October 19, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Todd Gurley will finally get to play in the stadium he ‘helped create’

Todd Gurley sat down and put his iPhone on the round marble coffee table in his home 15 miles north of downtown.

It was 2:30 p.m., and the running back had been up since about 6 a.m. to receive treatment at the Atlanta Falcons’ Flowery Branch, Ga., facility for a knee injury that sidelined him a week earlier, and had just returned from practice.

“I’m sorry, bro, if I’m a little bit tired,” Gurley said.

A few days earlier, Gurley’s iPhone photo memory feature showed a picture of him and his Rams teammates during their 2018 Super Bowl run. Gurley, relaxed in a black T-shirt, black sweatpants and red-and-white Air Jordan Ones, smiled when thinking about what’s happened since.

“Time flies,” he said in the large, wood-accented sunroom. “You just have to go with the flow.”

Nine months after the Rams unceremoniously released him to clear salary-cap space, the 26-year-old Gurley is feeling at home with the Falcons, at peace with the end of his L.A. story.

“It’s just a part of life,” he said last week during a 45-minute, socially distanced interview. “I grew as a player and a person there, and I appreciate L.A. for everything.”

Rams running back Todd Gurley storms up and down the sideline during the first half against the Atlanta Falcons.

(Shotgun Spratling / Los Angeles Times)

Gurley, a three-time Pro Bowl selection and the 2017 NFL offensive player of the year, was once regarded as a pillar of the Rams franchise. The Rams gave him a then-record $60-million extension on the first day of training camp in 2018 and envisioned him breaking free for long runs and catching passes as one of the main attractions at the new $5-billion SoFi Stadium.

In 2016, at a team meeting in a Manhattan Beach hotel, Gurley saw blueprints for the venue. Two years later, he visited the massive construction site with coaches and teammates.

But Gurley’s first appearance at the completed building will be in a visitor’s uniform when the Falcons play the Chargers on Sunday.

“I helped create that stadium,” he said, “so why not try to go out there and try to do damage?”

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Gurley is not the same running back who dynamically hurdled would-be tacklers during most of his first five NFL seasons.

But he remains productive.

Gurley has rushed for 626 yards, which ranks him 21st in the NFL, and nine touchdowns, tied for sixth in the league.

Eight of those touchdowns came from inside the red zone. He plays about 53% of the snaps per game, sharing repetitions with running backs Ito Smith and Brian Hill.

Last Sunday during the Falcons’ 21-16 loss against the New Orleans Saints, Gurley had only eight carries, including a seven-yard loss on a third-and-two in Atlanta’s late comeback attempt. He had two first-half touches and played a season-low 22 snaps by design, interim coach Raheem Morris said.

“We’re playing him a little situationally now,” he said. “He’s battling some things like all of us this time of year. Being one of the better red-zone runners in the game, we certainly wanted to go to him toward the end.”

With the Rams, Gurley got the ball at the start, middle and end of games. In the 2017 and 2018 seasons, he led the league with 40 total touchdowns.

It’s just a part of life. I grew as a player and a person there, and I appreciate L.A. for everything.

Atlanta Falcons running back Todd Gurley

But Gurley, who underwent major reconstructive surgery on his left knee in 2014 while playing in college at Georgia, suffered the same injury in late 2018. It limited him in the latter part of the season, including the NFC championship game and a Super Bowl loss against the New England Patriots.

Coach Sean McVay tried managing Gurley’s workload in 2019. But he rushed for a career-low 857 yards and the Rams limped to a 9-7 record and missed the playoffs.

With quarterback Jared Goff’s massive contract extension kicking in, and cornerback Jalen Ramsey’s record-breaking extension on the horizon, the Rams released Gurley in March.

“It was clearly not an easy decision,” McVay said this week. “Todd was instrumental for a lot of the success we’ve had … and I’m forever indebted for the contributions he made.

“I wouldn’t look back and say it was good or bad, but it was a very difficult decision.”

Rams quarterback Jared Goff and running back Todd Gurley before a game.

Rams quarterback Jared Goff and running back Todd Gurley before a game.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Gurley said he could sense what was coming when his reps started decreasing in practice. He didn’t feel any animosity when he was released.

“I wouldn’t say I was excited, but it was sort of like a weight off my shoulder,” Gurley said. “I didn’t have to deal with the, ‘Oh, what’s wrong with him? Is he going to play?’ situation anymore. And I was happy for the Rams because they didn’t have to deal with the, ‘Who’s going to play? Is he going to get snaps?’ ”

In the immediate aftermath of Gurley’s release, Falcons receiver Julio Jones and receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who had been traded to the Arizona Cardinals days earlier, visited Gurley’s Chatsworth home. Rapper YG checked on him.

Gurley’s preferred destination was Atlanta, a close drive to his college alma mater and to his hometown, Tarboro, N.C. But he told his agent to also contact the Seattle Seahawks, he said. The chat with the receivers solidified his decision. Nearly 24 hours after the Rams cut him loose, he signed a one-year, $6-million contract with the Falcons.

“I was like, ‘Damn, I’m really a free agent. I could play for whoever I want,’ ” Gurley said, chuckling. “I was like, ‘OK, it’s on to the next. Where can I go and show I can still help a team out?’ And I felt like that was Atlanta.”

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A year after they blew a 25-point second-half lead in a Super Bowl LI loss to the Patriots, the Falcons avoided the curse that annually afflicts Super Bowl losers and made the playoffs in 2017.

But the franchise has been in decline since. With a 4-8 record, they are on track to miss the postseason for the third year in a row.

Gurley rushed for 121 yards and a touchdown in 14 carries in a Week 5 loss to the Carolina Panthers — his first 100-yard game since January 2019 — and then saw owner Arthur Blank fire coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff.

“Those guys gave me an opportunity, so you kind of feel bad,” Gurley said. “But just as players get cut, coaches get fired and life moves on. For us, it was like, ‘We have to find a way to get it together.’ ”

Gurley’s low point came two weeks later in a loss to the Detroit Lions when his momentum caused him to score a late touchdown too quickly rather than falling short of the goal line, enabling the Lions to mount a come-from-behind win.

The Falcons are 4-3 under Morris, Gurley’s first Black head coach since youth football. The running back said he “wants to keep winning for him,” and intends to finish strong, regardless of his statistics.

“Every year I’m not going to make the Pro Bowl or rush for 1,000 yards,” Gurley said. “That’s always the goal, but that’s why football is a team sport.

“That’s what happens when you’re in a position like Alvin Kamara or myself or Ezekiel Elliott or Saquon Barkley — you come in and you set the bar so high that anything else under that becomes, ‘Can he get back to this?’

“That’s the point of being great. You don’t really put pressure on yourself, but you just want to go out there and succeed.”

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Gurley might be gone from the Rams, but he is not forgotten.

Veteran Malcolm Brown joined the Rams as an undrafted free agent in 2015, the same year the St. Louis Rams made Gurley the 10th pick in the draft. Last season, Gurley helped tutor then-rookie Darrell Henderson and reached out to Cam Akers after the Rams drafted him in the second round this year.

“To this day, I tell people, ‘Damn, I miss my dawg TG around here,’” said Brown, who FaceTimes regularly with Gurley.

The Rams faithful still love him too. Dylan Myles Young, a fan since 2007, moved to Atlanta this year from Illinois for graduate school, and brought Gurley’s No. 30 blue-and-gold jersey with him.

“At first it was tough to see him, go,” said Young, 22. “But I’m at least happy that he was able to go to an area that supported him.”

It was clearly not an easy decision. Todd was instrumental for a lot of the success we’ve had … and I’m forever indebted for the contributions he made.”

Rams coach Sean McVay

Rams running back Todd Gurley breaks away from the Panthers defense.

Rams running back Todd Gurley breaks away from the Panthers defense.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Fans in Atlanta have embraced Gurley.

His merchandise sales rank in the top 25 in the NFL and increased 160% since April compared to 2019, according to Fanatics. Gurley’s No. 21 is the second-best selling Falcons jersey behind Jones.

Fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where 8,000 are allowed in on game day, wear his jersey proudly. One fan said he purchased his as soon as it became available. Another said his girlfriend gave it to him as a gift a month ago. Even in Athens, six years after he declared for the draft, Georgia’s bookstore still sells Gurley’s No. 3 college jersey on a rack placed near the entrance.

“We as Falcons fans haven’t had a lot to celebrate lately,” said Georgia graduate Vince Lally, 24, “and to bring a hometown guy back, I think a lot of people are really happy about it.”

Gurley said he’ll use his influence to help his community. He’s partnered with Georgia to mentor athletes and help with social justice and charity initiatives.

He also helped place a local military family in a home that he helps pay the rent on, and participated in online discussions around race, including one with Patriots quarterback Cam Newton, Cleveland Browns receiver Odell Beckham and retired New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz.

He hopes to do more when the pandemic subsides.

“Just want to encourage the kids, because that’s what it’s all about,” Gurley said. “A lot of things are going wrong in the U.S. now, but I just want to help show them that you can get out of your situation.

“The older you get, the less it’s about you, and you just want to make other people happy.”

Where Gurley plays next season probably won’t be determined until March, when he is due to become a free agent again.

He still owns a house in Los Angeles and plans to be there often.

“It was a good time, man,” Gurley said. “It was a good five years with the Rams and a good four years in L.A., for sure. It’s always going to be home.”