On Sunday, Rams emerging star Todd Gurley meets the league's current standard-bearer, Adrian Peterson, in a rare meeting of standout running backs.
Don’t tell the St. Louis Rams that using a high draft pick on a running back is a bad decision, or that the NFL's new rules designed to open up the passing game have made the tailback position less and less of a factor. When the Rams took Todd Gurley with the 10th overall pick in last year’s draft, they defied conventional wisdom in more ways than one.
Not only did the former Georgia star become the first running back selected in the first round since 2012, but also he was fewer than six months removed from suffering a torn ACL that kept him from participating in many of the pre-draft workouts. Plus, once he was fully healthy, the Rams were intent on making him the focal point of the smashmouth, ground-and-pound offense that head coach Jeff Fisher prefers. With the addition of a talent like Gurley, they figured they could finally properly implement the power running game that Fisher had envisioned after arriving in St. Louis three years ago.
That’s one of the reasons the Rams had Gurley as the top overall player on their 2015 draft board, and — despite the injury concerns — why they bucked the trend by using their selection on someone many thought was a reach, but who they projected to be a unique, game-changing player.
It hasn’t taken too long for Gurley to make the Rams look smart. They slowly worked him into the lineup at the start of the season, holding him out of the first two games and then using him in a limited capacity on Sept. 27 against the Steelers (six rushes, nine yards). Finally, Gurley made his first NFL start the following week, and he has been rewriting the record books ever since.
Following his 20-carry, 133-yard effort against the 49ers in Week 8, he has more rushing yards in his first four career starts (566) than any player since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger. During that stretch, he’s been both incredibly dominant and consistent — the fewest yards he gained in a start was 128 in Week 7. Gurley is the first rookie in league history with at least 125 rushing yards in four straight games; the only other rookie to run for 100-plus yards in four of his first five games was Adrian Peterson, in 2007. Overall, Gurley has rushed for more yards in his first five NFL contests (575) than anyone except Eric Dickerson (645) and Peterson (607).
It sounds crazy to consider less than a month into his pro football career, but Gurley might be the best running back in the league right now. He sits atop the rushing leaderboard with an average of 115 yards per game — no other player is even in triple digits — and also leads all qualified backs in yards per rush (6.1). While he likely won’t break the rookie rushing record of 1,808 yards set by Dickerson in 1983, Gurley has an outside chance of becoming the fifth first-year player to reach 1,600 rushing yards. He’d have to average 114 yards over the Rams’ final nine games, which doesn’t seem impossible considering he’s bettered that total in each of his four starts.
What makes Gurley so special is his incredible blend of power and speed. He is a bruising back with the strength to churn out yards up the middle — Gurley is averaging 6.9 yards per rush between the tackles this season, the best in the NFL among qualified rushers — and also is a dynamic runner capable of exploding for big plays on the outside any time he touches the ball. Despite missing the first part of the season, he already has a league-best four rushes of at least 40 yards (one in each of his four starts). Gurley is just the third player in NFL history — rookie or veteran — with a run of at least 40 yards in four straight games, joining Tiki Barber in 2002 and Steven Jackson in 2007.
He has transformed the Rams’ offense because of his ability to pick up chunk yardage on early downs, often putting the team in a favorable position to move the chains and extend drives. Gurley is averaging a whopping 7.5 rushing yards on first down, the highest mark in the league among players with at least 20 attempts. His dominance in crunch time, though, might be Gurley’s most impressive trait. In the fourth quarter when his team is either trailing or leading by seven or fewer points, Gurley has averaged 9.9 yards per rush. He doesn’t tire easily, and when the team needs a spark late in the game, Gurley has stepped up and delivered for the Rams this season.
So far in his short career, Gurley is showing that he is the type of electrifying back capable of igniting and elevating a team from pretender to legit contender. After starting the season with two losses in their first three games, the Rams are 3–1 in Gurley’s starts and now sit just one game back of the conference’s final wild card spot. They are averaging 21 points and 340 yards per game over the past four weeks, a considerable jump from their numbers in the first three weeks of the season (17 points and 274 yards per game). In second place in the NFC West, the Rams are in relatively uncharted waters. They are above .500 this late in the season for the first time since 2006, and are looking for just their second three-game win streak under Fisher.
Up next is a key road matchup against the 5–2 Vikings, another upstart club fighting for contention in the NFC. Both teams are firmly in the thick of the playoff hunt, powered by elite defenses and superhuman running backs. Beyond the obvious postseason implications, the game also presents an intriguing on-field storyline: it is the first meeting between the Rams’ rookie and Adrian Peterson, the player that many compared Gurley to when he declared for the draft last year.
The two were each top-10 picks (Peterson went seventh overall in 2007) and have near-identical muscular builds: Peterson is 6-foot-1, 220 pounds; Gurley is the same listed height and 227 pounds. Along with their physical resemblances, Gurley has been Peterson’s match on the gridiron as well. He has mirrored his statistical production through their first five career games, trailing him slightly in yards (607 vs. 575), yards per rush (6.3 vs. 6.1) and rushing touchdowns (four to three). Both have shown the explosiveness to hit home runs on the edge, and also the strength to grind out yards in the trenches.
Now, even at age 30 and entering the expected decline phase of his career, Peterson still is running hard. He has returned from his year away from football with a vengeance, ranking third in the NFL in both total rushing yards and attempts. He’s on pace for nearly 1,500 yards on the ground, a milestone that only four players — Walter Payton, Corey Dillon, Tiki Barber and Curtis Martin — have attained in a season in their 30s. Although his efficiency is slightly down this year, Peterson remains one of the most talented and driven runners in the league.
So, the present and the future of the position are set to collide on Sunday. It’s the aging star versus the guy primed to take his place, both trying to halt the supposed demise of the workhorse franchise back in today’s quarterback-driven NFL while helping their respective teams make a push for the playoffs. In a sport where passing is no passing fancy, watching these two tote the ball should be quite the rush.