Column: Jared Goff and Rams’ offense are weighed down without Todd Gurley carrying load

Rams Todd Gurley and Jared Goff share a moment.
Rams running back Todd Gurley is involved in 15% fewer snaps this season, and Jared Goff no longer benefits from Gurley’s dominating presence.
(Getty Images)

This might seem like a crazy thing to write about an unbeaten football team.

This might appear nonsensical considering this team has the NFL’s most brilliant young head coach, its most productive running back, and a talented maturing quarterback.

This might sound nutty, but it’s true, and those who have watched three games with a gnawing sense of unfamiliarity and uncertainty know it’s true.


The Rams offense isn’t right.

The Rams offense has lost its swagger, misplaced its mojo, forgotten its identity.

The Rams are 3-0, but it’s a defensive 3-0, a trudging 3-0, a really weird 3-0.

They won their first game against an injured quarterback, their second against a backup quarterback, and their third with a goal-line stand.

The Rams offense didn’t win any of those games. The offense just sort of showed up, made a handful of big plays, and scurried away in the shadow of Aaron Donald.

Last season their attack was so powerful, everybody wanted to imitate their game plan and clone their head coach. For much of this season, they’ve been just another high-priced huddle.

John Johnson and Eric Weddle are in unison when patrolling the Rams’ secondary even if their personalities aren’t the same.

Last season they scored 32.9 points per game. This season they’re down more than a touchdown, scoring 25.7 points per game.

Last season they ranked second with 421 yards per game. This season they’re down more than 60 yards at 358 per game, ranking them squarely in the middle of the league.

Does anything about the Rams offensive talent and coaching and scheme cry out “mediocre” to you? It shouldn’t, but it does, and it’s not too hard to figure why.

Todd Gurley is barely here, and Jared Goff isn’t the same without him.

Gurley has been involved in 15% fewer snaps than last season, Goff no longer benefits from the back’s dominating presence, and everything is just off.

No more long, exhausting Gurley-led drives. No more great Goff play-action screen passes. No more feeling of sustained momentum.

Gurley has been slowed by what is clearly load management. Goff simply hasn’t stepped up to the new challenge. This perfect backfield storm hasn’t capsized the Rams yet, but at some point, it will, and they know it.

“Offensively our standards are so high, we expect to be better, and we need to be if we want to win games later in the year and continue to be competitive,” Goff said Wednesday at his weekly news conference at the Rams practice facility in Thousand Oaks. “In certain games down the road it won’t be enough.”

The offense has been so sluggish, when I mentioned to coach Sean McVay on Wednesday that it didn’t seem as sharp as in previous years, he actually agreed.

Sean McVay wants to have Todd Gurley playing a bigger role in the Rams’ offense and says the team isn’t using a “load management” strategy with him.

“Absolutely,” he said at his daily news conference. “I haven’t done a good enough job for us, I think it starts with me. ... We expect to be sharper overall … if I do a better job, and everybody else is a little bit better, we’re hopeful we’ll see better results.”

Did you catch the running theme there? McVay blaming himself? Bless his heart, for the sake of protecting his players, the young coach always blames himself. From the moment he set foot in Thousand Oaks three years ago, he’s been publicly carrying the burden for seemingly every Rams mistake, highlighted by him taking full responsibility on a national stage for the three measly points the Rams scored in the Super Bowl.

The accountability is admirable. His players love him for it. It has set the tone for a calm locker room where even the most volatile of veterans isn’t afraid to look in a mirror.

“When you feel like you’re responsible for a lot of the things that you could do better to help set it up in a situation that’s more conducive for success, I think that’s the truth,” McVay said. “I’m not going to make any excuses for why we haven’t gotten it done up to the level of our standards over the first three weeks. All I know how to do is to work as hard as I can to get it fixed. I’m just going to keep grinding every single day.”

Yet the heat does not always belong on McVay. And in the current case of the ornery offense, the issues are much bigger than him.

First, no matter how much gobbledygook he spreads about failing to get Gurley the ball — McVay constantly says he needs to do a better job of play calling, as if his photographic brain just forgets about the goliath in his backfield — the truth is in Gurley’s arthritic left knee.

The knee can’t withstand everyday NFL pounding. The knee needs to be coddled for the moments when it is really needed. The Rams won’t say this, but they don’t have to say it, they’ve been doing it since he broke down at the end of last spring. There is a reason Gurley did not participate in team drills during the offseason, practiced only every other day during training camp, didn’t play in the preseason, and hasn’t been practicing on Fridays.

Yet Wednesday, when asked about increasing Gurley’s usage, McVay seriously said, “We’ve got to have more plays.”

More plays? They rank ninth in the league in snaps.

He also went back to that game management rationale, claiming, “More than anything, the feel, the flow of the game … getting Malcolm [Brown] involved a little bit too.”

Brown is by all accounts a great teammate and important cog, but it stretches the imagination to think his presence is what is keeping Gurley on the bench.

On the night his father was inducted into the Cleveland Browns “Ring of Honor,” Rams linebacker Clay Matthews had two sacks in a 20-13 victory at FirstEnergy Stadium.

McVay is emptying his pockets of every scrap of coach speak to avoid saying the words “load management.” But that’s what it is, that’s the new Rams normal, which brings up the second Rams problem.

Goff isn’t handling that reality very well. He has thrown for four touchdowns with three interceptions while looking mostly pedestrian. His quarterback rating of 84.5 is more than 16 points below last year’s mark. His completion percentage is down. His yards-per-completion is down. He struggles to get comfortable behind a reshaped offensive line.

Goff is living down to everyone’s worst fears — system quarterback having trouble when the system is out of whack — and he acknowledges his role. He respects his coach falling on his sword, but he’s having none of it.

“We do appreciate when he does that, it kind of shows that accountability that he preaches … but no, it’s execution and detail and just being on top of our stuff and performing, basic performance,” Goff said. “Just go out there and throw and catch and make the plays you’re supposed to make and everything will fall into place … we can do a lot more on our part, and need to, offensively, to get anywhere.”

They eventually will need Gurley to be more involved. They will eventually need Goff to show up. They will need to get anywhere but where they are.