Rams hope Todd Gurley, their back of the future, can be blast from past

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- In many ways, the scarcity of jersey number options for Todd Gurley tells the story of how he ended up with the St. Louis Rams.

Gurley wore No. 3 at the University of Georgia and was disappointed to learn that isn't an option for NFL running backs. So the Rams' equipment staff presented him with his choices.

Something in the 40s?

"It's just not my swag," Gurley said. "No disrespect to anyone with the 40s."

How about No. 39, which belonged to Steven Jackson for nine years, during which time he became the Rams' leading rusher?

"I'm definitely not going to touch that," Gurley said. "I respect him. I wouldn't do that."

Gurley also had no shot at Nos. 28 or 29, the retired numbers of Hall of Fame Rams backs Marshall Faulk and Eric Dickerson.

It's in those numbers that one can see a tradition of featured running backs creating a legacy with the Rams. Add staunch running-game supporter Jeff Fisher as head coach and it shouldn't have come as much of a surprise that the Rams used the 10th overall pick to draft a highly touted back -- albeit one coming off a torn left anterior cruciate ligament.

When the Rams made Gurley the first running back selected in the first round since 2012, they breathed life into a position that has been devalued in the draft and free-agent market in recent years.

"It's fitting that Coach Fish is the guy who kind of, he saved the running back, brought him back to the first round," Rams general manager Les Snead said of Fisher, who coached prolific backs Eddie George and Chris Johnson with the Tennessee Titans.

It's perhaps more fitting that the Rams were the team to "save the running back."

Long the face of the franchise and the offense, Jackson spent one season as Fisher's primary back in St. Louis before the sides agreed to part ways. Jackson left for Atlanta in 2013, in search of a chance to win. The Rams, meanwhile, sought to transition to more of a timeshare to make Fisher's preferred running game work.

As it turned out, neither side got what it wanted.

The Rams used combinations that featured Zac Stacy and Tre Mason as the primary ball carriers over the next two seasons. Neither cracked 1,000 rushing yards, something Jackson had done in eight consecutive seasons.

While the Rams continued to search for their next Jackson, Faulk or Dickerson, the Falcons released Jackson in February after missing the playoffs for two consecutive seasons. Soon after, Jackson took it upon himself to hold the fort in defense of every-down running backs. He launched a video campaign with humorous undertones but a message that's serious to him.

When Snead referred to Fisher as "saving the running back," it was no doubt a nod to Jackson's viral video campaign.

The symmetry in it all is impossible to ignore.

"It is quite funny, here I am leading the way and the Rams are looking to recommit to a franchise running back," Jackson, who is currently unsigned, said one week after the draft. "I think when you see a guy that is very talented, no matter what position he plays, I think you ought to treat him as that special guy and not just put him in the box of 'This is the way business is handled and the way we want to structure how we pay guys.'"

On that, Fisher and Jackson would seem to agree. In Fisher's two decades as a head coach, his best teams have had an unmistakable identity: The defense was physical and the offense was powered by the running game.

Between Tennessee and St. Louis, Fisher-led teams have had six winning seasons. In those six years, only quarterback Steve McNair's 2003 MVP season sits as an outlier from the run-first approach. In four of those years, the Titans finished in the top five in total rushing attempts. Fisher has had three 13-win seasons (1999, 2000, 2008), all of which featured a back among the NFL's top eight rushers.

The move to add the 6-foot-1, 222-pound Gurley comes after three seasons in St. Louis when plenty of lip service was paid to building a power running game, but results haven't followed.

Under Fisher, the Rams have averaged 106.3 rushing yards per game and 4.1 yards per carry, ranking 19th and 17th in the league, during those three years.

For a team looking to build a physically dominant personality, those numbers simply aren't good enough.

As a coach who already believed in the value of a special talent at running back, Fisher had no trouble offering another affirmation with his team's first-round pick.

"You can't ever say that running backs have no value," Fisher said in the days that followed the draft. "We showed that last weekend. We've shown that in the past. This organization has shown that. We place a premium on that position."

Whether the Rams or Gurley truly have "saved" the running back will only be determined by time, but at least it's a start.

Soon after the Rams drafted Gurley, Jackson tweeted his approval, Gurley chatted with Dickerson via phone and George was one of the first people to text congratulations to Fisher. The coach even acknowledged that he views Gurley as his new George, the foundation of his offense for years to come.

Fair or not, the onus now falls on Gurley and San Diego's Melvin Gordon to perform to the level of their lofty draft status.

"They have to understand there's a lot of weight on their shoulders because of the state of the NFL and because it is such a passing league right now," Jackson said. "If guys don't perform in the first round, it will become even worse for where guys go."

After much contemplation, Gurley finally settled on No. 30 after the Rams traded Stacy to the New York Jets for a seventh-round pick. Now it's Gurley's job to carve a new path for the next generation of running backs to follow, and to make his new number the next in a long line of meaningful digits in Rams history.

"It's just a good feeling, more of like a personal pride standpoint just to be the first running back taken [in the first round] since 2012," Gurley said. "It makes everybody else, running backs around the world, [see] that we didn't disappear. We're not extinct. Not extinct at all."