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Rams' C.J. Anderson shuts up doubters, and not for the first time

Rams' C.J. Anderson shuts up doubters, and not for the first time
C.J. Anderson carried the ball 20 times for a 167 yards and a touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium on Sunday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

If C.J. Anderson had any question about where he fit in a Rams offense he joined just five days ago, it was answered on the first play Sunday when quarterback Jared Goff spun around and handed him the ball.

If the Rams had any doubts about Anderson’s fitness and ability at the end of a year in which he’s been released three times, they were erased on that same play, with Anderson cradling the ball against his belly and dashing six yards up the middle.

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By the end of the afternoon, Anderson had carried the ball 20 times for a 167 yards and a touchdown. And that left one big question unanswered: How were the Rams able to scoop up a game-changing running back for less than $100,000 with less than two weeks left before the playoffs?

It might not matter once Pro Bowl running back Todd Gurley returns from the left knee injury that kept him out Sunday, but when the Rams needed a lift, Anderson picked them up and carried them to a 31-9 rout of the Arizona Cardinals.

“It was a game we needed,” defensive tackle Aaron Donald said. “We’re back on track.”

And it was Anderson, a six-year veteran and former Pro Bowl pick, who got them there. The 167 rushing yards were one short of his career high and 63 more than he gained in nine games with Carolina this season.

“I knew I had an opportunity to play. And you knew you had to be ready no matter what,” said Anderson, who arrived at the Rams’ practice facility at 5:30 each morning last week in an effort to learn the playbook.

“You could tell from Day 1 that he’s a vet, a pro and guy that you can lean on,” tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “His work ethic and the attitude he put in this week made us all feel really confident that we could go out there and have a big day.”

But neither Anderson nor the Rams knew how much he would play until about two hours before kickoff. Gurley appeared ready to go after stretching and going through some agility drills at full speed, but then he huddled with trainers and the coaching staff and a decision was made to hold him out.

“We were expecting him to play today,” Rams coach Sean McVay said of Gurley. “But sometimes we have to make those decisions. It was totally based on the pregame workout.”

And with second-year pro Justin Davis dealing with a shoulder injury, the Rams gave the ball to Anderson.

“We felt like he was going to do something like that,” McVay said. “Clearly he delivered in a big way. I think we were all pleased with it. Certainly I don’t think anyone was shocked by it, though.”

This isn’t the first time Anderson has had to win over doubters. In fact, his whole NFL career has been built on that.

He was overlooked in the 2013 draft, eventually signing with Denver as a free agent. Over the next five seasons he put up better numbers than 20 of the 24 running backs who were drafted, rushing for 3,051 yards and 20 touchdowns, making the Pro Bowl, winning a Super Bowl and signing a four-year, $18-million contract.

That ultimately proved too expensive for the rebuilding Broncos, who cut Anderson last spring to save $4.5 million toward the salary cap.

Carolina signed him two weeks later, only to waive him last month after deciding to center the running back duties around Christian McCaffrey. Then Oakland signed Anderson, but he stayed just six days after a rash of injuries to the offensive line left the team without a roster spot.

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So when the Rams called last week, Anderson was ready to prove himself again.

“I’ve always had the chip. I’ve never stopped playing with the chip,” he said. “Every team had a circumstance [for] releasing me. So it’s timing. Opportunity is another [thing]. This actually worked out with perfect timing and I get my opportunity. “

For a brief moment Sunday, Anderson wondered if he had blown that chance. After carrying twice for 12 yards on the Rams’ first series, he blew a blocking assignment that resulted in a strip sack, a turnover Arizona converted into a field goal and an early lead.

“I’m kind of upset about that,” he said. “I gave up a sack. It’s probably the first of my career.”

He got better as the game wore on, though, rushing for 61 yards and a touchdown in the second quarter and breaking off a 46-yard run — two yards shy of his career best — on his only attempt in the final period. On his final carry of the day, he toted the game ball to the team bus.

“The big boys played great up front. Obviously I get nothing going if it wasn’t for them,” said Anderson, whose 20 rushes Sunday are the most he’s had in a game in more than a year. “Even though you might be working out, it’s hard to get in football shape. No one’s chasing you. That was my first live [game] getting chased by people.”

How long Anderson will keep getting chased by people while wearing a Rams uniform likely depends on Gurley. But he did more than enough Sunday to prove he deserves another chance.

“It’s a one-play league. You’ve got to be the ultimate pro,” he said. “It felt good. I never gave up on myself. I never gave up on my ability and what I can do.”

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