Gurley to the Falcons is a deft and risk-free move

Todd Gurley is joining the Atlanta Falcons. This makes much sense. The Falcons just shed Devonta Freeman, their best back. Not so long ago, Gurley was the NFL's best back. It's the "not so long ago" part that gives us pause.

Gurley is 25. He was just deemed inessential by the Rams, who 20 months ago signed him to a four-year extension for $57.5 million, $45 million of it guaranteed. If you recall, the Rams played in the Super Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Feb. 3, 2019. Gurley played a bit part – 10 carries for 35 yards, one reception for minus-1 yard – in that game, in which his team scored zero touchdowns. He’d done even less – five touches for 13 yards – in the NFC championship in New Orleans two weeks earlier.

The Rams kept insisting Gurley was healthy, though clearly something was amiss. He’d missed two games in December with a knee knock. (He’d torn the ACL in the same knee in his final season at Georgia.) On that Sunday in the Superdome, a journeyman named C.J. Anderson rushed 16 times to Gurley’s four, even though the latter was about to named first-team all-NFL for the second consecutive season. In 2017, Gurley had been the NFL’s offensive player of the year.

Alongside quarterback Jared Goff and defender Aaron Donald, Gurley had been the prime mover in the Rams’ return to excellence. Boy genius Sean McVay used “11” personal grouping – one back, one tight end, three receivers – on 82% of his sets in 2018, Gurley being the principal back. He accounted for an NFL-best 2,093 yards rushing and receiving in 2017; he had 1,831 in 2018. So where was he in the Rams’ two biggest games in more than a decade?

The mystery deepened last season. Gurley played in every game save one, but he didn’t rush for 100 yards in any of them. (He’d had six 100-yard games in 2017, six more the next year.) His yards per carry dipped from 4.9 in 2018 to 3.8 last year. His yards per catch slid from 9.8 to 6.7. His workload in midseason was negligible – 10 carries in Game 8, 12 in Game 9. He got the ball more toward year’s end, a development McVay attributed to him (meaning McVay) “not being an idiot.” But the production didn’t spike, and the once-golden Rams missed the playoffs.

To be fair, Gurley’s oppressive contract – as many have written, it became oppressive the moment he signed the extension – played a huge part in the Rams’ decision to cut one of their franchise tentpoles. That said, no team would have parted with Gurley had it believed he was still the Gurley of 2017 and the first part of 2018. Yes, running backs age fast, but Gurley is, we say again, 25. Last year was the worst of his five pro seasons, and he still rushed for 857 yards, 11th-best among NFL backs.

There’s no downside to the Falcons paying $5 million to take a one-year flyer. They needed a back; here’s a back. If they get 75% of peak Gurley, that will more than suffice. At issue is how much Gurley can give. Depending on your perspective, the Rams’ handling of Gurley was either a function of necessity, meaning he could no longer deliver the goods, or a product of stupidity. Something happened out there, something beyond his contract

There’s a chance that something, whatever it was, won’t happen here. He’s obviously wanted in Flowery Branch. (Though you can hear him saying, “Took you long enough.”) He’s the most beloved Bulldog of the past decade, and there are those who’ve never forgiven the Falcons for making Vic Beasley of Clemson, as opposed to TG of UGA, the first draftee of Dan Quinn’s stewardship. But here he is now, for better or for worse, and it’s tough to see Gurley making the Falcons worse.

If there’s a lesson here for anyone, it’s that spending big for a back should be a no-fly zone. In the summer of 2017, the Falcons signed Freeman to a $41.3 million extension, making him the league’s highest-paid runner at the time. A year later, the Rams lavished much more on Gurley, conferring the highest-paid mantle to him. The Falcons essentially swapped one for the other, both having been deemed dispensable by their previous employer.

If I knew for sure that Gurley’s left knee was OK, I’d say the Falcons just executed a coup. It might turn out to be considerably less than that, but it’s such a low-risk move as to bear almost no risk. Here’s something I haven’t said in a while: Well played, Falcons.

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