Todd Gurley never had a true running partner during his first four regular seasons with the Los Angeles Rams.
The superstar running back took most of the carries and grinded out most of the tough yards while his backups played only sparingly.
When he suited up with C.J. Anderson for the first time last weekend during the Rams’ divisional playoff win over Dallas, Gurley truly shared the big carries for one of the first times in his NFL career.
As the New Orleans Saints have already noticed, the tandem was pretty much unstoppable.
“I guess it was a good thing I got hurt,” Gurley said with a laugh.
Gurley’s knee injury last month led the Rams to sign Anderson, a six-year veteran who had been released by three NFL teams in the previous eight months. Anderson hit the ground running with 299 yards in the Rams’ final two regular season victories while Gurley sat out.
When Gurley and Anderson suited up together against the Cowboys, their contrasting styles and similar relentlessness made history. Anderson went for 123 yards and two touchdowns, while Gurley rushed for 115 yards and another score as they propelled the Rams to a franchise playoff-record 273 yards rushing and on to the NFC championship game on Sunday.
The Saints have already watched film of this partnership’s debut, and they know what’s coming to the Superdome.
“Being able to split time with (Anderson) and Gurley, it does good things for them,” Saints linebacker A.J. Klein said. “It gets Gurley some rest and gets him some carries, and vice versa. It keeps them fresh. And obviously you can tell when they’re running the ball, they’re not tired. They’re fresh and they’re running hard.”
The Rams’ dynamic duo presents a remarkable contrast at the position.
Gurley is a powerful, majestic runner capable of injuring would-be tacklers as easily as breaking past safeties for a length-of-the-field TD sprint.
Anderson is 5-foot-8 and a self-described “fat kid running.” While he hits holes and linebackers ferociously, he isn’t planning to break away from any defensive backs anytime soon.
“From the 40 in. That’s it,” he said Sunday when asked to imagine his longest possible TD run. “Can’t go 70. Todd can go 70, 80 if he wants to. Me, from the 40 in, man. When they say the 40 at the combine matters, that’s where it matters.”
Gurley and Anderson present a stark contrast in running styles, but they already looked like good teammates against the Cowboys. Gurley and Anderson largely substituted themselves, each waving the other on or off the field, depending on whether they were tired, or felt they had the metaphorical hot hand.
Anderson, who won a Super Bowl with the Broncos three years ago, still seems a bit surprised to be deep in the playoffs just a few weeks after he was unemployed. He understands his place in the Rams’ larger picture, and he willingly defers to Gurley.
“Whatever Todd wanted to do, we were going to ride with anyway,” Anderson said of the substitution plan against Dallas. “If he wanted to play 98 percent of the snaps, we were going to let the man be the man. That’s why he’s one of the best backs in the league.
“But I think him seeing the opportunity of being fresh and not taking as many hits and (not) having the workload on passing downs and run downs, I think that helps him. And vice versa for myself. I’ve been in a position where I was a starter and I was the same way, when I was in Denver. I’ve always told him, ‘You want to be fresh,’ and when you’re fresh, obviously more explosive runs for the both of us.”
Gurley tore his knee ligament during his final season at Georgia, and his rookie season didn’t start until the Rams’ third game. Since then, he has been one of the NFL’s most durable backs, even without having a heavily used backup.
Malcolm Brown joined the Rams with Gurley in 2015, and he has been Gurley’s primary backup during coach Sean McVay’s two-year tenure.
Brown averaged 4.9 yards on 43 carries this season, matching Gurley’s per-carry average. But Brown has just 106 carries in the past two seasons to Gurley’s 535, and he went on injured reserve last month after he injured his collarbone, forcing the Rams to sign Anderson.
Gurley had the ball on 74 percent of the Rams’ rushing plays in the 2016 season and 61 percent of the rushing plays in 2017. He carried the ball on 55 percent of LA’s 459 rushing plays this season while sitting out the final two games as Anderson ran wild.
Gurley also points out the obvious: Even with this fascinating tailback tandem, the Rams run the ball well because of their powerful offensive line.
“When we dominate at the line of scrimmage, nine times out of 10, we’re going to win,” Gurley said. “They always give the running backs the credit, but you see what those guys did. You see who led this team to a victory.”