Sean McVay and Jared Goff spoke with media after Super Bowl LIII, where they talked about the Ram’s painful loss and Todd Gurley’s health.
USA TODAY Sports
ATLANTA — We might never learn the real story about Todd Gurley. But that wasn’t the guy we know out there in Super Bowl LIII.
We know that outside of a strong performance in the divisional round of the playoffs, he hadn’t looked like his usual dominant self for quite some time. Suspicions of a lingering knee problem swirled over the All-Pro running back as Super Bowl LIII approached. But all week long, Gurley declared himself perfectly healthy. Gurley’s coaches maintained the same. They hadn’t listed him on their injury report in weeks, and they insisted that he would have a prominent role against the Patriots.
In the moment of truth, Gurley wasn’t himself, and as a result, neither were the Rams. The New England Patriots, however, were their usual efficient selves, and as a result, they won their sixth Super Bowl since 2001, dispatching the Rams 13-3.
Disappointment hung heavy over the Rams as they trudged off the field and to the locker room where they largely changed in silence. Confusion also abounded.
It’s hard to understand how Gurley could have gone from lynch pin of the Rams’ offense to virtual non-factor on the biggest stage. How had he managed only 35 yards on 10 carries, and how did he log only one touch for five yards in the first half?
None of the answers offered made sense. None of the explanations matched the visual evidence.
“I know there’s been a lot of concern about my knee, but I’m really fine,” Gurley said flatly while seated at one of the podiums in the bowels of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “I don’t ask questions. I just come up to work, be with my teammates, have fun, take advantage of the opportunities I get.”
Coach Sean McVay maintained the same when asked about Gurley.
“He is,” McVay said when asked if Gurley was healthy. “Really, I never enabled us to get into a rhythm offensively. … A lot of it was a result of some things they did, but then also, the play selection. I was not pleased at all with my feel for the flow for the game and making some adjustments as the game unfolded to give us a chance to have some success and put some points on the board. Credit them, and they did a good job, but I certainly didn’t. But Todd is healthy, and we just didn’t get anybody going today, and that starts with me.”
Could one of the smartest young coaches really have simply forgotten how to use the back that produced 21 offensive touchdowns and 1,831 all-purpose yards? That doesn’t make any sense.
Was Gurley trying to gut it through knee pain without telling his team about it? That seems unlikely since Gurley revealed a December MRI revealed no structural damage. Are his legs just shot from a heavy workload logged through Week 15? Or, was his confidence shaken by his late-season injury, and his aggression diminished?
The mystery will go unsolved for now.
But either way, the Rams suffered greatly because of Gurley’s diminished role and production.
They just didn’t the firepower needed to top Tom Brady and the Patriots. What’s worse, is it wouldn’t have taken a whole lot. The Rams received a strong effort from their defense for much of the game. Until the fourth quarter, Wade Phillips’ unit kept the Patriots out of the end zone, and again and again, got the ball back for their offense.
But offensive struggles — a 3-for-13 showing on third downs, an anemic rushing attack and punts on eight consecutive possessions to start the game — created too heavy a weight on L.A.’s defenders, and eventually they crumbled beneath that weight.
If only the Rams had Gurley in go-to mode, or McVay in genius mode.
All year long, Gurley provided a two-dimensional threat that helped ensure balance and versatility for their offense. He gashed teams with his running ability, and he served as a security blanket for young quarterback Jared Goff as a pass-catching threat out of the backfield. And much of the year, McVay had dazzled with his game-planning, play-calling and ability to make key in-game adjustments.
But on Sunday, the offense had an identity crisis.
You see, although McVay can design all kinds of entertaining pass plays, the run game is the foundation of his play book. The Rams use the run game to set up their passing attack. They call play-action pass plays (running them on 35 percent of their snaps) more than anyone in the league.
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But without the threat of the run, without the production that they were accustomed to for the majority of the season, the pressure mounted on Goff, and that played into the hands of the Patriots. They entered the game with the goal of harassing the third-year pro, and as he dropped back again and again to throw, and rushed throws to beat the pressure, and missed his mark more times than not, Los Angeles’ Super Bowl hopes faded.
Yes, quarterbacks get all of the attention and the big bucks. And in today’s NFL, running backs frequently are viewed as expendable. But Gurley is definitely not that. And although C.J. Anderson generated a feel-good story for the last several weeks, he’s no Gurley, as his six carries for 18 yards indicated.
Bill Belichick and Brian Flores’ defensive game plan was masterful. They remained a step ahead of the Rams all game. Their defenders knifed through the gaps of the line, taking away those signature cutback lanes that L.A.’s stretch-zone run plays generally generate.
But the Gurley in his MVP form always possesses a little something special. He manages to get a step on defenders and create something out of nothing. But this Gurley we saw Sunday, and who we’ve seen in two of the last three playoff games, lacked the explosion, the wiggle and the heroics needed.
The Rams knew that this task of upsetting the Patriots wouldn’t be easy. They were reminded throughout this week of preparation, that they couldn’t afford to cripple themselves with mistakes. They knew that the Patriots rarely make mistakes in these big stage moments. But they also knew that they needed to play a near-perfect game, and perplexing they were. Perfect they were not.
Los Angeles has a good foundation in place. The Rams have an aggressive front office that will work to further strengthen the roster, and McVay and his staff will work to improve as coaches. Based on the past two seasons, it’s reasonable to think that the Rams will find themselves back on this stage soon.
But for now, they’re stuck with a sickening feeling following their mind-bending performance in defeat.
“The thing that’s so tough about all this is the finality to it,” McVay said. “Usually when you go through some adversity, you can bounce back right away, but this one is going to stick with you and just stings in your gut and I’m numb right now, but I have so much love for these players and coaches and it eats at you because you don’t feel like you did your part to help them achieve success.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Mike Jones on Twitter.