I have seen a few folks making the case for Todd Gurley as a legitimate MVP candidate, and since the Packers face the Rams this week, I thought it would be a good time to address the idea. Running backs face a huge uphill value in terms of adding value, generally speaking. Because there is a lot of talent available at the position and the league prefers passing, running backs are closer to punters in terms of value than they are to even average quarterbacks.
That said, I don’t think it’s impossible for a running back to provide value, and Gurley is probably the closest back in existence to a platonic ideal at the position, at least in past seasons. Once, in 2016, a few APC contributors and I actually voted for Ty Montgomery as the team’s first half MVP.
That was, in retrospect, a bit silly, but not as silly as you might think, because much of what I saw in Montgomery’s usage that half-season, as a newly converted running back, is what does make running backs valuable.
Why Running Backs Are Bad
Running backs aren’t valuable because running isn’t inherently valuable, at least in the NFL. I think it probably could be in certain circumstances, but the NFL is a passing league, and passing is, for all current teams, more efficient than running. Running is simply there to tempt defenses into defending something aside from passing. Even the greatest running attacks are there to capitalize on defenses that lean too far towards lighter pass defenders.
The fundamental problem for running backs is that their entire existence is as a distraction. They are a game theory play in service to a much more formidable attack. They are the play within a play of a Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is extremely entertaining and one of Shakespeare’s highlights, but mostly exists in service to a much greater work.
When people used to talk about three-down backs, they meant someone who could pound out consistent gains on first and second down to set up a manageable third down, which the player also might convert. As it turns out, having a one-note power back grind out short gains on any down isn’t actually very useful, and many teams pivoted to employing a third down back. This lead to even more specialization, the advent of the power back or goal line backs, and pass blocking specialists. Specialization is not without its problems as specialized players telegraph their uses. When Chris Thompson is on the field for Washington, it is overwhelmingly likely that he will not get a carry, and while Thomspon is excellent at what he does, that telegraphed use makes him easier to defend.
Enter the new 3-down back.
Whereas a specialized back allows the defense to cheat, a truly versatile back can help punish defenses who overcommit. The big difference between old and new three-down backs is simply that the new variety are pass-catching specialists first. Even if they don’t see huge volume, the new school aren’t just dump-off targets. They split out wide, they run the route tree, they have good hands, and they easily defeat linebackers.
Todd Gurley is such a back. Under Jeff Fisher, Gurley was wasted as the old type of three-down back, crashing hopelessly into stacked boxes just as Eddie George was decades before. Fortunately Sean McVay took over, and the coaching improvement from Fisher to McVay is quite possibly the largest of all time. Now, instead of crashing into stacked boxes, the presence of a stacked box will lead to this.
In 2017, Gurley really was a huge threat, ranking 4th in DVOA/2nd in DYAR as a rusher, and 7th in DVOA/2nd in DYAR as a receiver. Gurley’s 12.3 yards per reception last season was on par with most outside receivers, and was bolstered by a near 74% catch rate. Add on 19 total touchdowns, and, with his modernized usage, it’s easy to see why some might make the case for the return of the running back. Gurley is undeniably a dynamic talent at the position, and with the best coach in the league getting the most out of him, what’s not to like?
What’s not to like
Plenty, as it turns out. First of all, while Gurley is great, he’s not the even the best running back in football. Last season, the Saints’ Alvin Kamara produced more total DYAR rushing and receiving, and was more efficient on a per play basis per DVOA.
Gurley’s dominance over other backs is based mostly on volume, and we should always beware of volume. While getting Gurley-level efficiency with Gurley-level volume is valuable, getting as much with fewer attempts can, in some instances, be even more valuable. Last season he was certainly a top-three back, and so this is splitting hairs a bit, but this season — a season that has seen many call for him to be in the MVP conversation — he really doesn’t belong. Gurley’s gaudy 14 touchdowns impress typical analysts (and fantasy football players), and there’s nothing wrong with scoring touchdowns, but Gurley hasn’t been quite as good on a per-play basis. He’s 5th in rushing DVOA behind Kamara, Denver’s Phillip Lindsay (75 rushes at 5.8 yards per attempt), Kerryon Johnson, and Matt Breida.
Given that he leads the league in carries, ranking 5th is quite good, but it’s worth noting that it’s possible defenses have adjusted to Gurley the receiver. While he was undeniably great last season, this year he’s 22nd in DVOA, slightly below average. If you think DVOA is some nerdy number made by people who never watch football and don’t understand that the secret to winning is crashing into other humans as fast as possible, please note that Gurley is down from 12.3 yards per reception to 10.8 yards per reception, and down from 73.6% of targets caught to 71.4%. While Gurley was dominant as a receiver against the Vikings, he’s only been average, or in the last two weeks, downright bad against everyone else.
Gurley may be drawing additional focus, but it’s worth noting that he runs behind an elite line:
And is schemed into excellent situations consistently by McVay.
This isn't from article but brings it home:— Evan Silva (@evansilva) October 20, 2018
Next Gen Stats' @KeeganAbdoo has noted Gurley gets 95% of carries from under center in manner allowing him to hit line at elevated MPH.
He encounters the defense with more speed than most RBs while facing lightest boxes of all RBs.
And this isn’t really a knock on Gurley. His job is to help make the Rams’ passing offense great overall, and the Rams’ passing offense is great.
But let’s take a step back when we consider how big of a factor he is. Quarterback still dwarfs all other positions in inherent value, and Gurley’s brilliant use in the McVay offense, when contrasted with his asinine use under Fisher, really highlights the contributions of the coaches in question, not Gurley himself. Brandin Cooks and Cooper Kupp are both in the top 10 receivers per DVOA, and Goff is 3rd among QBs. Every Ram has been fantastic on offense, and while Gurley is a part of that, versatility leads to easy completions and he’s still only a small cog in a big machine.
The fact is that while it’s better to have a great running back, it’s more important to use your running back effectively and put passing first. Kareem Hunt of the Chiefs is currently first in receiving DVOA, while only slightly beneath Gurley in rushing DVOA, in service of the NFL’s best passing offense. Andy Reid is up there with McVay in terms of offensive scheme, and it’s telling that they make such good use of their running game. Gurley’s great, and I don’t want to disparage him, but the fact remains that he’s not the revolution some claim, and if his production doesn’t return to 2017 levels, MVP talk is silly. Given how great the Rams’ offense already is, MVP talk is likely silly even if it does.