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Week 9 Notebook: Todd Gurley rewarding Rams' calculated risk

NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his exclusive Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to go directly to the topic):

Les Snead was in Athens scouting Auburn (his alma mater) and Georgia the night Todd Gurley went down with a torn ACL, and the Rams general manager flew back to St. Louis the next day for his team's game against the Denver Broncos.

Like everyone, he felt terrible for the Bulldogs' transcendent junior. And as he discussed the injury with Rams COO Kevin Demoff, a pretty frightening thought popped into his head -- one driven by both the talent that Gurley brought to the table and what the previous night's trainwreck would take off it.

"I lamented to Kevin, the kid still wouldn't get out of the first round, and that someone would be getting themselves a heck of a player and it would probably be one of the better teams," Snead said from his office on Wednesday night. "And then I thought, 'Holy cow -- this guy's gonna be a Seahawk.' Then, he gathers steam through the process, and I'm thinking the guy's gonna be an Arizona Cardinal. Then it was, 'He's gonna be a Niner.'

"And then you're thinking, What's the best way not to play him twice a year? Just take him."

The Rams did, and as recently as the first of October, the decision to pull that trigger was still debatable.

It's not anymore. As the second half of the season dawns, Gurley is fifth in the NFL in rushing, despite sitting out Weeks 1 and 2, and rushing for just 9 yards on six carries in Week 3. He's averaging 6.1 yards per carry. No other back in the top 10 in rushing is averaging 5.0. This Sunday, he'll play against the player he's compared to most, Adrian Peterson, and sits just 58 yards behind him with 46 fewer carries.

In fact, Jeff Fisher listened to what Peterson told the media this week and noticed that, "In describing Todd, he was describing himself. He didn't know it, but that's how I heard it."

And with the wound of his former Georgia teammate Nick Chubb's injury still fresh, Gurley may well be making a difference for future prospects who suffer major injuries before entering draft.

One rival GM texted, "Each player should be judged individually based on injury type, success of surgery and recovery expectations. But he certainly makes you realize you should be careful how much you devalue players based on injuries. Willis McGahee really started that trend." Another GM downplayed the potential shift in practice, texting, "I truly believe it's a case-by-case-basis thing. I'm not sure anybody downgraded Gurley for his injury. He did go with the 10th pick and was rumored to go right after that, if St. Louis didn't pick him. He was a top-10 player and went in the top 10."

Either way, his story won't hurt. And it certainly is an interesting one, given that, by the end, the Rams were so smitten that they launched an NFL version of playing hard to get, with word of their interest kept within the three-person circle of Fisher, Snead and Demoff.

"I may have had a beer on the porch with my dog and said it to him," Fisher jokes now.

The effort to make sure no one could sniff out that love began in pre-combine meetings, when the Rams staff started discussing Gurley as a prospect. And as they looked forward, the decision makers were anxious to get their doctor's hands on Gurley's knee in Indy.

"Philosophically, we always think to focus on the long term, because the short term is, by definition, short," Snead said. "You should probably never draft a player to start Game 1, if you think the guy's gonna be there for a decade. And not every pick winds up being that, but you'd like your first-round picks to be that way. So it was just important to see what type of injury it was. And we just felt like, if we like Gurley, then let's go there."

Dr. James Andrews had other ideas, not letting anyone touch Gurley's knee in Indy. But through the Rams' relationship with Andrews, who'd just operated on their quarterback, and their connections at Georgia, they saw what they needed to see, kept their mouths shut, quietly targeted the workhorse and landed him on draft night.

It didn't take long for Gurley to remove any lingering internal doubt on whether they did the right thing.

"I'll never forget the day -- he was out running, and it wasn't full speed, but it was probably three-quarters, and he started to decelerate," Fisher said. "That's a huge portion of the recovery. You see them decelerate, that's a huge piece in coming back from that injury."

That was during OTAs in May. And with every test the Rams laid out for him in the months to follow, Gurley continued to be significantly ahead of schedule. They'd stick to the plan, but they knew, deep down, that their resolve to make a pick with a five-year vision, rather than worrying about the first five weeks of the kid's rookie season, was paying off.

"We drafted him because we had confidence in his future, in our future, and where this was going," Fisher explained. "There was still every reason to believe it'd take time when we drafted him, and we were not gonna subject him to failure or setbacks or any issues whatsoever."

That, of course, carried into September. Gurley probably could've pushed himself to play in Week 2 at Washington, but told Fisher in pregame that he didn't feel quite right. So they held him out of that one. And the next week, during his debut, they didn't force anything, even as they saw him being inches away from breaking loose.

Not bad. And the best is yet to come.

"He's everything you want in a back, and he's only gonna get better," Fisher said. "Our goal as a staff is just to not lean on him too much, not wear him out. I think 18 to 20 carries a week is ideal, and we finally got the mixture we wanted last week, because we'd been without Tre [Mason]. Todd had 20, Tre had 15, and that's kinda what we're looking for."

Of course, it did take a while to get here. But little things along the way helped. Georgia coach Mark Richt "was awesome", per Fisher -- and his Dawgs staff, as well as Andrews, were invaluable. So too were the brief experiences the Rams had with Gurley. The first time Fisher met him was actually in the spring of 2014. Fisher was in Athens to work out now-Chiefs quarterback Aaron Murray, and Gurley was the only player in the weight room.

"You take that work ethic," Fisher said, remembering the initial interaction, "then apply it to the rehab."

And Snead recalls going to Gurley's hometown and meeting with teachers and coaches and everyone the running back grew up around -- and how all of the information on him matched up. In the end, the Rams knew the knee injury wasn't ideal, but they also had conviction that the kid would be OK.

"I had a gut sense," Snead said. "I just couldn't wait to see him play."

That brings us back to what it could mean for the next highly-touted guy who goes down. Chubb has a year to get himself back and healthy to play again before the draft. Others will be like Gurley, and get injured right before entering the pros. For those guys, in that unfortunate circumstance, this will be a pretty cool point of reference to draw on.

"I do believe this: What Todd has done here over the last month, after what he endured last fall, gives all those players hope that with really hard work, and there's nothing harder than an ACL, they can still realize a dream," Fisher said.

Added Snead: "What he's showing is that these things, it's a very early chapter in your book and probably, one way or the other, a pivotal one. It's not the best scenario, but it could be something you bring up in a Hall of Fame speech someday."

It's early yet. But it sure doesn't seem far-fetched that, perhaps, way down the line, Gurley might eventually be doing just that.

Four downs

1) Lions' changes prove to be seismic. The veil of uncertainty surrounding Detroit owner Martha Ford was lifted on Thursday with an emphatic boom -- as team president Tom Lewand (a team employee for 19 years) and GM Martin Mayhew (with the organization since 2001) were shown the door . Ford's son, Bill Jr., was expected by many to move into a commanding role when his father, William Clay Ford, passed in 2014. Instead, he shifted his focus to the family's auto business and his mother took control of the Lions. And that meant, to those in the building, not to bet on anything going forward, because Martha Ford hadn't just been an unknown to many in league circles, she was also hard to peg personally for those working for her. One executive for an NFC rival said on Thursday, "I don't know anyone who knows her. I don't know who's gonna give her counsel on these decisions. Maybe the league?" An AFC exec simply said Ford has come off as "very nice" but echoed his counterpart's sentiments in saying he had very little knowledge of her personally. What we do know is she's very sharp, and has been out front at league events for the franchise, listening and taking in what's going on, but generally keeping a very quiet presence. And one other thing that's for sure: Whoever gets control of the Lions' football operation next will have challenges. Matthew Stafford's cap number for 2016 is $22.5 million, and Calvin Johnson's will be a shade over $24 million for a season during which he'll turn 31. Add those to the next four highest cap numbers, and you have a half-dozen guys counting for more than $76 million, with the cap expected to be roughly double that next year. Of course, there's a good chance there'll be a new coach, in addition to replacements for Lewand and Mayhew, though replacing Jim Caldwell in-season would be tougher following Caldwell's gutting of the offensive staff last week. Looking past that, the broader bottom line here: Detroit's been a cushy NFL locale for a lot of people for a long time, and the shakeup of the last 10 days is a good sign that could be changing.

2) Niners in flux. The residue of the offseason transition in San Francisco is hanging around like chewed-up gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe. And this week, the quarterback switch has led to old stories involving Jim Harbaugh's staff being reprised. As multiple sources recounted it, Geep Chryst, now the team's offensive coordinator, was often on shaky ground as Harbaugh's quarterbacks coach. In fact, on two occasions, the Niners were close to reassigning to him to another position. What saved Chryst? As it turns out, the quarterback he just benched. Colin Kaepernick, according to those who were there, went to bat for Chryst to stick as his position coach, and Harbaugh and Co. listened, in the name of keeping the quarterback happy. One source says that Kaepernick "begged" Harbaugh not to move Chryst. Then, when the Niners were having trouble finding a coordinator to replace Greg Roman on Jim Tomsula's staff, Kaepernick's affection for Chryst played into the decision to promote him. The underlying theme here: The Niners' actions over the last couple years indicate that they were, indeed, all in on trying to get Kap turned around. You can, of course, temper by citing the trap doors -- one of which they could well use in March -- built into Kaepernick's contract. But there's little question that Tomsula, and even more so GM Trent Baalke, wanted to find a way to get Kaepernick right. This week's events are a pretty good indication of how much of a struggle it's been to pull that off. And of how wayward things have been over the last year-and-a-half or so in Santa Clara.

3) Colts looking for more pep ... without Pep. On the surface, the Colts move to drop the ax on offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton could be framed as scapegoating. But those who faced Indy over the last couple years would argue otherwise. The issues metastasized last January in the AFC title game, with the Patriots' then-fearsome secondary suffocating the Colts' skill players and leaving Andrew Luck without answers. And the wound hasn't healed in the time since. "They just couldn't get their guy (Luck) back on track," one AFC exec said. "The acquisitions made to help on offense haven't helped. They're too systematic. It's a combination of a lot of issues." A rival pro scouting director added, "They just never got into a rhythm or identified what they were with the new players this year. Can't really tell off tape what they were trying to be, and the line problems added to it. I do think the quarterback plays better up-tempo, as evidenced by the comebacks." Another AFC exec said that the protection and play-calling issues have been obvious and apparent. Look, Luck's ugly 71.6 quarterback rating and 13:12 TD-to-INT ratio absolutely warrant mention here. He's played like crap. But the proverbial line of coaches forming outside owner Jim Irsay's office -- résumés in hand despite all the chaos in Indy -- is proof positive that football people still see Luck as an incredible commodity. Rob Chudzinski's first job now is to do more than Hamilton did to put him back on the path he was on over his first three years in the NFL. If he and Chuck Pagano can't, it's pretty clear someone else will get a shot to in 2016.

4) Titanic shift.The Titans' firing of Ken Whisenhunt -- just 23 games into his Tennessee tenure -- caught plenty of people off guard. The real surprise here was that it happened now, rather than two months from now. And the reason that it became an open secret in that building that Whisenhunt was on increasingly shaky ground can be drawn directly to concerns among the Titans brass over general quarterback health. Last year, Jake Locker's season was ended by a dislocated shoulder, and that followed wrist and thumb injuries. Then-rookie Zach Mettenberger also finished the season on IR, after a second injury to his throwing shoulder proved to be a separation. And this year, early in the season, prized No. 2 overall pick Marcus Mariota suffered an ankle injury, which was only the precursor to a sprained MCL that sidelined him for the past two weeks. Now, some of that's bad luck. But the way the Titans see it, not all of it was. "Some of it is the offensive line, but some of it's not," said one team source. "What we worried about, we just never protected them." The straws that broke the camel's back came in the last few weeks -- with Miami's Cam Wake registering four sacks while being singled up for the duration of the Titans' 38-10 home loss, and Houston's J.J. Watt dominating rookie right tackle Jeremiah Poutasi to the tune of 2.5 sacks and nine quarterback hits. Watt was asked by reporters after the game why he thought the Titans singled him and answered, "I don't know, but they did. I told them they shouldn't have." Now, that Whisenhunt was 3-20, and lost 16 of his last 17 games in charge was clearly the biggest problem. But if there's one change that comes immediately from above, you can bet it'll be that more will done -- through scheming protection and establishing the run game (the Titansranked 29th in rush attempts last year, and are 28th this year) -- to protect the franchise's most valuable asset, and one that could well attract a big-name head coach in the offseason.

Three checkdowns

1) The Lions might be the final victims of the old rookie-salary system, nearly a half-decade after it was detonated. After years of swings and misses, Detroit hit on three top-two picks in the final four years of the old system: Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh. And while each became a cornerstone, a string of restructures to keep the numbers in order made balancing the cap a constant challenge. Ultimately, high cap numbers in the final years of contracts (due to those restructures) gave Stafford and Johnson leverage for their megadeals. That forced further restructuring with Suh, driving his 2014 cap number through the roof, making it impossible to tag him in 2015, and allowing him to hit free agency and bolt. So now, they're stuck with huge numbers for the first two of those selections, and nothing but a 2016 compensatory pick for the last of them.

2)DeMarco Murray's return to Dallas brings a good chance to check back in on his fit in Philly vs. how Bill Callahan's power scheme worked for him. And that brings me back to a conversation I had with his former teammate, Jason Hatcher, before the Eagles played Washington in Week 4. Hatcher told me, "They're running him out of the gun. And I watched him on film -- he's struggling with that. He's more of a dot-back, downhill, get some steam. And he reads the holes really well. Running him out of the gun, he's not as effective. And I say that with no disrespect, because I think he's one of the premier backs in this league. But the way they're using him right now, it's just not him." The Eagles have done things to accommodate Murray, going under center and playing out of two-tight end sets more. But the foundation of the offense remains the same, and with the bye week behind him, this would be a good week for Murray to show he's getting comfortable, and he's a better fit in Philly than people think.

3) One fascinating storyline that's playing out in the AFC West: How Jack Del Rio is helping the Raiders break through, while the defense he left behind in Denver has taken a giant leap forward following his departure. Though they're three games back, 4-3 Oakland is Denver's closest pursuer in the division, and the team seems to have inherited the hard-nosed mentality that Del Rio's best Jacksonville teams had a decade ago. Meanwhile, Del Rio's replacement in Denver -- Mr. Fix-It himself, Wade Phillips -- has gotten his customary first-year bump out of what was already a pretty good defense. The Broncos rank first in total defense, yards allowed per play, pass defense, interception percentage, and are second in third-down defense and fourth in run defense. So ... everybody wins?

Two college players to watch Saturday

1) LSU RB Leonard Fournette (at Alabama, 8 p.m. ET, CBS): We usually focus on draft-eligible players here. Suffice it to say, Fournette is an unusual player. The true sophomore has rushed for at least 150 yards in each of LSU's seven games (all wins), compiling 1,352 ground yards and 15 touchdowns on a 7.7-yards-per-carry average. Meanwhile, 'Bama brings the nation's third-ranked run defense, yielding just 2.6 yards per carry. So, what will scouts watching the wealth of talent on display in Tuscaloosa be looking for from Fournette? "Just to maintain the same type of high-level performance against a defense that's considered to be the gold standard in the SEC," answered one area scout, assigned to LSU. And how special is Fournette? Well, it took eight years to go from Peterson to Gurley, and it looks like the wait for the next of that genre won't be nearly as long. "He'll be the first running back taken in the draft, put it that way," an AFC exec said. "He's extremely talented, and very similar (to Gurley) in that he can beat you in a lot of different ways. He can do everything, just like Todd." The area scout added his report on Fournette would be pretty simple: "Take him. Seriously. It's an easy report. We don't spend much time on those guys. The film is self-explanatory." And just to round out all of that, by all accounts, Fournette's a great kid, too. "Better person than he is a player, just like Todd," the AFC exec said.

2) Florida State CB Jalen Ramsey (at Clemson, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC):Ramsey might wind up being the best corner in next year's draft, but what makes him an incredibly different prospect is how he's much more than that. "He's a top-notch athlete, a world-class athlete -- long, instinctive -- and the big thing is he's played corner, safety, played the star (slot) position in their defense," one AFC college scouting director said. "The guy's easy to translate to the NFL at any of those positions, corner or safety. Some will look at him and want him to play corner, and some will say he could be a perennial All-Pro at safety." An NFC exec chimed in by basically running the gamut of traits for a corner: "Instinctive, loose, fluid, explosive and versatile." And with defenses getting more multiple, that versatility comes at a premium. He'll probably cost you a top-10 pick. This week is a good one to check him out, too, with Clemson QB DeShaun Watson (the ACC leader in total offense, passing yards and total touchdowns) capable of testing the Seminoles' defense at every level as part of a showdown with major national implications.

Extra point

To all of us who were in Buffalo on August 29 -- for the all-important third preseason game -- it was tough to come away with any sort of positive feeling for the Steelers' reworked defense.

The Bills quarterbacks combined to throw for 395 yards and three touchdowns on 30-of-33 passing, putting together a composite passer rating of 142.9. And Buffalo ran for 156 yards, too, with Fred Jackson breaking off a 41-yard scamper just days before his release. That Buffalo offense, by the way, now ranks 23rd in the NFL.

"We were trying to find out about players, and see if they could play," defensive coordinator Keith Butler said earlier this week. "It was more of an evaluation game, than a trying-to-win game for us. And they took advantage. ... But obviously, we didn't feel good about it."

Butler feels much better about his group now, with half of his first season as Dick LeBeau's replacement in the books. And -- surprise, surprise -- it's been the defense that's delivered of late for a Steelers team that was supposed to be carried by its intergalactic offense, as that unit has struggled mightily all season with injuries.

This past Sunday's tight loss to Cincinnati provided a prime example of this -- as the defense held the offense, which lost Le'Veon Bell during the game, in a pivotal division showdown.

All of it is a product of a group of young, high draft picks stepping forward, something that should keep the rate of improvement here steady through the rest of the year.

"And that's what we're trying to do," Butler said, referencing the offseason youth movement. "There's gonna be ups and downs. People are talking about how we held the Bengals to 16 points and all that crap. It doesn't matter, because we only scored 10. And you don't win, then you don't get in the playoffs. And it's hard to say we're getting there if we don't do that."

Head coach Mike Tomlin is fond of saying "the standard is the standard," a reference to Pittsburgh's glorious past and a bar set high as a result of it, and Butler's words play right into that.

But the truth is, there's plenty for Butler and his charges to be proud of through eight games, a year after finishing in the bottom half of the NFL in total defense and points allowed for the first time since Chuck Noll's final year as coach. The Steelers are still giving up yards (21st in total defense), but that's getting better -- and they now rank sixth in points allowed.

Over the summer -- with Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu gone, and James Harrison the last link to the recent Super Bowl defenses -- the coaches spoke openly about needing particular youngsters to make the leap simultaneously, to work toward becoming the Polamalus and Taylors and Harrisons of their era, and that seems to have happened.

The four former first-round picks at linebacker have played well, as have 20-something (and highly drafted) defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward. Meanwhile, Antwon Blake, Ross Cockrell, Will Allen, Mike Mitchell and Robert Golden have stabilized a secondary that almost nothing was expected from.

And the coaches have been part of it, too -- in particular, head coach Mike Tomlin, who allowed LeBeau sovereignty but has been welcomed into the mix by Butler to bring a global viewpoint.

"I want him there -- he's got a good mind for it," Butler said. "He sees both sides of it. He helps prepare the offense, defense and special teams, so he sees it different than I might."

Butler, meanwhile, has carried over the nomenclature and structure of the old system, but has made tweaks, playing more out of a four-man front, adding coverages and trying to get his defensive linemen upfield more. The truth is, following LeBeau is hard enough, so there was no need to completely blow up the coaching legend's tried-and-true formula.

The hope, in fact, is that Butler and Co. are doing their old friend proud.

"I'm not Dick LeBeau. I'd never try to be Dick LeBeau," Butler said. "It's hard coming after him. He's loved here and he should be: He's a great man and a great coach. And that's been a tough transition, because he's such a good friend of mine. We talked then, we've talked since, and we both understand that's the way this business is. Someday, someone will come and take my job."

The way the Steelers are going, that won't be for a while.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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