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Rams

Column: Did Rams gamble away their season by bubble wrapping Todd Gurley for too long?

Rams running back Todd Gurley carries the ball during a loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Oct. 3.
Rams running back Todd Gurley carries the ball during a loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Oct. 3.
(Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

They are more than a football team fighting for a playoff berth, they are high rollers sweating over an outrageous bet.

If it hits, they will be celebrated as savvy geniuses. If it misses, they will be chastised as reckless fools.

With three games remaining, a city is slowly gathering to witness how the risk plays out, fans both amazed at its limitless possibilities and startled by its apparent lunacy.

So will the ”Todd Gurley Gamble” work?

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Did the Rams do the right thing by putting their offensive centerpiece in bubble wrap until a month ago … or did they hold him back for too long?

Now that their offense is rolling with Gurley as its focal point, can he run them back to the Super Bowl … or is it too late?

Depending on what happens in the final three games beginning Sunday in Dallas, the Rams will either cement their reputation as one of football’s brainiest and most innovative organizations … or they’ll be universally derided for contributing to their own destruction.

No matter what happens, their motives in the season-long Gurley mystery have finally become clear and, man, they have taken one whale of chance.

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They’ll never admit it, but to protect Gurley’s surgically repaired and aching left knee from the meltdown it endured at the end of last season, they basically changed their offense earlier this year to save him for later. They have been holding him for the stretch run. They have been stashing him for crunch time.

Rams’ Jalen Ramsey knows he has his hands full against Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper, who gave cornerback difficulties in Jaguars-Raiders matchup.

Four weeks ago this all became obvious when, with their season already on the brink against the Chicago Bears, Gurley was finally unwrapped, touching the ball a season-high 28 times and leading them to a grinding victory.

Since that night — the exception being the blowout loss against the Baltimore Ravens — it’s been all Gurley, all game, all 2018, same old running back, same old Rams.

They’ve gone 3-1 since Gurley was allowed to become Gurley again, with their star-again running back averaging 28 touches in the three wins after averaging 13 touches in the four losses in which he played.

The Rams’ play-action passing game is back. The Rams’ offensive unpredictability is back. The Rams are back, fun again, watchable again, a championship-caliber team again.

”We’re a formidable team to deal with when we play our style,” safety Eric Weddle said. “When we’re physically tough up front, going downhill, getting Todd the ball ... it gives everyone confidence and gives you energy on defense to give the ball back to the offense.”

But it could be too late. The Rams probably have to win all three remaining games and hope for help, a regrettable situation when one considers those weeks when they continually refused to help themselves.

When asked Thursday if his involvement makes it easier for everyone, Gurley issued a response that could be whittled down to one word: duh.

Rams coach Sean McVay congratulates running back Todd Gurley.
Rams coach Sean McVay congratulates running back Todd Gurley on his fourth-quarter touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks on Dec. 8.
(Meg Oliphant / Getty Images)
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“You don’t really have to explain too much,” Gurley said in his weekly news conference at the Rams’ Thousand Oaks headquarters. “You see the results over the last couple of years, when you’re running the ball, stuff is going well, stuff is opening up, so it’s like, not too much really to explain.”

The tone in his voice said there was much to be explained and, truly, there is.

Why did the Rams wait until the 10th game of a 16-game season to finally feature him again? Why did they wait until they were 5-4 and nearly out of the playoff race? Why couldn’t they have used Gurley earlier in spots when the games were just as important? Rams fans can only imagine if he had carried the ball more than five times in the loss to Tampa Bay, or been thrown more than three passes in the loss in Seattle.

And seriously, just before he was unwrapped, why didn’t they give him the ball even once in the fourth quarter of what could be a season-defining loss in Pittsburgh?

Last week, when asked about the reason for Gurley’s increased usage, McVay responded, “Me not being an idiot.”

He added, “You look at the Chicago game and then just kind of going from there, you don’t want to make the same mistakes that you ended up making earlier on in the season.”

Obviously, none of that makes even an iota of sense. McVay is the opposite of an idiot. He doesn’t make those kinds of mistakes. No coach in the NFL can make those kinds of mistakes and stay employed. Believing Sean McVay would forget to use Todd Gurley is like believing Frank Vogel would forget to use LeBron James.

McVay continues to blame himself instead of acknowledging “The Gurley Gamble” probably because he wants to protect his player and not reveal his physical condition. That is understandable and even admirable. But the ploy backfired last week when Gurley actually agreed with him.

Players in the Rams’ receiving corps have gotten used to their snap counts fluctuating weekly. It’s all part of coach Sean McVay’s game plan.
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Informed that McVay had called himself an idiot, Gurley did not defend his coach.

“He said it, I didn’t,” Gurley said, laughing. “That’s all I’ve got to say. I don’t have anything else to say.”

Once again, it was evident that the most prominent member of the Rams who doesn’t quite buy “The Gurley Gamble” is Gurley himself. He has never openly complained, but he’s dropped enough hints that make it clear he wants the ball. His lack of usage also seemingly has made him defensive about the most innocent of compliments.

On Thursday he was asked about a Jared Goff quote, in which the quarterback said Gurley’s stiff-arm obliteration of Seattle’s Tre Flowers that led to a seven-yard touchdown run against Seattle was “vintage Todd.”

“Sounds like I suck and then made a good play,” Gurley said.

The gamble surely has taken its toll on Gurley, on McVay, and on a locker room that is now sweating it out like everyone else. They have to keep churning while wondering, where has this been all season? They have to keep winning to win the bet. One stumble and their Super Bowl hangover will be achingly heavy with regret.

Amid the twinkling holiday lights strung around the Rams locker room Thursday stood symbols of the only two possible outcomes of this high-wire, season-riding wager.

In the middle of the room was an inflatable Santa.

Nearby was an inflatable Grinch.


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