It was a gorgeous practice. It was a troubling practice.
A warm mid-afternoon sun glistened off the surrounding hills of Thousand Oaks on Thursday and bathed the Rams in the light of the impending playoffs.
But if you looked closely enough, you saw the shadow.
It darkened an offensive workout that contained a stranger in the backfield. It cooled an energy that had once been the NFL’s most intense. It stretched from here into the first weeks of January.
It wasn’t the shadow of a presence, but an absence. It was Todd Gurley. He wasn’t there. He didn’t come to the field. The heartbeat of this team was beating elsewhere, and the silence was startling.
Gurley wasn’t taking handoffs; that was John Kelly, a rookie with four career rushing yards.
Gurley wasn’t catching passes out of the backfield; that was C.J. Anderson, a veteran on his fourth team in three years after having been recently cut from the Oakland Raiders
Gurley was somewhere being treated for a knee injury suffered Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, a setback of an undisclosed nature containing a mixed message.
In one breath Thursday, Gurley said: “I plan to go on Sunday, we’ll just see from there.’’
Yet in the next breath, he acknowledged he did not plan on practicing this week, and when asked if he could play if the game was being held immediately, he said, “Today? That’s a tough question. I haven’t tried to run so, yeah, that’s a tough question.’’
He hasn’t even tried to run yet? And it’s already Thursday? Here’s an easy answer to that tough question.
Don’t run. Don’t play. Not this week. Not next week. Shut him down until the playoffs.
As bad as they might look with Gurley not on the field, the Rams need to bench him for the final two weeks of the season to rest that knee for the important stuff, that being a chance to record their first postseason win since returning to Los Angeles.
They cannot win that game without Gurley. Shut him down. Now.
Sure, the Rams will miss their offensive leader against the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers. Without him, they could even blow one of those games and lose their first-round bye.
It doesn’t matter. If he aggravates the knee, they have little chance in the playoffs no matter whom or where they play.
Ignore his Sunday plans. Shut him down. Yesterday.
“We’ve got a first-round bye that we want to get, we need to go get that,’’ Gurley protested. “We’re not worrying about three weeks from now, we need to worry about this week.”
Gurley spoke like a player itching to get back on the field. That’s what he should say. That’s what leaders say. But the Rams cannot listen.
“We got a game to win,’’ Gurley continued to protest. “I’m pretty sure, me being out there, if I can be out there, I would put this team in a good position to help them win, so why wouldn’t I be out there, you know, if I can play?”
Why wouldn’t he be out there? Maybe because he was limping through much of the game Sunday, and was even pulled for part of it. Maybe because the incredible strain on his body — he’s had the most touches in the NFL among running backs in the last two seasons — is finally starting to take its toll.
Maybe because, despite all the clamor around quarterback Jared Goff, it is Gurley who makes everything work. To unnecessarily risk his health would be to unnecessarily risk their season.
When Gurley carries the ball more than 13 times this season, the Rams are 10-0. Over the last two years when carrying 15 more more times, they are 20-4. During that two-year span, they have lost only one game in which Gurley has rushed for more than 100 yards, and that was the turnover-plagued playoff loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
“He’s super important to our team, he brings a leadership with a vocal aspect in the way he works,’’ tackle Rob Havenstein said. “It’s something that’s heard, but, most important, it’s felt by guys out there. At the end of the day, he’s just a really good football player, and the more times he’s on the field, the better.’’
This might be a quarterback league, but the Rams are a running back team, Gurley’s team, and come January they would be lost without him.
“He’s incredibly important, the best running back in the league, arguably the best player in the league, a huge part of our offense, just like anybody is,” center John Sullivan said. “But our offense functions as a unit, and we expect no matter who is on the field, we’re going to go out and score a lot of points.’’
It can function just fine against two teams that are a combined 7-21. The biggest issue is how they function in January, and it’s a good thing the Rams seem to understand this.
Earlier this week, coach Sean McVay intimated to reporters that he would sit Gurley if he thought it could keep him healthier for the playoffs. This is the same coach who wasn’t afraid to rest both Gurley and Goff for the entire preseason to ensure their health for the opening game, so there is somewhat of a precedent.
“I would say that it’s going to be predicated on what he says, what the doctors are saying, if there’s a chance that he’s going to be doing something that’s going to set him back for when you get into the playoffs, different things like that, that’s where we have to make smart decisions for our football team,’’ McVay said. “We’re trying to go win this football game and do everything we can in our power to do that [but] … not at the expense of potentially risking the availability of Todd.’’
The Rams have proven to be a smart team, and their smartest decision would be to bench their best player, even if he was protesting right up until the end of his Thursday news conference.
“I’m here to play ball, I’m not worried about Jan. 5,’’ Gurley said, citing the date of the first playoff games. “We’re on Dec. 20, we play a game Sunday, the playoff would take care of itself.’’
And it will, as long as the Rams take care of Todd Gurley.