Throughout the offseason, training camp and the preseason, Rams coach Sean McVay often cited the “plan” implemented to manage the workload of star running back Todd Gurley.
The fifth-year pro, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, did not participate in team drills during the spring. He practiced every other day during training camp and did not play in preseason games.
The effectiveness of that approach — and Gurley’s much-scrutinized left knee — will be tested for the first time Sunday when the Rams open the season against the Carolina Panthers at Charlotte, N.C.
On Thursday, Gurley said his knee was “fine” and that he was looking forward to the opener.
“Pretty excited,” said Gurley, who attended junior high and high school in Tarboro, N.C. “Week 1. Going back to North Carolina.”
NFL fans, Rams coaches and players are eager to see how Gurley performs after months of nonstop questions and speculation.
Did the Rams err by giving him a four-year extension, with $45 million in guarantees, before last season?
Gurley, 25, had reconstructive surgery on the knee in 2014 after suffering torn ligaments while playing in college at Georgia. The Rams still selected him with the 10th pick in the 2015 draft, and the knee did not appear to be an issue through three-plus NFL seasons.
But last December, Gurley required medical attention during a late-season loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Gurley was held out of the final two games before returning with a 115-yard rushing effort against the Dallas Cowboys in an NFC divisional-round playoff victory,
But Gurley struggled in the NFC championship game against the New Orleans Saints and in the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots. The performances spurred speculation that Gurley’s knee issue might be a long-term problem.
A month after their Super Bowl defeat, the Rams re-signed restricted free agent running back Malcolm Brown. Then they selected running back Darrell Henderson in the third round of the draft.
They followed those moves with a load-management strategy for Gurley, who has carried or caught the ball 1,229 times and scored 56 touchdowns in four NFL seasons. Asked if Gurley would be on a play count Sunday, McVay said, “Nope.”
The third-year coach is as curious as anyone to see how Gurley performs.
“I’m excited to see Todd Gurley continue to do his thing,” McVay said.
So are Gurley’s teammates.
“We expect him to be his best, and he will be,” said tight end Tyler Higbee, who signed a four-year contract extension Thursday.
Said defensive tackle Aaron Donald: “He still looks fast. He looks ready.”
During training camp, Gurley joked with reporters about the hubbub surrounding his knee.
“Y’all have got to stop putting this bad energy in my knee, man,” he said. “Just let it be.”
He also said at the time that he had nothing to prove.
“I’ve been doing this for years now,” he said.
Gurley stuck with that theme Thursday when asked if he anticipated being utilized in the same way as previous seasons.
“That’s my job,” he said. “That’s what I do.”
Is he eager to show the offseason speculation was much ado about nothing?
“It’s football,” he said. “I’ve been playing it my whole life. It’s just another season.”
At least one situation will be different in 2019: For the first time in four seasons, Gurley was not elected a team captain.
Donald, quarterback Jared Goff, left tackle Andrew Whitworth, cornerback Aqib Talib, safety Eric Weddle and punter Johnny Hekker were voted into those roles by teammates.
“It’s nothing really against Todd,” McVay said. “It continues to be a good reflection of those other guys.
“It’s one of those deals where he’s still looked at as a leader. He was right up there with the guys selected as the captains.”
Higbee, a fourth-round draft pick in 2016, was entering the final season of his contract and was due to earn just over $2 million. Factoring that in, his new deal is worth $31 million, a person with knowledge of the situation said. “Grateful,” Higbee said. “Very blessed.” ... Whitworth did not participate in practice. He was listed on the injury report as not-injury related. ... Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, when asked if he takes anything from the Denver Broncos’ Super Bowl 50 matchup against Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton: “The only thing I take from the Super Bowl is that big ring I got.”… Rams owner Stan Kroenke, the franchise and the NFL on Wednesday appealed a Missouri Supreme Court ruling that a lawsuit over the team’s departure from St. Louis should be settled in open court, not arbitration.
Associated Press contributed to this report.