In signing running back Todd Gurley to a one-year deal, the Atlanta Falcons were betting the former first-round pick could return to the form that made him one of the league's top backs for the Los Angeles Rams. Knee issues bothered Gurley during the 2018 playoffs and again last season before the Rams cut him in March.
This season, the 26-year-old hasn't quite reached the level he did in 2017, when he was NFL Offensive Player of the Year, but he is enjoying a resurgence as he tries to prove he can continue to be a productive back beyond 2020. His 584 rushing yards rank fifth in the NFL.
"Right now, what he's given us is a really good red zone runner," Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris said. "He knows how to get his pads down and find the end zone.
"That's been awesome. He's done a really good job."
Gurley has nine rushing touchdowns, second in the NFL to Minnesota's Dalvin Cook, who has 12 (five of which have come in the past two weeks). All but one of Gurley's TD runs have come in the red zone, ranking second to Cook's nine.
One of them, of course, was a TD that Gurley didn't want to score late in the Week 7 game against Detroit -- it gave the Lions a chance to come back for a 23-22 victory on the final play. That might be one of the things that sticks with people about Gurley's season, but Morris is focused more on how complete of a back Gurley has been.
He wasn't sure what kind of pass-protector Gurley was until training camp. Quarterback Matt Ryan has been sacked 19 times despite leading the NFL with 351 pass attempts and 382 dropbacks -- that's just one sack for every 20 dropbacks.
"The best thing [Gurley] has done for us right now really is in protection," Morris said. "When he has a chance to go out there and protect Matt and keep the hits off him so Matt can make some of the throws down the field, that's really been nice to see and a really nice addition that you don't know you're necessarily getting when you get a really good runner like that."
Gurley had monster seasons in 2017 and 2018, rushing for 2,556 yards and 30 touchdowns and catching 123 passes for 1,368 yards and 10 more TDs. But Gurley, who had signed a four-year, $60 million extension with the Rams, had just 14 carries and two catches combined in the 2018 NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl LIII because of an injury to his left knee.
Last season, he had career lows in carries (223) and rushing yards (857), though he did rush for 12 TDs. There was significant concern over whether he was near the end of his career, though neither Gurley nor the Rams confirmed reports that he had developed an arthritic condition in the knee.
"It's always something, but that's just part of life," Gurley said recently. "You get knocked down, you've got to keep getting back up. People are going to expect you to fold, but you've just got to be able to overcome.
"That's just part of life. Part of life, part of football."
After the Rams cut him, Gurley quickly agreed to come back to Georgia, where he starred in college, giving him the chance to prove he can still be a featured back. Now Gurley is on pace for his fourth 1,000-yard season (1,038 yards). He's also on pace to set a career high with 283 carries. But he isn't fixated on what comes next.
"I don't look far in the future," Gurley said. "I live for today and prepare for tomorrow."