THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Todd Gurley is again surrounded. It’s Thursday afternoon on the campus at California Lutheran University, and the running back is outside the locker room at the Rams’ temporary headquarters, trying to answer what he himself cannot explain. Reporters press in close, pads out, questions ready.
That feeling Gurley knows all too well.
They’re asking him what it felt like on Monday night as the 49ers defense closed in around him, chasing him in the backfield, plugging up the middle, locking down the edge. It probably felt a little like his press conference on Thursday, only worse and more painful and with more at stake.
Gurley doesn’t know what to tell them. The score—28–0 in favor of San Francisco—tells a horror story, and not the type of opener a Hollywood screenwriter would script for the Rams’ first regular-season game since they moved back to Los Angeles after departing in 1994. The move, the hype, all the celebrity interactions and then … thud.
“Obviously,” Gurley says, “it doesn’t get much worse than zero points.”
After his presser, Gurley settles into a nearby corner, next to a Ping-Pong table and an orange ladder laid on its side that he keeps stepping perilously close to. He’s told that while he only gained 47 yards on 17 rushes against the 49ers, he actually picked up 52 yards after contact, according to Pro Football Focus. “How the hell?” he asks, as he steps backward, on top of the ladder. It wobbles but Gurley maintains his balance.
Then it starts to dawn on him, what that statistic means and how it highlights just how much time San Francisco spent in the Rams’ backfield. To reach 47 rushing yards, Gurley had to break seven tackles—often just to get back to the line. “Damn,” he says in a whisper. “That’s crazy. I’m not sure that ever happened to me before.”
That’s how Monday night unfolded for the (once-again) L.A. Rams. Quarterback Case Keenum attempted 35 passes for a not-whopping 130 yards. The offensive line yielded 19 pressures. Meanwhile, the offense is still looking for its first points in 2016, as the Rams prepare to host the Seahawks at The Coliseum this Sunday in the first NFL game in Los Angeles since 1994.
“Embarrassing,” Gurley told SI.com. “No way around it.”
Embarrassment wasn’t what Gurley expected this spring when the Rams returned to a ballyhooed welcome, with more than 10,000 fans at their first scrimmage and nearly 90,000 loyalists at their first preseason home game. That was Gurley’s image on the electronic billboards all over town, hurdling the Santa Monica Pier and other local landmarks. That was Gurley representing Gatorade, Nike, Bose, Campbell’s Chunky Soup and EA Sports. That was Gurley signing to Jay Z’s sports division at Roc Nation. If the Rams’ Hollywood sequel had a face, it was Gurley, his smile and his dreadlocks.
This spring, Gurley attended a Lakers-Cavaliers game with someone familiar with having a starring pro football role in Los Angeles—Rams great Eric Dickerson. Nearby Jack Nicholson and Selena Gomez, elite Rams running backs present and past settled into their seats. LeBron James stopped by to say hello, as did what seemed like a hundred fans.
Dickerson tried to emphasize what the game—and all the glitz that night in the Staples Center—contrasted: that what mattered was the work. That there would be more than the usual distractions, parties and girls and agents and actors, everybody wanting a piece of Gurley, his time, his money, or his fame. “Be patient,” Dickerson told Gurley.
“He also told me to enjoy it,” Gurley says. “He told me it goes by quick. Next thing you know, I’ll be 35, 40, not playing anymore, and I’ll be taking some young guy to a Lakers game myself.”
Gurley turned 22 in August, more than a year after the Rams nabbed him at No. 10 overall in the 2015 draft. His senior season at Georgia had ended with a torn left ACL, and he missed the first two weeks of the ’15 season and played sparingly in the Rams third game, before rattling off four 100-plus yard games in the next four weeks—a first for an NFL rookie in his first four starts.
After that stretch, Gurley drew comparisons to Dickerson, Herschel Walker and Adrian Peterson. He won offensive rookie of the year with 1,106 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns. In the 13 games he played, Gurley accounted for 35.8% of the Rams’ offense. He did all that, Gurley told SI.com on Thursday, despite having some doubts about his knee and how well he had recovered. It wasn’t that his knee hurt, or that he felt any lingering pain. But, “yeah, man,” Gurley said. “I thought about it. Def. Def.”
Gurley entered this season, he says, with no remaining concerns about his knee. His general manager, Les Snead, says he could tell the difference. “Last year he was rehabbing most of the time so even when he went back to play there was a limitation on the package we had for him,” Snead said at training camp in August. “Now, the whole offense is there for him, and that will translate into things, like catching the ball more out of the backfield.”
That said, the coming weeks mark a pivotal point for Gurley, a chance to quiet those that note how his numbers dropped at the end of last season, from 141.5 yards per game in his first four starts to 66.4 yards per game in last eight. The prevailing thought then, same as now, is that defenses decided to put all their emphasis into stopping Gurley. That’s certainly what it looked like the 49ers did on Monday night.
The Rams aren’t panicking. There was an ESPN report this week that their head coach Jeff Fisher is close to signing an extension. (Fisher, after practice Thursday, declined to comment on the report.)
For his part, Gurley says he spent more time than usual this summer doing lower-body workouts—squats, box jumps, hill and sand workouts—to prepare for the beating he expected throughout the season. He’s not worried, not yet, although he can sympathize with a fanbase that last rooted for the Rams in the playoffs in 2004. “Gotta stay patient,” Gurley says. “Gotta keep working. The game has slowed down for me. No excuses. We gotta get those wins.”
Sunday, against their division rival, in the NFL’s return to Los Angeles, would be the perfect time for Gurley to run wild and the Rams to win a football game. If that scenario happens—and last weekend provided no indication that it will—Gurley can recall the time this summer he visited Dickerson’s home. He particularly liked the trophy, the game balls and photographs, the Hall of Fame bust. “You can have all of this,” Dickerson told him.