Column: Which Todd Gurley will show up for Rams vs. Patriots in Super Bowl?

Rams running back Todd Gurley sits on the bench in the fourth quarter of the NFC championship game.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

He bounced through early practice drills with his left knee covered in sleek black sweats.

Yet he later trudged out of the locker room with that same knee covered in a heavy ace bandage.

He showed up at a lectern Friday and said he was feeling “fantastic.’’


Yet last Sunday in New Orleans, he was lost.

Whither goest thou, Todd Gurley?

Is he hurt, or not? Is he sold on this rotation with C.J. Anderson, or not? Will he show up in the biggest game of his life, or not?

Those are the $60-million questions being asked in Thousand Oaks this week as the Rams prepare for Super Bowl LIII against the New England Patriots on Feb. 3.

“I don’t care what anybody is talking about, you can call me hurt, you can call me whatever, but we’re going to the Super Bowl, what do you all not understand?’’ Gurley implored during a passionate news conference at the club’s practice facility. “It’s not about me, this sport has never been about me … this whole game is bigger than me.’’

But, still, there are indeed things about his situation that folks do not understand. Gurley is the highest-paid running back in NFL history, yet in the last two months he has been the Rams’ most troubling star.

In Week 13 against the Detroit Lions, Gurley had another one of those greatest-back-in-the-game moments, rushing for 132 yards and two touchdowns.

Since then, he’s gained more than 50 yards in only one of the four games he’s played. He’s missed two games during that stretch with a knee injury. And then came last Sunday when the slowly fading Todd Gurley disappeared altogether.

In an NFC championship against the Saints, he had five touches. How does the running back with the most rushing touchdowns in the NFL in the last four years get only five touches?

He gained 10 rushing yards. How does the running back with the most rushing yards in the NFL in the last four years spend an overtime game only gaining the length of one first down?

He dropped a pass on the Rams’ first possession that led to an interception. He dropped a pass early in the second quarter that costs the Rams a chance at a touchdown.

And then — poof — he was basically gone, visible only while scoring on a six-yard touchdown run at the end of the first half, riding an exercise bike, and then weeping after the victory.

When asked about it afterward, he told reporters, “I was sorry as hell today. I was so sorry.’’

Yet he never really had much of a chance to be ‘’sorry,’’ did he?

When his coach was asked about it, Sean McVay said, “It was really just a flow for the game. That was just a feel for the flow of the game that we had, not anything against Todd.’’

But isn’t that like a manager pulling his ace starter after he gave up one run in the first inning? Does the game even have a flow?

None of it made much sense. Either Gurley was hurting, or Gurley’s head wasn’t in the game, or a little of both. He addressed it all Friday with positivity and perspective in an inspirational pep talk perhaps aimed directly at himself.

First, on the question of his knee, he said, “I’m good, if there was an issue on my knee it would have been on the injury report. C’mon, man. I’m at practice. I’m playing.’’

Then, on the question of his attitude in the wake of his Sunday benching, he said. “I don’t ask no questions, bro, I just do my job. We got the win, that’s all that matters. I could not play one snap, I don’t care if [long snapper] Jake McQuaide is the Super Bowl MVP, I’ve got one more game left, it’s not about me.’’

He was just getting started.

“Todd is only going to be with the Rams so much longer, there’s going to be another dude come in just like me, this whole game is bigger than me,’’ he said. “Why is Todd not getting the ball? Because there’s only one football and there’s 11 guys. Only one guy touches the ball each time. It’s way bigger than me.’’

He kept going.

“We’re all going to have our downs, but you enjoy it even more when you do something great,’’ he said. “I’m comfortable with myself, I‘m the best, I’m the best at my position, I’ve been that way all my whole life, I’m going to keep striving, I know what I can do, I know what I’m capable of, and my team knows what I’m capable of, so we’re all in this together.’’

Finally, he acknowledged one more time that his Super Bowl performance is secondary to a Super Bowl victory.

“I don’t give a damn what I do. Honestly, I just want to win, bro,’’ he said. “I don’t really care. You always want to do good, but you just want to win.’’

But here’s the deal. If Gurley doesn’t find his rhythm and find his knees and find himself, the guess here is that the Rams can’t win. The Patriots’ smart defense could focus on stopping kid quarterback Jared Goff while hoping that Gurley is truly hurt. It will be up to Gurley to make them pay.

“It’s going to be huge,’’ C.J. Anderson of the running game. “If we can run the ball, we’ll be fine.”

Yes, Anderson had been tremendous since joining the Rams last month, but his rushing totals have decreased in each of his four active weeks, bottoming out Sunday when he gained only 2.8 yards per carry for 44 yards.

This game could hinge on Gurley, and everyone knows it, and this includes the guy who shut him out Sunday.

“I think the point is … you want to give Gurley more opportunities,’’ McVay said on Friday. “He can only do so much when you get four attempts carrying the football … Any time that you have a player like Todd Gurley on your team, I’ve got to do a better job of getting him involved and getting him into the flow of the game.’’

But come Super Bowl Sunday, will he have a player like Todd Gurley on his team?

The Rams’ surest bet has become their biggest mystery.

Sign up for our daily sports newsletter »

Get more of Bill Plaschke’s work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke