Gurley, man: Rams' rookie embodies best traits of running back legends
This story appears in the Nov. 23, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
The Rams' running backs file into their ground-floor meeting room most Saturday mornings and settle into blue theater-style chairs across from an expansive dry-erase board. Ben Sirmans, their position coach, fires up the projector, a remote affixed to his right hand. He wants the clips he shows to teach and motivate and inspire, and so he plays highlights of famous running backs—men his charges should aspire to emulate on the field. There's Adrian Peterson slicing through defenders, Eric Dickerson dancing upfield, Herschel Walker knocking linebackers back in time. An R&B mix without the ampersand.
Sirmans's youngest pupil, Todd Gurley, likes to sit in the front row, Jolly Ranchers lining his pockets, a pen perched over the notebook he carries everywhere but on the field. This is how Gurley spends his weekends: On Saturdays he examines highlights; on Sundays he creates them.
Gurley is a generator of comparisons. He's the first rookie tailback in NFL history to gain at least 100 yards in each of his first four starts. He's the (baby) face of a once-moribund franchise—one that began this season 4–3, somehow its best start since 2006. He's the next Peterson, the next Walker, the next Dickerson. His play encourages the loftiest comparisons, despite a sample size of just six total starts. That's because his skill set—a rare blend of speed, size, power, balance and vision—makes him less like any one of the greats he is compared with and more like a blend of their best attributes.
“He reminds you of three or four different people, and those people, they're usually the best at one style or skill,” says Rams general manager Les Snead, reclining behind the desk in his office, where a framed Dickerson jersey hangs on the wall. “That's what's rare about Todd. It takes like four backs to become one him.”
From 2007 to '11 the Rams went 15–65, the worst five-year stretch for any franchise in NFL history. Snead—a man whose shoulder-length, sandy blond hair raises comparisons of its own: a young David Beckham, and Reality Bites-era Ethan Hawke—took over in '12 and immediately began building a formidable defense that would inch the franchise toward respectability. Then Gurley arrived last April, a steal as the No. 10 pick in the draft, and transformed St. Louis into a playoff contender for the first time in more than a decade. (He also helped shift this season's story line away from, you know, the team's rumored move to Los Angeles.)
The person least impressed with Gurley's start? That would be the man himself. Today he sits on a ledge outside his team's locker room, feet dangling, dreadlocks spilling out of the gray hoodie pulled over his head. He stuffs an interview with utterances of “I don't know, bro,” and “I can't explain that,” and “I got nothing.” Finally, after considerable prodding, he allows that he is indeed familiar with the comparisons. He's been the next someone since long before he played college ball at Georgia. He came up admiring backs like C.J. Spiller and Le'Veon Bell, but he emulated one above all others.
“It's a no-brainer,” Gurley says. “Everybody wants to be like AP. But there's only one AP.”
Adrian Peterson welcomes the comparison. “That young guy reminds me of myself,” he says.
“It's just a different feel [for the Rams this year]...the difference now is experience. And Todd.”
Adrian Peterson was Gurley before Gurley. Labeled “fragile” after twice breaking his collarbone at Oklahoma, he slipped to the Vikings at No. 7 in the 2007 draft. The comparisons for him started early—Dickerson, Jim Brown—and he set out to prove them apt. In his professional debut Peterson grabbed a 60-yard touchdown reception. Four days later the nickname Purple Jesus first appeared on UrbanDictionary.com. In Week 8 of that rookie season he broke Jamal Lewis's single-game rushing record, amassing 296 yards against the Chargers.
Flash forward through six Pro Bowl appearances. Peterson became aware of Gurley in recent years through friends who raved about a runner worthy of association. For him, it was like looking into a distorted mirror. The new guy, who averaged a silly 7.4 yards per carry at Georgia in 2014, didn't quite match Peterson's lateral quickness, but he came close, despite being bigger. "He's like me," Peterson says, "in that people doubted whether he could play at the next level."
Gurley missed the Rams' first two games this season while he recovered from a left ACL injury, and he carried only six times for nine yards against the Steelers in Week 3. But in that inauspicious debut Snead saw everything he needed. “You're like, ‘Wow—if we make this block, if he hits this crease, we're going to see the Todd Gurley we saw at Georgia,’” the GM says.
That's exactly what happened next: 146 yards against the Cardinals, 159 against the Packers, 128 and two touchdowns against the Browns, 133 and another score against the 49ers. Here he was, like Peterson before him, breaking records before he was fully broken in. Gurley hurdled defenders and ripped off four runs of 40-plus yards, more this season than any player not named AP. He's even excelled in pass protection. “I've always been scared of the Rams because their defense has been so good,” says Warren Moon, Hall of Fame quarterback and now a radio analyst. “Gurley was the question mark. Nobody knew how effective he'd be. I don't think anybody thought he'd be this good this fast.”
Snead's favorite play? It's not Gurley's 71-yard TD sprint against San Francisco, or his 55-yard scamper against Green Bay. Snead instead calls up on his laptop a third-and-one against Cleveland. It's the fourth quarter, the Rams are leading 17–6 and sitting on the Browns' 26. Everyone in the stadium knows what's coming, and yet Gurley takes the handoff, shifts left, away from a defender in the backfield, finds the crease and falls forward three yards for a first down. It's an efficient run to keep a drive alive, and three plays later St. Louis pulls away for good on—of course—a 16-yard touchdown jaunt by Gurley.
Spectacular and subtle, Gurley impacts both sides of the ball. On offense he adds explosiveness (even with his late start, he's on pace for 15 runs of 20 yards or more; the Rams have averaged just nine per season this decade), helps control the clock (remember that Cleveland game?), picks up first downs (a commanding 5.5 per start) and demands attention from defenders who might otherwise rush the passer or double receivers (as if the Rams have any; here Gurley gets very little help). For St. Louis's defense he steals possessions from opposing QBs, affording his teammates extra rest.
“It's just a different feel,”says James Laurinaitis, a Rams linebacker since 2009. “We're mentally tougher. We've been the youngest team in football. The difference now is experience.
Herschel Walker was Peterson before Peterson, even if his path to the NFL, through the USFL, was far more complicated. His comparisons—Brown, O.J. Simpson—came later, after he scored 12 touchdowns as an NFL rookie for Dallas in 1986, including two in his first start.
All is quiet at a Rams practice in early November—until a group clad in black Bellator MMA sweatshirts walks onto the field. Players point at the faction's most chiseled specimen, a 53-year-old retired running back who did 700 consecutive push-ups that morning and who weighs 227 pounds—just two more than when he retired, after the 1997 season.
Years ago, while he waited for a speaking engagement at an Air Force base in Delaware, Walker whittled away the hours by watching highlights on his laptop of Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers. He never thought about that afternoon again—until he saw Gurley in college. Then it hit him, an unmistakable sense of déjà vu. Man, he thought, that's Gale Sayers.
Walker had first become aware of Gurley shortly before he committed to Walker's alma mater, Georgia, in 2012. Gurley's scholarship was even financed in the name of Herschel's son, Christian, and he arrived on campus to much fanfare, as North Carolina's AP Player of the Year. “I noticed the balance he had, and the awareness,” says Walker. “I felt like he could carry on the tradition and make Georgia—not USC—the capital of running backs. I knew he was special.”
It took but one play for Gurley to prove his forerunner right: In the first quarter of the first game of his freshman season, Gurley returned a kickoff 100 yards for a score. He always was a fast learner, a natural talent. His parents claim he rode a 10-speed bicycle at age 3. He played tackle football in North Carolina at 6. He became the second freshman in Bulldogs history—Walker being the first—to run for at least 1,000 yards. “His blood pumps differently than most people's,” says Georgia coach Mark Richt. “He's not your normal ‘great back’ even. From the waist down, he's built like a Clydesdale. He just glides."
In Athens, Gurley gained wide renown. He would goof off in workouts, then throw 400 pounds on a bar and squat five times with ease. He was a Heisman front-runner early in his junior year. “It felt,” says Aaron Murray, his UGA teammate, “like every time he touched the ball he scored.” But college was also Gurley's first experience inside the fishbowl of athletic fame. In 2014 he admitted taking money for signing autographs, costing him four games and sparking national outrage over the NCAA's rules. He became a flash point in the debate over college athletes' rights: someone who couldn't profit off his fame while the university cashed in. “The NCAA can pimp you out,” says Dickerson, a Hall of Fame back who had his own issues with the governing body for college sports. “But you can't make a dime off your jersey. Who do you think makes that jersey? The player? Or the fabric? They make millions off these players like they're slaves.”
Gurley returned on Nov. 15, against ninth-ranked Auburn, and racked up 138 rushing yards and a TD in a stunning 34–7 win. “It was, ‘Here he comes again,’” recalls Richt. “This beast.” But in the fourth quarter Georgia called a power run play; Gurley saw a hole, bounced left and tried to cut back. His left knee buckled. It felt, at first, like a hyperextension. But an MRI confirmed the ACL tear. “I was just like, ‘Here we go again,’” says Gurley. “Another setback.”
The injury solidified one of the comparisons: Peterson had shredded the ACL and MCL in his left knee in December 2011 and returned in nine months to win the 2012 MVP. The night he suffered that injury, Peterson told his father in the Vikings' locker room that he would return to football faster than any player before him. “It's all mind-set,” Peterson says. “People tell you it takes a year and a half, and that's embedded in your mind. You can't listen to them.”
Gurley approached his injury the same way: without emotion, confident in modern medicine. He declared for the NFL draft last December, then rehabbed at Georgia and trained at the EXOS training facility in Gulf Breeze, Fla., twice a day, five days a week. Looking back, he describes the process as “fun.”
“I mean, it could have been worse,” he says.
The time Gurley waded into a training camp brawl, iced-up ACL and all—“That's a knight trait right there,” says Snead.
Eric Dickerson was Walker before Walker. He set the NFL rushing record for rookies with 1,808 yards in 1983, becoming the first in a long line of standout Rams rushers that would include Jerome Bettis, Marshall Faulk, Steven Jackson.
Dickerson first heard of Gurley a few years ago. At first, the name—pronounced “girlie”—stood out to him. Then he saw the kid play. “He's a different kind of runner,” says Dickerson. “He has great speed, great moves, great instincts. I told everyone before the draft: He's going to be a monster.”
Gurley wasn't ready to perform at the scouting combine in February. Instead he talked. And talked. “I needed a tape recorder to play the same [spiel over and over],” he says. “My leg ... my history....” He trails off. He doesn't say “the autographs,” but it's implied. Ultimately, Gurley spoke with 24 teams. Some, like the Rams, who met with him for 15 minutes and then disappeared, showed little interest. For St. Louis, that was by design. The Rams, in fact, had Gurley atop their draft board—“Scenario A,” according to Snead.
Worried that running-back-needy teams would trade up for their man, St. Louis's front office kept quiet. Silence of the Rams. Only Snead, coach Jeff Fisher and vice president of football operations Kevin Demoff knew how badly they wanted Gurley. “We definitely thought, ‘This kid can be like Adrian,’” says Snead, who keeps quotations tacked up on a bulletin board in his office. Gurley embodied one of them: ALWAYS FOCUS ON THE LONG TERM, BECAUSE THE SHORT TERM IS BY DEFINITION SHORT. The GM didn't care how soon Gurley might play, only that he would. Eventually.
In the end, Gurley and his bad knee fell to the Rams, for whom he represented the next step in a rebuilding process on a team constructed to fit Fisher's specifications. The majority of the NFL may focus on passes and points, but Fisher had the oldest formula in football: Play good defense, run the ball, control the clock. With the Titans, from 1994 through 2009, he won first using a bulldozer, Eddie George, and then a sprinter, Chris Johnson. In Gurley he saw a combination of the two.
Gurley, meanwhile, progressed this spring and summer from rehab to noncontact drills to scout-team reps to regular practice. He focused only on football, watching television in his spare time. On his 21st birthday, in August, he celebrated not with a night out or a new car but by hunkering down at training camp. He did extra work with reserve running back Benny Cunningham after practices, retreating to the Jugs machine, going over pass protections, running routes. During first-team snaps he stood behind quarterback Nick Foles and the offense, studying play calls and the QB's cadence.
Finally in late June, early July, Gurley says he felt close to 100% healthy. And yet he held out another two months. That way, when he did step on the field, he wouldn't be concerned. “I wouldn't have gone out there if I had a lack of confidence,” he says.
Foles saw the payoff the first time he handed off to the rookie. “He was so smooth,” he says. “So effortless and natural.” Laurinaitis was sold the first time Gurley faced a live defense: “You were like, ‘Wow.’”
Snead was already a believer, convinced during a training camp practice against the Cowboys. Gurley hadn't participated in that scrimmage, but when a brawl between the two teams broke out, he grabbed his helmet and waded into the fray, his valuable left knee still wrapped in ice. “If you're developing knights, you look at that and you say, ‘That's a knight trait right there,’” Snead says.
“Then you're like, ‘O.K., can we please get him back on the sideline and out of the fray?’”
On Nov. 8, the real Peterson and the next Peterson met on the same field in Minneapolis and played a throwback game that recalled earlier eras, before the NFL became dominated by prolific QBs and aerial offensive assaults. The two backs combined for 53 carries, 214 yards and two touchdowns in a knockdown contest won in overtime by Peterson's Vikings 21–18.
Their meeting, and the way the game unfolded, reinforced the value of a position that in recent years has been considered less and less important. In fact Peterson looks around the league and sees a renaissance for running backs. He points to Week 7, when a whopping 11 runners gained at least 110 yards. He notes that two backs—Gurley and the Chargers' Melvin Gordon—were selected in the first round this year, after consecutive drafts where none went that high (the previous first round to pass without a back being taken: 1963).
“It's supply and demand,” says Peterson. “Outside of Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, guys like that, [the QB pool] is watered down. That's why I feel like we're going to transition back into a run-first league. That's what football is built on: Barry Sanders, Walter Payton, Jim Brown. It was poetic the way they ran.”
Dickerson takes Peterson's notion one step further, toward the realm of conspiracy theory. “I don't know if it was teams or the league that tried to diminish the [running back],” he says, “but they did. They tried to underpay at the position. What you're seeing now is a shift the other way.” Both men believe that the caliber of backs available today will lead more teams to run with increasing frequency. That's why their lineage will continue, because players like Dickerson, Walker, Peterson and Gurley keep coming up. As the Rams struggle to stay in the playoff race—Sunday's loss to the Bears put them at 4–5—they're careful with those comparisons, aware of their running back's injury history, elated with his start. Gurley, meanwhile, shelved the bulky knee brace before the Browns game in Week 6. He's declined many of the interview requests that pour into the Rams' p.r. department, remaining as grounded as he was upon his arrival in St. Louis.
For the most part, that has left Fisher to speak for his young back, and at the end of one early-November practice the coach fields another round of Gurley-related queries. He says he's never seen a player—any player—start the way this rookie has. He says he's never seen Gurley overwhelmed. He's trying to detail what cannot easily be explained. And then he glances over his shoulder and points at one of the Rams' practice fields. It's nearly empty. Everyone is gone, save for one player, who's catching passes from the Jugs machine.
The first Todd Gurley is hard at work.