EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Midway through the third quarter of his first NFL start, Todd Gurley delivered his "I'm back" moment after a nearly 10-month recovery from a torn left ACL.
It wasn't a game-breaking run or a sharp cut. It was a sequence that was particularly meaningful for the St. Louis Rams rookie running back because of its simplicity.
First, Gurley shook loose for a 23-yard gain, more than three times the distance of his first 11 NFL carries combined. He then took another handoff for a gain of 12 yards. Rinse, repeat, for no gain, then another carry for 5 yards.
On four consecutive plays in a victory over the Arizona Cardinals, Gurley got the ball and picked up 40 yards -- yards that meant little compared to the fact that Gurley was simply able to do the job he'd spent hours in the training room longing to do.
"I knew that was the biggest thing ... just being able to, when things get rolling and you start doing good, you have got to expect the ball," Gurley said. "That's why we practice the way we do, finish our runs, come back to the huddle and keep running again."
It's a feeling Gurley hadn't had since suffering the knee injury last November that ended his college career. When the Rams drafted him with the No. 10 overall pick in April, they didn't set a timetable for his return. The day when Gurley would again feel like himself was too far off for him to think about -- though he now admits he had moments during his lengthy rehabilitation when he wondered whether it would ever come.
Gurley would be the first to tell you that it's important to keep last week's performance in perspective. There will be more carries and more opportunities, starting Sunday in Green Bay, and the Rams still need to find consistency in the running game. But in a vacuum, Gurley's breakthrough 146-yard performance in his second NFL game, against one of the league's stingiest run defenses, offered evidence that he is ahead of schedule both physically and mentally.
The Cardinals found out the hard way that Gurley's unique combination of size (6-foot-1, 227 pounds) and speed (he has reportedly clocked a sub-4.3 40) could make him a headache for NFC West defenses. He broke loose for runs of 52, 30, 23 and 20 yards. His 106 fourth-quarter yards -- on just nine carries -- were the most by a Ram since Eric Dickerson's 124 on Nov. 25, 1984, and the most by a first-round rookie running back since Adrian Peterson in 2007.
As Gurley built momentum, his confidence soared -- and the offense followed his lead. His 52-yard run brought so many cheers from teammates on the sideline that the Rams got a delay-of-game penalty because quarterback Nick Foles couldn't get the play in.
Rams coach Jeff Fisher intended to remove Gurley for a breather after the long run, but was rebuffed. "He goes, 'No, I'm going. I'm going to finish this drive,'" Fisher said. "That's a really good indication of where he is right now."
The Rams' plan all along was to get Gurley into a couple of games before the Week 6 bye and slowly begin ramping up his workload. He had seven touches on 14 snaps in his debut against Pittsburgh, but those numbers jumped to 21 and 35 against the Cardinals. Gurley said he didn't have any soreness other than the usual, and pointed to the cold tub and his "recovery boots" as all he needed to bounce back.
For Tuesday's practice, Gurley shed his knee brace for the first time since he arrived in St. Louis. Gurley isn't fond of the brace -- "You look over there to the sidelines and you see me messing with it every five seconds," he said -- and he feels faster without it. That's an interesting revelation, because it means Gurley didn't feel he was at top speed against Arizona.
While Gurley's return to peak physical condition has been a work in progress, his mental approach to the game seems to exceed his 21 years on the planet. Gurley offered an example of his football savvy on his final carry of Sunday's game, a 30-yard run that ended when Gurley fell to the ground rather than attempting to score a touchdown. That allowed the Rams to run out the clock for their 24-22 victory.
Not many players would pass on the opportunity for a touchdown, let alone have the presence of mind to make that choice because of what it would mean for the team.
"That was a veteran move right there, especially being it possibly his first touchdown on a run like that, in a situation like that," Foles said. "It shows you that he is a team guy first and that is what you want. You want a guy who is a team guy first. He shows that each and every day."
According to Gurley, he had never previously been in a position to choose between a touchdown and falling down. Still, he made the correct call against the Cardinals without so much as a peep from the coaches before his final carry.
"I think that makes a big difference," Gurley said. "Everybody is good at this level. It's those little things that separate you and help you get that extra yard or get that first down or touchdown."
Or in Gurley's case, a non-touchdown. It was that non-score that left teammates and Fisher raving about his football acumen.
"From Day 1, yes, he's learned the offense," Fisher said. "He knows exactly what to do. Learning hasn't been a problem. Workload has not been a problem. He's done all of the extra things. He's that complete back. That's the reason we drafted him, because we knew he was like that. All of the information we got out of the University of Georgia was all true. This is the kind of young man that he is. He's a real pro."
It's something the Rams believed all along. After four consecutive carries in the third quarter of his second NFL game, Gurley finally did, too.