In Athens, Todd Gurley mostly won. In his three seasons at Georgia, his teams were 30-10 and the best one in 2012 nearly played for the national title, if not for a drive in the dying seconds of the SEC Championship game that came to rest on the Alabama 5-yard line.
In Los Angeles, Todd Gurley mostly lost early. His first two NFL seasons saw the Rams go 11-21, play home games last year when the L.A. Coliseum seemed an empty and lonely place, and the head coach (Jeff Fisher) pick a fight with a franchise icon (Eric Dickerson). Suddenly, his team wasn’t even Belk Bowl-worthy.
“You kind of see that growing up,” Gurley said this week. “That’s why I tell a lot of the young guys (in college): Enjoy it. Unless you’re going to the Patriots. … I was a top-10 pick, so you know what you’re getting yourself into. You want to be a guy who can change that around. No one likes losing.”
The Rams aren’t losing anymore. They finished 11-5 this season and will host the Falcons in a wild-card playoff game Saturday night. The Rams led the NFL in scoring, just like the Falcons a year ago. They’re a talented and energetic young team following their talented and energetic young coach, Sean McVay, also like the Falcons a year ago.
Gurley likes this better. He should. He’s at the center of McVay’s schematic and emotional makeover. He not only led the Rams in rushing with 1,305 yards – he would have won the rushing title if not for sitting out the final regular-season game – he led them in receiving, with 64 catches. It’s the reason he’s a candidate to win MVP honors.
“You try not to think about those things. But if it’s within arms’ reach, why not?”
The Gurley we watched at Georgia was a rare talent. But he was young, and he was having fun. The Gurley in the NFL is a few years older, and he has matured into a team leader. He has impressed teammates and coaches with his work ethic and his film study.
There were frustrations during the Rams’ 4-12 season last year, and for the first time Gurley experienced some criticism, when his yards-per-carry average dropped from 4.8 in 2015 to 3.2. But it’s easier to jump on a statistic than point to big-picture problems or obvious issues on the offensive line.
“Production can fool you,” McVay said. “It can be misleading. One mistake from a lot of people can be attributed to the running game, not just the running back alone.”
Linebacker Alec Ogletree said his former Georgia teammate never let his frustration show much last year.
“I definitely wasn’t expecting him to have a letdown year or a bad year,” he said. “But it was rough for a lot of people last year on offense. It’s frustrating just because you want to win games. He cares more about winning than personal stats. He was a little frustrated, but he never let it show to the point where he ever was going to stop working. He always knew we were better than that.”
Gurley might have won the Heisman Trophy in his third season at Georgia. But he was limited to six games, having missed four with a suspension for accepting cash for autographs, and then suffered a torn ACL in his first game back against Auburn. But he was the greatest running back I had seen coming out of college since Dickerson, so it was ironic that he ended up with the same franchise.
“He had that raw speed to finish, and you saw his production, where he was hurdling over people and things like that,” said McVay, who studied Gurley’s college tape when he was Washington’s offensive coordinator.
This is like old-home week for the former Bulldog. He was on Georgia’s sideline with Ogletree for the Dogs’ Rose Bowl win over Oklahoma. He wore his college jersey and a Dogs’ knit hat at the Rams’ practice facility this week. At a news conference Wednesday, Gurley stood at the front of the room when Ogletree yelled from the back, “Goooo, Dogs,” and Gurley finished on cue, “sic ’em... Woof. Woof. Woof.”
His prediction for the national title game: “Sorry, Bama. But you gotta lose, back to back.”
And now, he will experience their first NFL playoff game against the Falcons, from the state of Georgia.
“At the game, I saw all the Georgia fans,” Gurley said. “I was kind of beefing with them just a little bit because we’re going to try to disappoint their Falcons this weekend. But I’m not from Georgia, so it doesn’t make it too great of an effect.”
The Rams have a rich history of running backs: Dickerson, Marshall Faulk, Steven Jackson and more. That’s also what Gurley stepped into at Georgia.
“I clearly remember the day my high school coach said, ‘Georgia called (during recruiting),’” Gurley said. “I was like, ‘OK.’ They came and they started talking about football. They were talking about Herschel Walker. I didn’t have a clue about Georgia football. On campus, that’s just the expectation. They haven’t won since 1980. They were looking for the next running back like Herschel Walker to lead them to the promised land. Those guys they have now are doing a great job -- (Nick) Chubb, Sony (Michel), (D’Andre) Swift, all those guys. They’re balling.”
Gurley is doing the same for the Rams now.