Running back Todd Gurley had a major breakout during his rookie season last year. He surpassed 1,100 yards with a 4.8 yards per carry average, and scored 10 touchdowns in the process. This excellence led him to the prestigious honor of Offensive Rookie of the Year. With Gurley in the backfield, the Los Angeles Rams were ecstatic to have a fierce rusher that was set to be the foundation of a consistent running game for years to come.
However, in his sophomore season, Gurley has been anything but spectacular. Much like his team, he has been virtually ineffective on offense. Through 12 games, he has performed at less than half his production at this same point last year.
It’s Benny Cunningham’s Time to Shine
It is no secret that the Rams offensive line has been one of the worst in the league, and defenses have stacked the line against the Pro Bowl back all year. However, and as hard to believe as it may seem, Gurley’s struggles at the running back position may have the team looking to cycle another player in that key spot.
Fourth-year undrafted free agent Benny Cunningham has been forced to live in the shadow of names like Isaiah Pead, Zac Stacy, Tre Mason, and now Gurley. However, through the changing guard at running back, Cunningham has been the constant in a third down option and qualified fill-in for the starters. With his talent, consistency, and dependability, as well as the struggles with the run game, it may be that time when Cunningham gets a well-earned re-appraisal.
A Rushing Team
Obviously, Gurley takes the lion’s shares of the runs for the team, but in this Rams system, he takes virtually every touch. Though they have changed into more of a passing team as of late, thanks in part because of new starting quarter back Jared Goff, the Rams have indisputably built their team around the run.
From head coach Jeff Fisher making it clear on HBO’s Hard Knocks that Gurley was not to be mishandled at practice, to their drafting of nine offensive linemen and five running backs in the past five years, their goals have been made clear. Though they have not had much success with these picks, only holding six of the 14 on their current roster, their plan remains the same.
This same plan is one of the reasons for the limp offense in 2016. The Rams run-first plans hit a massive roadblock when the rushing attack fell flat. They then had to adapt with a short passing strategy. They got away with this for about four weeks, then the novelty wore off.
Cunningham has not carried the ball more than six times in a single game, and the game he did get those six carries, he averaged just under seven yards per carry. Instead, he has seen his most time as a kick returner, where he has had some remarkable success. One notable game was against the New Orleans Saints, where he returned for 163 yards, helping him become the NFL’s leading returner, a title he still holds as of this publication.
Cunningham has proven his talent in the return game and though the situations are very different, similar technique prevails. Cunningham makes good choices, showcases vision, and utilizes his natural explosion to fight for extra yards every return.
Once again, Cunningham is overshadowed by a big name starting in front of him, but if the Rams want to establish a run game for the immediate future, they should share more of the workload with the one back on their roster that is setting a standard for yardage in the NFL.
Cunningham’s Skill Set
Whereas Todd Gurley is a speedy north-south runner, Cunningham shines as a power back who takes defenders head-on and can also maneuver through them for these crucial extra yards. Cunningham also shines in quickness. From his days at Middle Tennesse State, he showed an elite level of movement that broke open big runs against some of college football’s best linebackers. He absolutely excels in his ability to juke and break to the outside of pursuers, making himself a distinct and highly valuable back in any team’s style of play.
These strengths fit in particularly well with the Rams’ current problems with being unable to set up inside runs. With Cunningham’s running style, he could either use his size and power to push open the inside runs and drag defenders, or his quickness to break open outside runs.
The NFL’s worst offense has struggled with nearly every aspect of their run game and this could be said to be a reflection on the conservatism of the playbook. With Cunningham in an expanded role, their rushing attack could take on an entirely new dimension, if for nothing else, to surprise a defense who would not be prepared to take on such a different back. One might think the coordinators would be willing to try anything with such a lackluster attack, but the Rams, as we have seen in full display this year, are not a fan of change.
Dual Threat Backfield
If the Rams were hesitant to strip Gurley’s starter status, they could also try split back formations to have access to both rushers while, of course, still leaving a passing threat. This would go right along with coordinator Rob Boras’ style of complicating the offense to make it less defendable, as his plays offer many motions and mutations, including two tight end sets and flanking running backs out wide and receivers in the back field. It would seem only natural to have plays designed with both running backs on the field, especially when each offers such a contrasting style. Defenses would be pressed to lean toward one threat and would be susceptible to being caught off guard half of the time.
If one running back could not get the job done and they had no passing threat to take the pressure off him, adding another would at least provide some distraction. Similar to kick return formations, which Cunningham of course excels at, the split back formation would fall right in sync with the strengths of their backup rusher and provide him much needed opportunities to boost this limp offense.
Benny Cunningham can play. He has showed his excellence in the return game by leading the league in yards, and his runs have been the most consistent of any Ram in his tenure with the team. Despite his second-tier status on the team, he has continued to showcase his unique talents in his few opportunities.
As the worst offense in the league, the Rams have been squandering their run potential by not using this phenomenal back. As the final four games approach, giving Cunningham a chance to make plays could be just what they need to right the ship and add some momentum into the off-season.
Unfortunately for the Rams, they will not have much more time to appraise the talented running back. He will be an unrestricted free agent after this year and more than likely be offered substantial deals. The time to evaluate is now. Any more delay and they risk losing what little power their offense still has.