Why Rams' Todd Gurley struggled in second season

LOS ANGELES -- The breakout game never took place.

Todd Gurley waited, and waited, and waited, but the Los Angeles Rams running back hardly found holes amid a thoroughly disappointing 2016 season. From one year to the next, Gurley went from being Offensive Rookie of the Year to one of the NFL's least productive rushers. How could this happen, with someone so dynamic, so young and, relatively speaking, so healthy?

"Man, honestly, that’s a tough question to answer," Jamon Brown, one of the Rams' young guards, said while cleaning out his locker Monday. "You can say it’s scheme, you can say it’s players; you can point the finger at anything. But at the end of the day, we just didn’t get it done."

Gurley played in all 16 games this season and finished with 885 rushing yards. Sixteen running backs had more, even though only four of them received more carries. While running behind a suspect offensive line and within a non-threatening passing attack, Gurley finished with the NFL's second-fewest yards per carry (3.18) and second-fewest average yards before first contact (1.59). He added 43 catches -- more than double the 21 from his rookie season -- and still compiled a team-best 1,212 yards from scrimmage. But the running game was never there, and in the midst of that, interim coach John Fassel noticed Gurley "pressing."

"Frustration set in," Fassel said, "and confidence maybe dropped, whether it was in himself or just the whole package."

The Rams took a chance by drafting Gurley 10th overall out of Georgia in 2015 even though he was coming off a torn ACL. He didn't start until Week 4 of that season, but totaled 566 rushing yards in his first four games.

Opposing defenses quickly realized they needed to focus on Gurley, so they stacked the box and charged the line of scrimmage with little fear the Rams would beat them over the top. After those first four weeks, Gurley fell below 100 rushing yards in 23 of 24 games. This season, he didn't top 85 yards on the ground and broke off runs of 20-plus yards only twice. As a rookie -- while rushing for 1,106 yards, third-most in the NFL, despite starting only 12 games -- Gurley had 12 runs of 20 or more yards.

After Sunday's season-ending, 44-6 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, a game that saw him rush for only 40 yards on 14 carries, Gurley was asked if he would approach this offseason differently.

"Yeah, obviously," he said, without going into specifics. "Coming off a season like this, you don’t want to ever feel that way again. You're going to have that in your mindset to work just a little bit harder, because you never want to go through a 4-12 season again."

The Rams' hopes of avoiding a rebuild will hinge largely on the development of 2016 No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff, but nothing will happen for them offensively if they can't maximize Gurley's abilities and get the running game going.

It all comes back to the offensive line, a yearlong nightmare in pass protection and run-blocking.

"I felt like from an offensive-line standpoint, we pressed as hard as we could to do whatever we could do to help [Gurley]," Brown said. "It just didn’t come out. For whatever reason, we don’t know.”

Some of that comes back to Gurley, though the extent is unknowable. Outsiders talked about his need to be more patient with the ball in his hands and let holes materialize, while others noticed him missing holes entirely.

Brown brought up a disconnect between the running back and the offensive line.

"A lot of times you could see where it just seemed like we were on different pages," Brown said. "I don’t know if that’s being coached differently. How it’s being conveyed in each room, we don’t know. The big thing is we have to get back on the same page, because when we’re on the same page, we’re pretty damn good."

Since 2000, only two running backs have carried the ball at least 250 times and averaged fewer yards than Gurley did this season. Both instances occurred in 2001. Lamar Smith of the Miami Dolphins was 31 at the time. Eddie George of the Tennessee Titans, coached by Jeff Fisher, was 28. Gurley is 22, with a lot of football ahead of him. The Rams know they have a proven star in defensive tackle Aaron Donald, and they have longed believed that they had another one in Gurley.

But now Gurley, like so many of his Rams teammates, heads into the offseason with a lot to prove.

"Todd’s a great player, great teammate, great leader," Goff said. "He’s going to be just fine. I expect him to have a big year.”