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  • He gets to operate in the NFL’s best system, but he’s also the reason that system works so well. Re-visiting the MVP case for the Rams’ star running back
By Andy Benoit
October 22, 2018

Sean McVay gets irked when people give credit for the Rams’ offensive success to his system and not his players. Jared Goff is usually the one short-changed, but Todd Gurley gets it, as well. I once admitted to McVay that I was a driver of that Gurley narrative. My argument was that Gurley is a top-flight back, but he’s less valuable than some of the other top-flight backs because if you took him off the field, the Rams’ offensive play designs would change very little.

McVay diplomatically dismissed this and said this is what needs to be considered: As a coach, when you have a weapon like Gurley—especially one who is uniquely lethal in space—you find yourself willing to overemphasize certain plays and concepts. That freedom to overemphasize is immensely valuable because it helps lead to a clear offensive identity.

So even if my theory were true that, without Gurley, McVay’s Rams would still feature their patented condensed formations, outside zone play-action and backfield screens, with Gurley those concepts can be repeated and built upon so effectively that they form the foundation of football’s most explosive offense. And the brilliance of L.A.’s offense is that it does not rely an overly expansive scheme. The Rams play in “11” personnel (“1 back, 1 tight end” and 3 receivers) on almost every snap—95% of the time entering this week, per Sports Info Solutions—and feature a lot of the same looks. Their scheme is predicated on subtle wrinkles off those looks. Gurley is critical in almost all the wrinkles.

This season’s new wrinkle has been jet-sweep action, which the Rams employ more than any team in football by a huge margin. On Sunday, they gashed the 49ers with jet sweeps early on (the second week in a row an offense has gashed San Fran on the edges, by the way; Green Bay did it in the first half last Monday night). Gurley is critical to the jet-action game, either as a ballcarrier away from the jet action, a decoy on the jet action or, at times, the recipient of a jet-action handoff/pass, where two of his league-leading 14 touchdowns have come this season.

Still, this scheme continues to be built off the outside zone and play-action that defined it last year. Which keeps a spotlight on Gurley. To be honest, McVay’s explanations of Gurley’s value broadened my view of the 24-year-old-back (and my view of what comprises a player’s value). I’m more receptive to Gurley being in the discussion for MVP this year.

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Given what we know about his impact on the Rams’ scheme, there’s really only one argument against Gurley for MVP, and it’s one McVay would probably have a tougher time dismissing: Gurley has a great supporting cast. L.A.’s offensive line has become one of the NFL’s best under venerated O-line coach Aaron Kromer. That front five of—(from left to right) Andrew Whitworth, Rodger Saffold, John Sullivan, Austin Blythe and Rob Havenstein—zone-blocks better than any group and is acute at locating landmarks and assignments in the screen game. You also must consider the other end of L.A.’s play-action game. We always think of play-action as the run setting up the pass, but when you’re as deft at it as L.A., defenders take notice and the threat of the pass starts to set up your runs. Jared Goff is not yet Peyton Manning, but he’s becoming very crisp in the subtle details that make for great play-action. (If we gave love to Kromer, we should acknowledge the men who help Goff develop his details: offensive coordinator Shane Waldron and QB coach Zac Taylor). L.A.’s wideouts—coached by Eric Yarber—are also the most details-oriented in football.

It’s an almost-perfectly tuned offensive machine. And so the “Gurley for MVP” debate centers around this philosophical question: Who is more valuable, a player in an imperfect machine who makes that machine productive (think Aaron Rodgers or Ezekiel Elliott), or a player like Gurley, who is fortunate in that he operates in a “perfect” machine, but is perhaps that machine’s main component?

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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