The Los Angeles Rams running game has been in a constant state of flux since Todd Gurley‘s mysterious knee injuries effectively ended his career. That is, it seems, until now. Kyren Williams is the Rams first 1000+ yard rusher in five seasons since Gurley rushed for 1251 in 2018.
What makes it all the more incredible is that he surpassed the millennium mark while playing in just 11 games. Furthermore, the Rams offense wasn’t committed to running the ball early in the year. Williams was only given more than 20 carries in a game just once in the first six weeks of 2023. Williams has at least 20 carries in five of the last six games and has thrived when given the touches. 72 percent of his 1057 yards have come in his last six games. And also, lest we forget, he was competing for playing time with Cam Akers in Week 1.
So with two games left to play in the 2023 regular season, Kyren Williams is on pace to surpass Gurley’s 2018 rushing total. He would need to average 97 yards over the next two games to do so. Thus far he has averaged 96 yards per game, but as alluded to previously, Williams’ recent trend is much better. He has averaged 126 yards per game over the last six games. If that follows suit, Williams could even surpass Gurely’s best season of 1305 yards.
Gurley achieved that number in 15 games. Williams is on track to pass him with 13 games played. That would be the 11th-best rushing performance in Rams history. If he is able to get to at least 228 more yards he will move ahead of Marshall Faulk‘s best single-season rushing yards per game, putting him 6th all-time among Rams.
Being a Running Back isn’t just about Running
The Rams primarily run 11-personnel. This means the one running back on the field has to be an above-average pass blocker. In his prime, Todd Gurley was considered among the best in pass protection among legit three-down backers. Per Pro Football Focus, Gurley didn’t allow a single sack in his career.
Coming out of Notre Dame, blocking was considered to be one of Kyren Williams’ best traits. Most scouts agreed that he was a willing and more than capable blocker who played with smart technique and determined grit. Lance Zuerline said that Williams had a ‘rare understanding of protection schemes.’ As a pro that hasn’t manifested. Williams is currently tied for third among pressures allowed with nine and is credited with allowing a sack.
There is a case to be made that Williams will improve in due time, which is likely. But when comparing these two backs, Todd Gurley’s size and sheer athleticism give him a significant edge. Gurley is 6’1, 224 lbs. Williams is 5’9″, 194 lbs. Gurley was a first-round pick and Williams a fifth.
As much grit and smarts as Williams plays with four inches and 30 pounds makes a difference when going against 300-pound linemen.
The Pass-Catching Elephant In the Running Back Room
Kyren Williams’ pass-catching ability was another highlight of his college career. In his final season, he was among three players with more than 1000 rushing yards and 350 receiving yards. This aspect also hasn’t manifested.
While Williams’ trend as a rusher has flourished in recent weeks, as a pass catcher it has ground to a halt. In the last three games, he has caught 8 passes for 2 yards. His one highlight game came against the San Francisco 49ers catching six passes for 48 yards and a touchdown, but it was also the game where one of his two drops resulted in a game-changing interception.
At first glance, it may seem obvious that Todd Gurley won this category with his 1368 combined receiving yards in 2017 and 2018. But outside of those years, he was far from dominant as a pass catcher. There are good reasons for the struggling years, injury, and a 32nd-ranked Rams offense in 2015-16. Nonetheless, it was a flash in the pan. But to give credit where credit is due…It flashed brightly, earning Gurley the second-most MVP votes in 2017 and the most votes for a non-QB since 2014. (Only Cooper Kupp has gotten MVP votes as non-QB since then.)
Running backs as pass catchers in the Sean McVay offense has been a bit of a chicken-or-egg situation since Gurley’s decline. The fact of the matter is McVay hasn’t called as many passing plays for running backs since. Whether that is because he hasn’t had the caliber of back he had in prime-Gurley or because he favors more explosive play-calling is unclear. Both are true.
In 2017 and 18 running backs were targeted 89 and 92 times. The only time it was remotely close to that amount was in 2021 with 75 running back targets. And even that is a 26 percent reduction and that was in a 17-game season. But even then, the production just wasn’t the same. Gurley averaged 12.3 and 9.8 yards per carry. In 2021, the leading receiver, Darrell Henderson, had an average of 6.1 yards.
Kyren Williams scratched at that number in his eight-game rookie season averaging 8.4, but it is a small sample size of just nine catches. This season it’s 6.4 yards per catch. And that said, the play calling has been inconsistent. He got seven targets in Week 15 and zero the next.
The targets this season will get close to 2021’s number of running back targets of 75, but its hard to imagine McVay will go back to the prime-Gurley era numbers until one of his running backs proves a consistent option in the passing game. While Kyren Williams may never get the touches that Gurley got, it proves that running backs like Todd Gurley are truly rare commodities.
The Troubling Coincidence When Comparing Todd Gurley and Kyren Williams
The comparison isn’t one to one, but what the two Rams backs share in common is a troubling injury history. Gurley only played a full season twice in nine years. He never missed significant time but the culmination of his ailments was a significant decrease in his explosiveness.
Kyren Williams came into the league with a stellar bill of health, but was hurt before his pro career even began. Williams broke his right foot during OTAs in 2022 then suffered a high ankle sprain on the same leg in Week 1, not taking his first hand off until Week 10. This season he was placed on IR due to yet another sprain to the right leg. Williams has already missed almost 35 percent of games he could have played in if healthy.
Of course, injury history doesn’t guarantee that a player will have a shortened career, but given the teams history at the position, its hard not to worry. And whatsmore, the Rams don’t have a viable long term plan to take any work load off of Williams, so the risk of injury only increases with a high usage rate.
While the two backs are quite different the most important thing is they both unlocked the Rams offense. Only 2021 was in the same realm of EPA/play as the prime-Gurley years. But since Week 12 the Rams offense has been the best it’s ever been in the McVay tenure.