THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay was in the process of putting together his coaching staff and was getting ready to sit down with the incumbent running backs coach, Skip Peete, when he got a call from an unrecognized North Carolina phone number. It was Todd Gurley. He wanted Peete back. He wanted another chance to work with him.
"When you've got a key player like that," McVay said, "I think you want to be able to try to demonstrate that you’re going to listen to your players. Their opinion matters."
Peete inherited Gurley as the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year. He finished that 2015 season with 1,106 rushing yards -- third in the NFL -- despite coming off the torn ACL he suffered at Georgia and starting only 12 games. But Gurley dropped off considerably in 2016, gaining only 885 yards (lowest ever for a running back with more than 275 carries) and averaging only 3.18 rushing yards per attempt (41st among 42 qualified running backs in 2016).
"Everybody has to be cohesive and be on the same page," said Peete, heading into his second season with the Rams. "The key is the timing of the block, you as the runner setting the front for the linemen, so when they come off the double team, the back is in a certain position so he can come off the block. You can’t predetermine and say, ‘OK, I’m going to make it look like I’m going to do this, and then I’m going to go over here.’ It’s got to naturally happen that way; you can’t predetermine. It’s kind of a combination between all of that."
Gurley ascended quickly, totaling 566 rushing yards in the first four starts of his NFL career. But then defenses began to pick up on his tendencies and game-planned around stopping him, and the Rams were never able to adjust. Gurley has now rushed below 100 yards in 23 of his past 24 games. This past season, he broke off runs of 20 or more yards only two times, 10 fewer than in 2015.
When holes didn't open up early, Peete noticed Gurley getting impatient and going away from the playcall.
"He started changing what he was trying to do," Peete said. "The most important thing, like we talked about, is you have to have total confidence in the scheme of the play."
Those who don't contribute on special teams typically get together with their position coach during special teams meetings, so Gurley and Peete spent a lot of alone time this season. Peete talked to Gurley about how fleeting success can be in the NFL. He preached patience with his runs, and he told Gurley that sometimes failure can be a blessing.
"I think sometimes he pressed, and he wanted to make more things happen," Peete said. "Sometimes it worked out, and sometimes it didn’t. But he is a very talented runner. He has good run instincts and runs with good balance."
Gurley was called on to do a lot more in his second year, as expected. He was utilized far more frequently in the passing game, targeted more than twice as many times. He received 67 of his carries with the quarterback operating out of the shotgun, 60 more than he did as a rookie, which can be a major adjustment for downhill runners like Gurley. And he was on the field for 711 offensive snaps, fourth-most among running backs.
Peete believes that might have taken a toll and suggested it might be better to limit his workload once again.
Asked to identify the biggest thing Gurley needs to correct, Peete smiled.
"This is going to blow your mind," he said. "It has nothing to do with the running game. I think the most important thing in this league, as far as a running back is concerned, is his ability to pass protect, whether it’s first or second down. Because they think it’s easy. They’ve all come into the league comfortable as a runner. But that aspect of it is a little bit different than you’re accustomed to coming out of college. He and I talk about that all the time -- your ability to completely understand the blocking scheme, whether it’s run or pass."
Peete has spent 18 years coaching NFL running backs, making prior stops with the Raiders, Cowboys and Bears. He usually starts his end-of-season meetings by putting the onus on the player and asking them what they believe they could have done better. Peete asked the same of Gurley at the end of his disappointing 2016 season.
"He had a long list," Peete said.
Gurley talked about becoming more patient in the running game, becoming more disciplined with his footwork and becoming more physical in pass protection, all music to Peete's ears.
"He was very disappointed in the season and in himself," Peete said. "Very prideful guy. Works hard, understands what he needs to do in order to get himself prepared to play. But like I always tell young players, sometimes you’re not necessarily sure if that’s true, what you think. What you think you’re fine at, you might not be truly fine at. You still need to fine-tune some things."