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Todd Gurley's fast start gives St. Louis Rams chance to contend

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ST. LOUIS -- To hear St. Louis Rams running back Todd Gurley tell it, there was never any fear in that first carry. He took a simple handoff from quarterback Nick Foles in the second quarter of a home game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, gained 2 yards and never looked back. Nobody could see instant stardom in that moment. It was merely an ordinary start to what now appears to be a very exciting time for the Rams.

Gurley gained 9 yards total in that 12-6 loss to the Steelers in Week 3. He's amassed 305 more in the two games that followed. Those numbers sound impressive in their own right, but they also symbolize something else: This is the first time we can seriously talk about the Rams making the leap from continual wannabes to legitimate playoff contenders. That's how good Gurley is, as long as he remains healthy.

Gurley figures to do even more damage when the Rams face Cleveland on Sunday -- the Browns have the worst run defense in the NFL -- but the most important thing to know about him is that he's not even 100 percent healthy. It was only last November that Gurley tore the ACL in his left knee as a junior at Georgia, which means he's literally going to get stronger, faster and more destructive as time passes. As Rams head coach Jeff Fisher said, "He's only going to get better. If you like what you see now, then just wait."

Fisher's glee when discussing his star rookie isn't surprising. He's been looking for a dominant running back since coming to the Rams in 2012, knowing what it could do for his team's identity. When Fisher was in Tennessee from 1997 to 2010, he had a banger in Eddie George and later a speedster in Chris Johnson. He now has both those styles in the same body with the 6-foot-1, 227-pound Gurley.

The Rams clearly took a gamble on Gurley, given that he entered the 2015 NFL Draft as damaged goods. But it was a risk that makes more sense every time he steps onto a football field. This is the kind of player who wouldn't be derailed by an injury, a man Fisher calls "special." If anything, that setback has only given Gurley more motivation to prove the Rams weren't wrong to pick him with the 10th overall selection.

When discussing the reasons behind his sudden success, Gurley said, "Those guys up front work their tails off every day. I have to give a lot of credit to them, along with [Rams running backs] Benny [Cunningham], Tre [Mason] and Chase [Reynolds] for helping me learn the plays and the blocking schemes." When asked why he spends so much extra time after practice working on pass-blocking and catching balls from the JUGS machine, Gurley is equally humble. He was looking for a daily routine to help hone his skills quickly and merely followed the lead of his teammates.

"He's a guy who is hungry to get better," said Foles. "He's worked that way his entire life and he's not going to change just because he's in the NFL now."

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As good as Gurley has been, the Rams deserve credit for the plan that put him in position to prosper. Fisher said the goal throughout was to bring Gurley along slowly. They focused solely on his rehabilitation after the draft and through the offseason training periods. There was never any discussion of exposing him to action in preseason games. The bulk of Gurley's confidence would come through a progression of repetitions in practice, as he gradually moved from non-contact drills to scout-team duty to prepping with the first-team offense after the regular season began.

This is where Gurley displayed a talent that will help him both on and off the field: his patience. He didn't push or prod or pout when the Rams started the season without him involved. Since he couldn't build his confidence through live action in games, he used every other resource available to stay on top of the offense. He watched film constantly, focused intensely during walk-through sessions and listened gratefully whenever a veteran teammate offered some advice.

Gurley even found a way to see his sideline time as a positive. "It was hard, but I was already sitting out," Gurley said. "Two or three games of sitting are never going to hurt anybody. The way I looked at it, I'd rather miss five or so games than an entire season."

Gurley's emergence means the Rams, now 2-3 after their bye week, have all the vital pieces they need to build the identity that Fisher covets. The defense is led by a fearsome front four. The offense has a veteran quarterback who only needs to manage games (Foles) and a speedy receiver who can break them open (Tavon Austin). What Fisher wants is ball-control, play-action passing and a bruising mindset. Gurley's presence ultimately will allow everyone else on this team -- including an offensive line that still needs to stabilize -- to play at a higher level.

That was apparent in Gurley's second game, when he ran for 146 yards on 19 carries in a 24-22 win over Arizona in Week 4. The Cardinals had no answers for his hard-charging running style, and they wound up with their first defeat of the season as a result. A week later, Gurley had 30 carries for 159 yards in a 24-10 loss at Green Bay. The Rams killed themselves with four interceptions by Foles, but even Packers head coach Mike McCarthy marveled at Gurley's workload when that contest ended.

It's already a safe bet that Gurley will earn more fans as this season goes on. "You could see that he was mature beyond his years from the moment he got here," Foles said. "You saw it when you talked to him and watched how he went through practice and his rehab. I was always excited to see what he'd be like when the real bullets were flying, but nothing really changed. He had the first couple reps when he was trying to get adjusted to NFL speed, but he adjusted pretty fast."

It's the speed of that transition that has everybody around the Rams buzzing. The belief was that Gurley was a rare talent before the injury, the type of workhorse back that easily could've been a top-five pick. That's one reason why a devastating knee injury never made Fisher and general manager Les Snead nervous enough to pass on him. If Gurley could handle his business, they could have the steal of the draft on their hands.

There doesn't seem to be much to debate about that possibility these days. Gurley needed one game to show he was ready for the NFL and another to prove he was a potential superstar. Over the next two months, we're bound to learn even more about what he can deliver. But this much we know already: The Rams just got a heck of a lot better in a very short time.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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