Todd Gurley’s lack of use in the NFC championship game and Super Bowl LIII was strange because it rarely happens at any other position.
The Houston Texans wouldn’t sit J.J. Watt for half the snaps and blame game flow. The New York Giants wouldn’t ignore Odell Beckham Jr. because of “rhythm.” There’s no game plan that would leave Tom Brady on the bench for half of the New England Patriots’ plays.
Yet in the Los Angeles Rams’ two biggest games in almost two decades, Gurley played 75 snaps to 57 for C.J. Anderson. Gurley, a two-time All-Pro, didn’t get his second carry of Super Bowl LIII until less than six minutes remained in the first half. Perhaps the biggest story of the game was Gurley’s lack of use. Gurley was given a $57.5 million extension last offseason. Anderson, who was cut by the Panthers and Raiders during this season, made $92,941 with the Rams this season.
Many believe Gurley was still suffering from a knee injury, and maybe that’s true. But over and over and over the Rams and Gurley insisted he wasn’t hurt. Gurley was taken off the injury report before the NFC title game and was never listed on it before the Super Bowl. If Gurley was hurt, it would be reckless for the Rams to risk a major penalty for lying on the injury report instead of just listing him as questionable. Also, if Gurley was healthy enough to play in the Super Bowl, it stands to reason he would play as much as possible. He had seven months to recover.
We might like conspiracy theories, but there’s no tangible proof Gurley was injured. The Rams and Gurley keep telling us it was just a coaching decision. And that’s more ammunition for those who believe it’s not prudent to pay top dollar for running backs.
Running backs finding it tougher to get paid
Some team is going to pay Le’Veon Bell. Probably. He has already turned down a fortune from the Pittsburgh Steelers, and stated he didn’t take their offer because he didn’t want to contribute to the devaluation of the running back position.
“Our value isn’t where it needs to be,” Bell told ESPN last year.
His argument isn’t stronger today, however. Since Bell sat out all season, waiting to finally hit unrestricted free agency, James Conner ($578,000 base salary) played very well. Gurley fell into a timeshare late in the playoffs. LeSean McCoy (the top 2018 salary cap number among all backs) finished 29th in the NFL in rushing yards and averaged 3.2 yards per carry. Jerick McKinnon tore his ACL in a preseason practice after signing a $30 million deal with the 49ers. Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman, in the second year of a $43 million deal, played only two games due to injury. The list goes on.
A team like the Jets or Colts, with a ton of cap space, will happily pay Bell a lot of money. How much remains to be seen. It might not quite be the mega payday Bell wants. Time and time again we’ve seen that teams that can get a perfectly capable running back, or use a platoon, at a fraction of the price they’d pay a superstar.
The team that paid the most at running back this season, for a single player and percentage of the salary cap, was the Buffalo Bills. McCoy had the highest cap number among NFL running backs. The 6.1 percent of the cap they spent on running backs was by far the top mark in the league according to Spotrac; the Jacksonville Jaguars were second at 4.7 percent. The Bills were 30th in yards gained, 30th in points scored and 31st in total offense in DVOA, Football Outsiders’ per-play metric.
To be fair, the Rams paid the fourth-highest percentage of their cap at running back and the Patriots were seventh. The Rams might not have reached the Super Bowl without Gurley being great in the regular season. The Patriots relied heavily on their three-headed attack at running back in the playoffs. New England’s Sony Michel was the most productive running back in the postseason, and the Patriots invested a first-round pick in him.
Maybe there’s still value in investing big at running back. But watching the Rams give a good amount of snaps to Anderson — admittedly a bit overweight, cut by a terrible Raiders team during the season, getting paid a total salary about 1/226th of Gurley’s signing bonus — made it seem like bad business.
Teams going in different direction at running back
Since the beginning of the Super Bowl, there has been little correlation between having the best running back in the league and winning a title. Only four of the 53 champions had the NFL’s rushing champion, and Dallas’ Emmitt Smith accounts for three of the four. Terrell Davis, with the 1998 Broncos, is the other. Davis was also the last first-team All-Pro back to win a Super Bowl, 20 years ago. As Bleacher Report pointed out, only three of the 19 teams that have won a Super Bowl since 2000 had even a Pro Bowl back on their roster.
The arguments are well known by now. Running backs have shorter careers. They get injured often. With the NFL changing, teams feel better about using multiple backs with specialized skills. And running backs seem relatively easy to find for cheap: The Seattle Seahawks picked Rashaad Penny in the first round and he mostly sat this season behind 2017 seventh-round pick Chris Carson; the Denver Broncos took Royce Freeman in the third round and then watched undrafted Phillip Lindsay rush for 1,000 yards and make a Pro Bowl.
It’s not like it’s a bad thing to have a great running back. All things being equal, it’s better to have an Ezekiel Elliott than not. But many teams have decided against paying big money for a star running back. We saw again in the Super Bowl why that trend might not change anytime soon.
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