good offensive lines. The Rams ranked 3rd in adjusted line yards in 2017 according to Football Outsiders. Adjusted line yards takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line. Meanwhile, in 2018, the Los Angeles offensive line was historically good. The Rams’ 5.49 adjusted line yards is the best since Football Outsiders started keeping track in 1996.

It’s true that a run game is heavily dependent on the offensive line and other surrounding factors. However, scheme plays a large role in a successful run game as well. The issue here is that without a top offensive line, Sean McVay has just one other season with a running game that ranked inside the top-10.

The fact of the matter is, it’s been five years since the Rams have had a top-10 run game in EPA. Outside of a three year stretch from 2016-2018, McVay has called just two other offenses that finished with a run game that ranked inside the top-15. Last year just happened to be rock bottom. Through eight weeks, the Rams run game was among the least successful running offenses of the last decade.

This goes back to McVay’s time in Washington as well. In 2016, Washington’s run game ranked fifth in the NFL. However, their offensive line also finished sixth in adjusted line yards. It’s the only offense led by McVay that finished inside the top-10 in rushing without Gurley.

It’s fair to say that the Rams have struggled to find consistent talent at the running back position. However, we’re also in an era in which if the blocking up front is good and a coach has the ability to scheme a good run game, a running back can succeed. It’s why the value of the position has diminished so much over the past five years.

While Kyle Shanahan has consistently gotten production out of late round picks such as Elijah Mitchell and Raheem Mostert, McVay has seemingly struggled outside of a three year stretch. The question here is whether or not McVay can still design a successful run game without a running back of the caliber of Todd Gurley.

The fact that McVay has gone five years without a top-10 run game is concerning. He hasn’t had bad offensive lines either in that time period. In 2020, the Rams offensive line ranked seventh in adjusted line yards and fifth in run-blocking according to Pro Football Focus. The run game meanwhile ranked just 19th in EPA per rush. During the Super Bowl season in 2021, the Rams offensive line ranked sixth in adjusted line yards. The run game ranked 20th.

Despite having a top-10 offensive line in run-blocking in two out of the last three years, McVay’s run game has ranked inside the bottom half of the league. Again, it’s fair to note that Cam Akers was hurt the majority of the 2021 season with his achilles tear. Still, we’re in an era in which if the blocking and scheme are good, a running back can be successful. In two out of the last three years, the Rams have had one of those things.

The 2023 season will be about McVay getting back to his roots and growing as a head coach and play-caller. A big part of that will be getting back to running the ball and finding what works in that area. McVay comes from a coaching tree that is meant to help running backs be successful. That happened in 2017 when Gurley went from a career-low 3.2 yards per carry in Jeff Fisher’s final season to Offensive Player of the Year.

It will be up to McVay to evolve his scheme and mix in more gap concepts along with the zone runs that made his offense so successful early on with the Rams. The Rams need to find the run game this season and a lot of that will be up to McVay. He’ll need to prove that without a Gurley-esque running back and historically good offensive line, he can still have a successful offense that can run the ball.