The play was designed to produce yardage, maybe a touchdown.
It turned instead into a symbolic commentary about Todd Gurley.
The Rams running back took the handoff, cut to his left and disappeared into a swarm of Oakland Raiders. One defender after another crashed into the rapidly growing pile, like so many silver-and- black barbs.
Your rookie year was a fluke!
Todd Gurley kept his legs moving.
Defensive coordinators have figured you out!
Todd Gurley did not stop.
The best running back in L.A. plays for the Chargers!
Todd Gurley would not quit.
He carried the pile for a nine-yard gain, finally unburdening himself after gaining a first down in the preseason game.
The third-year pro didn’t seem too impressed.
“Just knew the pile was getting pushed,” he said.
Gurley’s Instagram account featured an almost daily log of his workouts. He appeared motivated to leave the Rams’ 4-12 finish — and his role in it — behind.
“It can’t get any worse than it did last year,” Gurley told The Times before training camp began.
After his breakout rookie season, Gurley often could not reach, let alone break past, the line of scrimmage in 2016.
That is expected to change under new coach Sean McVay, who directed the NFL’s third-most-productive offense last season with the Washington Redskins, and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, quarterbacks coach for the Atlanta Falcons team that rode the NFL’s second-best offense to last season’s Super Bowl.
The Rams have added three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth, receivers Robert Woods, Sammy Watkins and Cooper Kupp and tight end Gerald Everett, ostensibly to aid second-year quarterback Jared Goff.
But Gurley also is expected to benefit now that defenses must account for the other weapons.
“You just want to see a productive running back that makes good decisions,” McVay said. “When he gets to the second and third levels, that’s where you see the special back that he is.”
Gurley showed his capabilities in 2015, a year after suffering a major knee injury in his final college season at Georgia.
The 10th pick in the 2015 draft rushed for 128 yards or more in each of his first four starts for the St. Louis Rams. In 13 games, he gained 1,106 yards rushing and scored 10 touchdowns, averaging 4.8 yards per carry.
Gurley arrived in Los Angeles last season as the Rams’ designated star, with a slew of endorsements and a national television commercial to go along with it. But Gurley — handicapped by poor line play, no real passing threat and his own mistakes — looked nothing like the player who burst through the line of scrimmage for long runs as a rookie.
In 16 games, he rushed for 885 yards in 278 carries. His longest run covered 24 yards. He averaged only 3.2 yards per carry.
“There wasn’t much room, and when there was room Todd was pressing,” said Maurice Jones-Drew, a former NFL running back who works as an analyst for the NFL Network and the Rams’ radio broadcasts. “He wasn’t doing the disciplined things. A lot of it was frustration.
“He was like, ‘What do I have to do? What do I need to do?’ I told him the worst thing you can do is press and try to do something you don’t do normally.”
After an offseason of reflection, Gurley appears to have gotten the message.
Running backs coach Skip Peete said Gurley “seems to be in a good place” and better understands that it takes more than just a running back to make a running play successful.
“He’s a very prideful person,” Peete said. “If he doesn’t have a lot of success on his runs he blames himself. I’ve told him, ‘A lot of times, it’s not necessarily just you.’”
Teammates have noted Gurley’s determination to improve from last season. Offensive lineman Rob Havenstein sees it during daily film-review sessions, when he looks at the screen and sees Gurley running 40 yards at full speed to finish a play in the end zone.
“He jogs back and then takes four or six more,” Havenstein said.
Former USC running back Justin Davis, who signed as an undrafted free agent, said Gurley has been helpful in the meeting room and also on the field. Typically, he delivers advice with a dose of humor.
“He’s a jokester to the max,” Davis said. “If you’re having a slouch day he might say something funny to you make you perk up a little bit. I’ve never met a guy like him. He’s always saying something to get you to laugh.”
Not that Gurley is letting on publicly. Upon his arrival at training camp, he said “nothing” was different for him heading into his third season, and that he was confident McVay’s scheme would work for the Rams.
But there is something different, at least in Los Angeles: Gurley isn’t the only star running back in town. The Chargers’ Melvin Gordon went from scoring zero touchdowns as a rookie in 2015 to rushing for nearly 1,000 yards and scoring 12 touchdowns last season.
Gurley knows Gordon.
“We have each other’s numbers,” he said. “We see each other out and say, ‘What’s up, what’s up?’”
But Gurley does not consider it a competition with Gordon. He doesn’t need that push.
“I don’t compete with anybody,” he said, “but myself.”