Opinion: Todd Gurley’s release serves as painful reminder of the cruel and brutal life of an NFL running back

The hook came for Todd Gurley on Thursday. The Los Angeles Rams turned the once-treasured running back onto the streets after deeming him too battered, beaten and expensive to justify keeping on their roster.

The move hardly comes as a surprise given both the decline that Gurley displayed in his fifth pro season and the $10.5 million in guaranteed pay that his continued presence with the Rams would have triggered.

Gurley’s release serves as a painful reminder both of the cold world that is the business side of the NFL and the brutality of life as a running back. 

It’s also another reminder of why players at his position do everything possible to ensure their long-term financial security, even if it draws outside criticism.

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It wasn’t long ago that Gurley boasted one of the most dominant and well-rounded games in the NFL. He was the perfect fit for coach Sean McVay’s offense; the ideal security blanket for young quarterback Jared Goff.

With his impressive blend of size, strength, speed, athleticism and instincts, the 6-1, 224-pound Gurley gashed defenses for 1,305 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in 2017, adding 788 receiving yards and six more touchdowns in the passing game while spearheading the Rams’ rapid rise to prominence. The next season — months after the Rams rewarded him with a four-year, $57.5 million contract that featured a record $45 million in guaranteed money — he racked up another 1,251 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns, along with 580 receiving yards and four scores as a pass catcher.

In that 2018 campaign, Gurley was a key figure in the Rams’ run to the Super Bowl. 

But before you knew it, the magic ran out. He was a shell of himself in the final weeks of that 2018 regular season as well as the NFC championship game and Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots.

Gurley wouldn’t make excuses. He wouldn’t admit it, but his explosiveness certainly had diminished greatly. Gurley insisted he was fine. Publicly, McVay blamed himself for not doing a better job of helping his workhorse find a better rhythm. 

But privately, people within the organization, as well as others around the league, wondered if those heavy workloads caused too much wear and tear on Gurley’s surgically repaired left knee (the same in which he tore the anterior cruciate ligament as a junior at Georgia in 2014). The people spoke to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.

The Rams in 2019 made a more concerted effort to avoid overworking Gurley early in the year. But throughout the season, he only showed flashes of his dominant form.

Gurley wasn’t all that was off with the Rams last season, however. Goff showed signs of regression as defenses seemingly figured out how to take away his strengths. The defense struggled to get the same game-changing stops it had secured a year earlier. The Rams went on to miss the playoffs after finishing third in the NFC West with a 9-7 record.

Now, as a couple of aggressive offseason spending periods have caught up to the team, Gurley became one of the most notable casualties. After trade solicitations produced nothing of substance, the Rams released the former centerpiece of their offense.

“Damn I got fired on my day off,” Gurley tweeted with the laughing-crying emoji.

But there’s really no laughing matter here.

Sure, Gurley has made $38.5 million since entering the NFL as the No. 10 pick of the 2015 draft. And he’s still owed $7.55 million this year as part of a bonus that was guaranteed to him last year.

But this business is unfair to running backs. They’re viewed as a dime a dozen. And because of the punishment and pounding that running backs’ bodies absorb, the shorter shelf life compared to other football players, Gurley now is viewed as damaged goods.

He’ll have a hard time landing a contract anywhere near what the Rams gave him, and he’s not even 26 until August. While quarterbacks and pass rushers are landing lengthy deals that pay them huge sums well into their 30s, Gurley likely will have to piece together shorter, bargain-barrel contracts for a season or two. 

And that’s why running backs hesitate to settle for the first or second contract thrown their way. It’s why the idea of enduring another year of pounding on a franchise tag is unappealing. Sadly for Gurley and his fellow running backs, the rookie deal is all that’s a given. By the end of that four- or five-year deal, most running backs have little left in the tank. The special ones manage to land that second, richer contract. And every now and then, there are the rare breeds, who can continue producing and securing decent deals into their 30s.

Fortunately for Gurley, he avoided playing on a franchise tag, and he managed to secure more guaranteed money than is common for his position. 

Now he enters unknown territory. It’s hard to say if he can still serve as a feature back. He didn’t look like his old self in 2019, but perhaps a longer offseason will have a rejuvenating effect. Or, perhaps by joining a running back rotation, he’ll gain longevity and preserve his earning potential.

Don’t ever knock running backs for trying to secure the bag, however. The “selfish” label critics often slap on them couldn’t be more inaccurate. These crucial pieces to the puzzle get chewed up and spat out, and the prime earning window slams shut far more quickly than it opens.

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.

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