Running back Todd Gurley figured he would have a resurgent 2017.
When Sean McVay was hired as head coach in January and the running back studied what McVay had done in Washington to put players like Jamison Crowder, Jordan Reed, Chris Thompson, and Matt Jones — Gurley understood what was possible.
"Once you see it on film, you know it can be actually true," Gurley said recently.
But leading the league with 2,093 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns? Plus finishing No. 1 with 13 rushing touchdowns and No. 2 at 1,305 yards rushing?
"You knew Todd was a special player," McVay said. "You know the talent is rare, when you just watch the tape and some of the things he's been able to accomplish. But to see him have this type of success, you're certainly happy for him."
To term it only success may be an understatement. Gurley has become a serious MVP candidate with his 2017 performance, undoubtedly playing catalyst for Los Angeles' offense over the course of the season. The Georgia product won three NFC Offensive Player of the Week awards, plus an NFC Offensive Player of the Month award in September. And yet…
"I think to say you're surprised would be unfair because of the confidence that we had in him, just with what he demonstrated week in and week out going back from the offseason to training camp," McVay said. "But I think the thing that's been most impressive about Todd is he's gotten stronger as the year's progressed."
It's true, Gurley was stellar in the four games he played in the month of December, racking up 749 yards from scrimmage — 440 rushing, 309 receiving — and eight touchdowns. In what were arguably the Rams' two biggest games of the season, Gurley first rushed for 152 yards and three touchdowns in a 42-7 victory over the Seahawks. And then he became only the third player in NFL history to record at least 100 yards rushing and 150 yards receiving in the NFC West-clinching 27-23 win against Tennessee.
With numbers like that, you might think Gurley's been in some kind of proverbial "zone" over the last few games. He's certainly run like it. But the running back said he doesn't necessarily see it that way.
"It just feels like everything is clicking — like it's clicking. Like just the game plan. And I go up to coach Kromer, like, 'Thank you,'" Gurley said, referring to Rams' offensive line coach Aaron Kromer. "Because it's really the coaches just putting us in great position, coming up with a great game plan. And after that, it's us out there and dominating and taking over."
But Gurley's emergence as an MVP candidate has as much to do with his newfound receiving prowess as him running the ball. Gurley led the Rams with 64 receptions in 2017 and finished second with both 788 yards receiving and six receiving touchdowns. This is where Gurley may have even surprised himself.
"Not really, but yeah," Gurley replied when asked if he thought he'd be this involved in the offense through the air. "Kinda sorta, but no."
Gurley had made plenty of plays as a receiver throughout the Rams' first three weeks of the season — perhaps most memorably hurdling a defender en route to the first receiving touchdown of his career against Washington. But then, Gurley caught a pass down the seam and turned it into a 53-yard touchdown against the Cowboys.
"I felt like that was more of a play where [I thought], 'Hey, this is fun. I'd love to do this a lot more,'" Gurley said. "And obviously I'm a runner — once I get the ball in my hands, instincts just take over. And just watching guys like Le'Veon [Bell], the David Johnsons, Duke Johnson — just guys like that. When you can avoid just one person, two people, instead of the whole 11 people coming at your head, it's a lot better than just running the ball all the time."
While that touchdown displayed Gurley's prowess as a route runner, the screen game has arguably been where the running back has done the most damage through the air. And no screen was bigger than Gurley's 80-yard touchdown against the Titans.
"Coach, he'd seen what the defense was giving us, called a great play," Gurley said, referring to McVay. "And I just remember being back there, seeing those guys blitzing and it's like, 'Alright, just wait for them to go, and get out.' And once I saw the green grass, I'm like, 'Hit it.'
"And I looked at the jumbotron, I see about two Tennessee defenders, I'm like, 'Please don't get [caught] — please score, please score.' And I was in the end zone by then."
It's those special plays that have Gurley's teammates calling for him to be named the league's Most Valuable Player.
"I don't know what possible is. This should be guaranteed," left guard Rodger Saffold said. "I think that as influential as Todd has been, you can't help but give him the title of MVP. And that definitely gives us a lot of confidence as offensive linemen that we're able to protect him in the screen game, we're able to protect him in the run game — and just open up holes so he can showcase his speed."
"I think it's just a testament to his hard work and everything he's done this whole season for him to be in that discussion of MVP," said quarterback Jared Goff, "and he's earned every bit of it."
Now Gurley will look to take everything he's done in 2017 and continue it in the playoffs. Like the vast majority of the Rams' roster, it will be Gurley's first foray into NFL postseason play. And while Gurley doesn't quite know everything about what to expect, he's looking forward to finding out.
"It's the real deal. Everybody in the world's watching," Gurley said. "Everybody's record is 0-0 — doesn't matter if you're 12-4, 14-2. Everybody's got a fair shot and you've got to take advantage of the opportunity. And it's — I haven't been there, but I just know it's going to be a different feeling. Like, it's going to be like those rivalry college football games-type atmosphere. I can definitely feel it coming."