LOS ANGELES -- The reasons for Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley's disappointing 2016 season have usually been attributed to the circumstances that surrounded him, specifically a shoddy offensive line and a nonthreatening passing attack that caused defenses to stack the box and suffocate Gurley every time he touched the football.
But Gurley himself didn't take advantage of opportunities.
ESPN NFL Insider K.C. Joyner tracks the situations when running backs receive good blocking via a stat called good blocking yards per attempt. Good blocking, in this instance, roughly refers to the times when offenses do not allow defenses to disrupt a rush attempt. In 2015, while on his way to being named Offensive Rookie of the Year, Gurley averaged 10.9 good blocking yards per attempt (GBYPA) on 73 carries, the highest rate in the NFL. In 2016, Gurley averaged 6.8 GBYPA on 101 carries, 38th among the 43 running backs with triple-digit good blocking attempts.
This validates what Rams tackle Jamon Brown alluded to at the end of the 2016 season, when he talked about how Gurley and the offensive line "have to get back on the same page." Six weeks after that, running backs coach Skip Peete said sometimes Gurley went away from the playcall.
"The past is the past," Gurley said when asked last week about the holes that he missed. "We all put in a great effort and tried to do what we tried to do, but things just didn't work out for us on game day. We came up short a lot of times. Too many times."
Veteran offensive lineman Rodger Saffold, currently the starting left guard, saw improvement in the communication with Gurley during the offseason program.
"It's more just kind of figuring out the speed out of the backfield that he needs," Saffold said. "Once you get that down, then you kind of see the mesh of what we're trying to get done. He knows what we're trying to do on the offensive line as far as front side and back side. So he knows where the play is going. Inside, with our wide zones and our inside zones, I think he's attacking where we want the ball to go a lot better. And I think he’s letting things develop too. Letting things develop on the inside, but on the outside he’s really pushing that edge, and it’s opening up some things for him."
Gurley, the 10th overall pick out of Georgia in 2015, went from rushing for 1,097 yards in 12 starts in 2015 (1,106 yards overall in 13 games) to 885 yards in 16 starts in 2016. Those 885 yards were the fewest ever for a running back with at least 275 carries in a single season. It dropped Gurley out of the discussion about the elite running backs in the game, mere months after he was thought to be in position to lead it.
Rams quarterback Jared Goff still considers Gurley "one of the best in the league."
"He's done it in the past," Goff said, "and I think he'll prove it this year."
"He's a big, powerful guy that's able to stick his foot in the ground and break tackles," Rams first-year offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur added. "I'm really excited to see what he's going to do this fall."
Gurley's 3.18 yards per attempt ranked 41st among 42 qualified running backs. He averaged 1.59 yards before first contract, which was also the second-worst mark in the league. The latter stat shows that defenses were getting to him quickly. But Joyner's numbers say the Rams gave him good blocking on 36.3 percent of his carries, which ranked 28th among 43 qualifying running backs and indicates that Gurley should have been better. Perhaps significantly so.
Gurley isn't one for introspection, at least not in public. He has talked up the communication with the new coaching staff, but has downplayed what a new offense would change about his approach. He was asked about not putting up the numbers everybody was expecting, but instead referenced two different numbers.
"Four and 12 is definitely not the season no one wants," Gurley said. "I don't really care about what I do individually. We wouldn't have this discussion if we were 14-2 and I had 200 yards. It really doesn't matter what I do or what anybody else does on this team. It's about what we do on the field together."
That's what strikes Goff, and several others, about Gurley -- how legitimately team-oriented he is. But the team won't have success unless Gurley does. And he knows that better than anybody, even if he won't let on.
"How hard he's taken everything, and how serious he's taken everything, has been awesome," Goff said. "I expect him to have a great year."