- Sean McVay has transformed the Rams' offense in his first year at the helm as head coach, but keeping running backs coach Skip Peete has helped tailback Todd Gurley emerge as a major threat as a receiver as well.
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif.— Todd Gurley did not want to seem demanding during his first conversation with new Rams coach Sean McVay over the winter. So the third-year running back kept his one request to himself while congratulating the new boss. But a few days later, he couldn’t help himself.
I’ll give this a shot, Gurley thought while dialing McVay. I’d really like to keep working with Coach Peete.
Gurley has called Los Angeles’ 2016 season “a nightmare.” After winning Rookie of the Year in 2015, the 2015 No. 10 pick finished 40th out of 41 qualifying rushers in yards per carry. As the team keeled toward 4-12, the normally deferential back said, “We looked like a middle-school offense out there.” But now, given the chance for a fresh start under a 31-year-old offensive wunderkind, Gurley wanted his running backs coach, Skip Peete, to stay.
For his part, Peete had already been talking to friends around the league since the Rams’ regime change. He’d worked for four teams over 11 seasons and moved his twins three times. What was one more? But McVay—impressed by Peete’s knowledge and moved by Gurley’s pitch—decided to retain the running backs coach in L.A.. Peete’s 10-year-old son Reeco would get to stay at the same school and keep playing for his youth soccer team, all while his dad got to keep developing one of the NFL’s best running backs.
Entering Sunday’s game against the Seahawks, Gurley leads the league with seven touchdowns and sits behind only Chiefs' RB Kareem Hunt in yards (362). His stats have improved every week, from a 40-yard outing in Week 1 to 121 during L.A.’s upset in Dallas last week. And he’s gotten better as each game has played out, too, averaging 5.1 yards per fourth quarter rush. Now it’s the defenses having nightmares.
“He got stronger as the game progressed,” McVay said this week. “Some of those runs on that last drive, 10, 11-yard runs where he’s moving the chains, keeping the clock running … are what makes Todd special and we expect to see the same thing moving forward.”
You hear that and you think about Gurley and his offensive line wearing down the Cowboys defense as the game wore on. But there’s more to it, Peete says.
“When [Gurley] comes to the sideline after a drive, he can explain exactly what the defense is doing,” Peete says. “He’ll say, ‘Let’s go back to this run.’ We may not have gotten much on it the first few times, but we call it the next time and it’s a bigger run.”
Those big fourth quarters are mental as much as physical, basically—about breaking down opponents’ schemes in addition to their bodies. The quarterback might always be the coach on the field, but Gurley is a capable coordinator. And this year, he’s sprinkled in a new bit of advice for the staff when he gets to the sideline after a passing play: Let’s run that route again, I don’t think that guy can cover me.
While Gurley’s renewed rushing success calls back to his rookie breakout, what he’s done in the passing game has established him as the fulcrum of the NFL’s highest-scoring offense. He leads qualified rushers with 234 receiving yards and Pro Football Focus ranks him as the best pass-catcher out of the backfield this year, above specialists like Christian McCaffrey, Tarik Cohen and Chris Thompson. This from a player who hadn’t scored a receiving touchdown in the NFL until this year and had never topped 41 catches with the Rams or in college.
The revolution started in May, when McVay was installing his offense for the first time and consistently telling everyone on the field that whoever executed on a route in practice would get a similar opportunity on gameday. Gurley decided the ‘whoever’ would be him. Plus, he figured, “I’ve been playing football my whole life, I hope I’m able to catch a football.” In a sense, how hard could it be? He started paying attention to the route concepts receivers were being taught. He stayed after practice and worked on every cut he’d need to make, how he’d need to line up, the depth he was supposed to get on every route, the release at the line of scrimmage. It just so happened that Peete coached wideouts in the 1990s. Together they watched film of Marshall Faulk and Matt Forte. They discussed how to respond to a linebacker’s coverage. Based on the questions Gurley asked in the classroom, Peete knew he was doing additional film work at home.
And it has paid off to the tune of a catch-and-run for at least 20 yards in every game so far this year. The biggest came against the Cowboys, a go-ahead 53-yard score on a skinny post. Gurley read the linebackers, got behind them, and broke in to shake safety Jeff Heath on the way to the end zone.
Gurley finished the game with a career-high 215 scrimmage yards, but not before leaping over Heath on a 17-yard run. Those hurdles are the clearest sign that Gurley has refound his form after a disastrous L.A. premiere. In Week 2, he hurdled two Washington defenders. A state champion hurdler back in North Carolina, Gurley’s leaps were the signature move of his rookie campaign.
“I remember watching him as a rookie, jumping over guys, thinking this guy is crazy,” says Peete, who wasn’t coaching in 2015. “But then last year it didn’t happen one time.”
In 2017, Gurley is getting to the second level enough, processing plays quickly enough, and feeling confident enough to leave his feet again. The 23-year-old tailback is also feeling confident enough to go on an NFL Network set and say “We’re going to whoop up” on the Cowboys as he did following the team’s Thursday night victory against the 49ers. That elicited a “long conversation” between him and Peete, but the coach is still glad to see that swagger back in his back—though he’s not surprised by it.
“Most running backs have a bust-out season as a rookie and then a mediocre season as defenses adjust, and then they find their niche,” he says. Gurley’s niche might just happen to be in the end zone.