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Todd Gurley has thrust himself into the MVP conversation

Original article featured in ESPN.

SEATTLE — It was the final seconds of Sunday’s first half, and an outside zone run was called. The Los Angeles Rams already were leading by 27 points, so the Seattle Seahawks‘ linebackers were deep in coverage. Todd Gurley saw the space and figured he could pick up 15 or so yards. Then he took the handoff from Jared Goff, darted toward the left side, turned upfield and exceeded his own expectations, sprinting untouched for the 57-yard touchdown run that went down as the signature play of a blowout victory.

“It was cool,” Gurley said after the 42-7 win from CenturyLink Field. “It felt good to be able to get in some space and run.”

Gurley ran for 152 yards, with 144 of them coming in the first half, and scored four total touchdowns, with one of them coming off a 14-yard catch and run near the sideline. Gurley’s 17 touchdowns are five more than the runner-ups, Houston Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and New Orleans Saintsrunning back Alvin Kamara. His 1,817 yards from scrimmage trail only the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ Le’Veon Bell (1,849) for the NFL lead.

In other words, Gurley — coming off what was by some measures the least-productive season ever by an NFL running back — seems squarely in the mix for an award that hasn’t gone to a non-quarterback since 2012.

“After this game, he should probably be in the MVP conversation,” Rams return specialist Pharoh Cooper said.

“That guy’s something special, man,” defensive tackle Aaron Donald added. “He’s been balling this whole year, been doing a lot of things to help us win games. He’s definitely a top guy, and he should be in the conversation.”

Gurley is averaging 7.3 yards per carry over the past two weeks, gaining 248 yards on 34 attempts against the Philadelphia Eagles and Seahawks. On Sunday, in a game that all but wrapped up the NFC West, Gurley became the first NFL player since Danny Woodhead in 2015 to amass four scrimmage touchdowns and the first Rams player to do so since Steven Jackson in 2006. No player had scored four touchdowns in Seattle since Willis McGahee in 2004.

Gurley is the fifth player since the 1970 merger to run for at least 150 yards with three rushing touchdowns and one receiving touchdown, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

“I might be a little biased, but I think he’s the best running back in the league,” Goff said. “He’s the most complete running back. He can do it out of the backfield, he can do it in the passing game, he can do it in the pass-protection game. Obviously, the way he runs is special. He deserves everything coming his way. I think the best thing about him is he could care less about that.”

Gurley’s first two touchdowns were only 1-yard runs set up by Cooper’s punt returns. But Gurley had five runs of at least 10 yards, even though he gave way to Malcolm Brown over the final 21 minutes. Ninety-six of Gurley’s 152 rushing yards came before first contact, which supported what left tackle Andrew Whitworth said about the offensive line getting “better and better” at opening holes.

The Rams had been a little pass-heavy lately. Only three teams had thrown the ball more often over the previous five weeks, prompting first-year coach Sean McVay to answer an assortment of questions about going away from his best offensive player.

McVay said getting Gurley going on the ground “was a point of emphasis” on Sunday.

“Certainly you don’t want to make the same mistake again,” McVay said, referencing an Eagles loss that saw Gurley run the ball only 13 times. “Todd makes you right.”

Gurley has spent the entire year as the focal point of the Rams’ high-powered offense, accumulating 311 touches (tied for second in the NFL) and 652 snaps (trailing only Bell for the lead among running backs). A quarterback has been named MVP after each of the past four years, and Tom Brady — with 4,163 passing yards, 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions for the surging New England Patriots — may very well capture his third this year.

But the field has seemingly narrowed behind him. Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz tore his ACL against the Rams last Sunday, and Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson might have taken himself out of the running this Sunday, because he struggled and because his team might not make the playoffs. Another MVP candidate, Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brownsuffered a partially torn calf muscle that could keep him out until the playoffs.

It took a 2,000-yard rushing season for Adrian Peterson to claim the MVP in 2012, becoming the only non-quarterback to win the award in the past 10 years.

But Gurley has now forced his way into the conversation, one year after gaining only 885 rushing yards on 278 carries.

“You’ve got the big names out there, but let’s remember that this guy is only in his third season, coming off what he had last year and all the frustration,” Rams left guard Rodger Saffold said. “If he’s not the MVP, he’s Comeback Player of the Year — he’s something.”


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