What a story if Todd Gurley’s ‘still that guy’ for Falcons

Here was a chance for Todd Gurley to say he’s coming back to Georgia to prove the doubters wrong. They think he’s finished as a top NFL running back after the Rams ate a lot of money to let him go. Now Gurley will join the Falcons and show skeptics that he’s still All-Pro caliber.

"Naw, I know I'm still that guy," Gurley said during a media conference call on Friday. "Been doing this my whole life. It's just football."

There are reasons to question Gurley’s self-assessment. His left knee is No. 1 among them. It’s given Gurley problems since the 2018 season. That’s no small issue for a power running back who has more touches (1,483) than any player in the NFL since he entered the league in 2015.

But what if Gurley is right? What if he’s still that guy who was the league’s best running back not long ago? Think about how much fun that comeback story could be.

Gurley stars at the University of Georgia. The Falcons pass over him in the draft. He becomes an instant star for the Rams. They release him just two seasons after signing him to a big contract. Gurley returns to Georgia and stars for the Falcons.

I’m not saying that’s probable. I do think it’s plausible. Gurley is only 25 years old. He was All-Pro in 2018. Maybe Gurley will be rejuvenated by returning to the state where he made it obvious that he’d be an NFL standout one day.

“Honestly, it really couldn’t have worked out any better,” Gurley said. “I feel like it’s a great situation for me. ... I grew up in North Carolina, but (Georgia) is really like home for me. I’m really excited. I’m sure there are a bunch of Georgia fans there (excited).

“It’s really like a little homecoming. I felt like I should have been there.”

Plenty of UGA/Falcons fans feel the same way. In the 2015 draft the Rams picked Gurley 10th, two spots after the Falcons selected Vic Beasley. Gurley was the AP’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2015 and its Offensive Player of the Year in 2017. Beasley had a promising rookie season and was very good the next year, but he was ordinary over the last three.

» MARK BRADLEY: Temper your expectations for Gurley

Now Beasley is gone, and Gurley is with the Falcons. Well, he's not with them quite yet. Coronavirus restrictions prevent it. Gurley's Falcons contract is contingent on passing a physical, which both parties consider a formality.

Gurley notes that he played 15 games in 2019. But his role in Sean McVay’s offense was more limited than in the previous three seasons. McVay never quite explained what happened. The perception was that Gurley had worn down. That assessment seemed to match Gurley’s reduced elusiveness when running with the ball.

Gurley’s counter to that storyline is that he’s always held up as a workhorse ballcarrier, going all the way back to his days at Tarboro High School.

“The last five years have been the toughest (physically), being in the pros,” Gurley said. “It’s just another year, honestly. Each year is a different approach. I didn't tear my ACL last year; it was six years ago. I’ve been able to maintain that and keep going each year.''

Yes, it’s really been five-plus years since injury ended Gurley’s junior season at UGA. It happened during his first game back from suspension for the NCAA crime of profiting from his own name. Gurley played just 30 games for the Bulldogs but ranks fourth in program history for rushing yards (3,285) and third for total touchdowns (44).

At a program where good tailbacks seem to grow from the hedges, Gurley was one of the best. That’s why his return to the state has generated so much buzz among fans. Gurley said that includes friends from his time in Athens.

“They might be more excited than I am,” Gurley said. “They are pumped. It’s going to be fun. The love is there. That’s something to be happy about.”

The enduring image of Gurley from the Super Bowl was him riding an exercise bike as the Rams lost to the Patriots. McVay’s offense had an all-systems failure in the 13-3 defeat. But it was jarring to see Gurley reduced to an afterthought in the biggest game of his career.

Last October at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Gurley scored the touchdown that put the Rams ahead for good in a 37-10 victory. That was the fifth of six consecutive losses for the Falcons. Their defense was bad for much of the season but the offense could use a boost, too.

Gurley said he can help the Falcons in whatever role he earns.

“I just have fun, man,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for a long time. I've seen plenty come and plenty go. That's how the game goes, so you want to leave your mark while you can and try to be the best you can.

“That's why I picked the Falcons: To be able to create my legacy, to try to be the best player I can be.”

Gurley once was a great NFL player. He says he’s still that guy. If so, then what a story for Gurley, the Falcons and fans of both.