The sense of surprise could be heard in the crescendo of cheers that rained upon the Coliseum floor during a stunning moment in the third quarter on a sweltering late Sunday afternoon.
Todd Gurley was actually given the ball at the goal line!
Todd Gurley actually scored a touchdown!
As Gurley sat on the grass after diving into the corner of the end zone, he was given the sort of heartfelt reception usually reserved for a garbage-time basket by the last kid on the bench.
The Rams have transformed their consummate superstar into a serviceable cog, and the locals now know it after watching him only flash sporadically in the home opening 27-9 victory over the New Orleans Saints.
The last time anyone around here saw Gurley, he was completing a two-season run in which he led the league in touchdowns and yards from scrimmage and touches.
That was last winter. This was not that.
This was a game that was essentially decided the moment Saints’ quarterback Drew Brees injured his thumb in the first quarter. It was an opportune moment for Gurley to redeem himself after his disappearing act in last season’s NFC championship game in New Orleans. If the Rams were ever going to end the mystery of last season and let him pound the ball again and again, it was going to be now.
Yet of his 16 carries Sunday, five of those came in the fourth quarter after the game had been clinched. He gave the Rams a lead they never lost with a four-yard scoring burst in the third quarter, but then he was replaced by Malcom Brown for the next two series.
He did not consistently see the ball around the goal line. He was only targeted for four screen passes even though that used to be a staple of the Rams’ offense.
On a day when he was set up to once again be The Man, he was just another guy, 63 yards rushing, four yards on the screen passes. He still runs like Todd Gurley when he gets a chance, he just doesn’t get as many big chances.
“I’m good,” Gurley said when asked about his situation, but for how long?
He is essentially platooning at various moments with Brown. It’s worked out well with the Rams winning their first two games, and nobody should be calling for a change. But it’s a bold move, and only time will tell if keeping a guy who was recently the NFL’s best running back on the bench for long stretches of time is ultimately a sustainable strategy.
Gurley is not visibly injured. When he comes out of the game he doesn’t retire to a trainers table to receive attention for those battered knees. He doesn’t ride a stationary bike to stay loose. He simply stands on the sideline waiting to get back in.
It’s apparently not about healing him, but conserving him. It appears coach Sean McVay’s NBA-style offense is also employing the newest NBA strategy. Welcome to the football version of load management.
His arthritic knees are clearly at risk after flaring up at the end of last season. The Rams obviously do not want to lose him like they did in last season’s NFC championship game and Super Bowl. So they are cutting his time and holding their breath and perhaps planning on increasing his workload when the games get bigger.
It makes sense for now. It’s worked so far. Maybe this will turn him into another Kawhi Leonard come playoff time. McVay tried a similarly innovative method last year when they benched virtually every star during all of preseason, and now everyone is doing it.
The Rams have earned the benefit of the doubt here, but it’s still weird, watching the game’s best back just standing there healthy while his offense churns without him. It’s still strange that through two games, he has scored one fewer touchdown and has two fewer receiving yards than Brown. It’s even stranger when you listen to one of Gurley’s notable teammates celebrate his Sunday score.
“It was great, it was great,” said Aqib Talib excitedly. “It’s super important, he’s the engine, we go as far as T.G. takes us, you know what I’m saying?”
He added, “He’s our workhorse, we all know that.”
Maybe later, but not now. When I asked McVay if this job share with Brown was Gurley’s new normal, he didn’t rule it out.
“It’s hard to say right now just through two games,” McVay said. “I think they both have done a nice job…as the season continues to progress, I think we’ll really find out.”
As odd as it all seems, if it keeps working, here’s guessing McVay is going to stick with it, and who can blame him?
“Each game kind of represents a different approach, but I thought both those guys did a nice job making some timely runs at times we had to have it,” said McVay.
The coach did acknowledge that Gurley’s first touchdown of the year was big, and that things could eventually change.
I think it was important for our team,” he said of the score. “He’s a special player, he’s been outstanding for us, I think he’s going to continue to be more and more important, as important really as he’s always been for us.”
The biggest risk here is that Gurley remains as engaged as he was when he was truly the engine that ran this team. He’s a hard guy for outsiders to read, he says little, reveals less, and it’s tough for the media to tell whether he’s upset or not. But he’s remained consistent in saying his usage is strictly the coaches decision.
When I asked if he was aware that his role has changed, he said, “Ask Sean. I’m not the head coach.’’
That’s the most he’ll give away, his teammates marveling at how he’s handling being in the weekly center of the storm.
“Todd is a strong-minded dude, so many people pulling at him, media, fans,” said safety John Johnson III. “Todd is a true professional, a competitor, we know he’s going to do the right thing.”
What the Rams are doing to him seems like the right thing, at least for now. Here’s guessing that one way or another, Todd Gurley will have the last word.