The current Los Angeles Rams running back won three consecutive state titles at Tarboro High (one famously earned despite being hobbled by two sprained ankles). He went on to a standout collegiate career as a Heisman hopeful at the University of Georgia before being drafted by the then-St. Louis Rams with the 10th pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.
While Gurley was cracking pads in the Los Angeles sunshine in early October, Hurricane Matthew cracked down on Tarboro and its neighboring communities, including Princeville. According to a CNN article, most of Princeville’s 2,000-odd residents escaped the flooding from the storm by heading across the river to Tarboro and were unable to return until waters began to recede. Still, the damage has been hard for the area to move past.
“This is a disaster area. It’s not going to recover in 24 hours, and it’s still going on as we speak, not only in Princeville but 150 miles from here,” Gov. Pat McCrory told reporters at the time. “People are playing golf 20 miles from here, and yet we have a whole town under water.”
Gurley knew that, too.
With the Rams having a bye last week, he traveled back to North Carolina to serve those in need at Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina.
"IT WAS BAD. IT WAS LIKE A GHOST TOWN. A LOT OF PEOPLE – SOME PEOPLE COULD GO BACK INTO THEIR HOUSE, SOME PEOPLE, THEY’D HAVE TO REBUILD THEIR WHOLE HOUSE." Rams running back Todd Gurley, on the state of Tarboro after Hurricane Matthew
“I kind of rode through the town,” said Gurley on a conference call this week. “It was bad. It was like a ghost town. A lot of people – some people could go back into their house, some people, they’d have to rebuild their whole house.
“You just see everybody’s stuff on the side of the roads, furniture and all types of stuff. I definitely want to keep everybody in prayers and know they’ll get through it. Most people have been staying in a hotel the last three weeks to a month.”
Jessica Whichard, a spokeswoman for the food bank, said that Gurley and his agent had initially reached out to them with the knowledge of the prolonged affects of the hurricane.
“Based on experiences with Hurricane Floyd, we knew that inland would really be hit hard with flooding from rivers,” she said. “The rivers took about a week to crest. There were a ton of people in shelters, and so there was kind of an urgent need for hot meals with the flooding going on.
“But what we’re finding now for long-term impact is that people who had their power out for extended periods of time lost everything in their refrigerators. For some people, that can take one trip to the grocery store. But for folks in these areas, that can take weeks to recover from.
“It’s not just over once the waters start to recede.”
Wichard said the need for meals appealed to the type of assistance Gurley wanted to give Tarboro.
“Our food bank works with the Tarboro Community Outreach Center, and knew that they had this distribution going on. They were running a soup kitchen and we thought it would be a great fit based on what he wanted to do for the community,” she said.
A personal touch
And Gurley went himself rather than just writing a check.
“I just helped out at the shelter, the soup kitchen,” said Gurley. “Helping people take food to the car and make a couple sandwiches. It was pretty cool just being able to see people’s faces. People were excited just to have me there just serving and helping out.
“I just wanted to give back, get back and really go see my family and just see all my friends. I just wanted to kind of do something while I was there and show my appreciation for the town.”
His involvement came as no surprise to his head coach, Jeff Fisher – he made Gurley a team captain in just his second year in the league – and did not go unnoticed by the town.
“To see (Gurley) reach out and know how long it was going to take for folks in this community, people he went to high school with, to recover and get back on their feet, you know, it was something that we really appreciated,” said Wichard. “It’s hard to keep that sense of urgency in people’s minds. So to have Todd reinforce that with his presence there.
“To take that time to come to Tarboro, it was really important.”
E! has greenlit “Hollywood & Football,” a series revolving around the Los Angeles Rams, as the team heads from St. Louis to L.A., Variety has learned.
The NBCUniversal cabler has ordered six hourlong episodes of the show, which is slated to premiere this fall, coinciding with the 2016 NFL season.
“We are excited to take viewers inside the exclusive lifestyles of these top athletes and their families as they navigate a new city, new friendships, new schools and the inevitable Hollywood gossip,” said Jeff Olde, E!’s EVP of programming and development. “E! has a track record of success with pop culture programming centered in the world of sports, and this series will capture the off the field perspective of one of football’s most anticipated and high profile events as the Rams return to L.A.”
The Rams-centric series joins a slew of E! series set in the sports world, including “Total Divas,” which follows the WWE female wrestlers known as Divas, and “WAGS,” which stands for Wives and Girlfriends of Sports. Both of those franchises are proven successes for the cabler with five seasons of “Total Divas” and a spinoff ordered for “WAGS,” so “Hollywood & Football” should be a seamless fit on the schedule, perhaps also bringing in more male viewers.
For the Rams, “Hollywood & Football” is the second show that will feature that team as it moves back to L.A., following HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” which will center around the Los Angeles Rams in the upcoming season this summer.
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“Hollywood & Football” is produced by T Group. Exec producers are Jenny Daly, Rob Lobl and Shauna Thomas.
Meet the players and their families who will be featured on the series:
Kenny, a 27-year-old wide receiver, will be moving to Los Angeles with his wife, Sabrina, and their children, 5-year-old daughter, Ava, and 8-month-old son Kenzo. No strangers to the L.A area, the Britts have spent the past few off-seasons in Westwood, but have decided to put down roots in Calabasas where they recently purchased a home.
Rodger & Asia Saffold
St. Louis has been home for Rodger since he was drafted as an offensive lineman in 2010. Since then, he married his wife Asia and together they have a 3-year-old daughter, Aaliyah, and a 1-year-old son, Price.
Lance & Danielle Kendricks
Lance is a 28-year-old tight end returning for his sixth season with the Rams. He will be moving to Los Angeles with his wife Danielle, whom he recently married.
Chase & Kila Reynolds
Chase, a 28-year-old running back, and his wife, Kila, are high school sweethearts and will be renewing their vows on their upcoming 10 year anniversary. They’ll be moving to Los Angeles with their three kids, Talen (9), Peyton (5) and Tenley (1).
Bradley Marquez & Melissa Hernandez
Bradley, a 23-year-old wide receiver will be moving to Los Angeles with his pregnant fiancée, Melissa. He will be starting his second season with the Rams.
Cory & Bianca Harkey
These high school sweethearts are L.A. natives, who recently welcomed their first child together. Cory is a tough guy on the field but how he will handle changing diapers, feeding a newborn and all-night crying sessions remains to be seen.
But Carolina’s defense was also a significant factor in the team’s 2015 success, as the unit finished No. 6 overall and No. 6 in points allowed. Delving deeper, the Panthers were No. 2 in yards allowed per play, No. 2 in passing yards allowed per play, and No. 1 in interception rate.
Much like many of the NFC West teams, the Panthers rush the passer well, force turnovers, and are known for playing a physical brand of defense.
The team lost some of their key contributors over the offseason — most notably cornerback Josh Norman, who signed with Washington after having his franchise tag rescinded — and that’s likely a reason for why the defense got off to a slow start in 2016. But after last week’s performance against the Cardinals, the Panthers look a lot more like the team that essentially ran the table in the NFC than one with a 2-5 record.
Carolina got after Arizona’s Carson Palmer early and often in last week’s 30-20 victory, sacking the quarterback eight times. The first QB takedown came from defensive tackle Star Lotulelei on the Cardinals’ first drive. Linebacker Thomas Davis picked up the loose ball and returned it to the end zone, completing the scoop and score.
“We got off to a 14-0 start right away and that, I think, kind of really accelerated things for us as far as playing offense and playing defensive football,” Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said this week. “If you have success early, you can, you can control the tempo and the pace of the game. We just have to be able to get a fast start and that’s one thing you try to do. You don’t always have that success, and if you don’t, then you’re in for a slugfest.”
That was just the first sack from Lotulelei, who earned an NFC Defensive Player of the Week award after racking up 3.0 sacks, three tackles for loss, and a forced fumble against the Cardinals.
But any time one team records eight sacks, there are usually contributions across the board. And that was the case for the Panthers, as six different players brought Palmer down in the backfield. One was defensive back Leonard Johnson, who was playing in his first game with the Panthers after signing with the club as a free agent in the offseason. Johnson had been fighting through an achilles injury that kept him sidelined for the first six games of the season.
“He hasn’t been able to play football for a little while, so I think this first game back gave him a chance to kind of get out there and kind of let it go,” Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “He did a great job for us. He gave us a good spark. He made a bunch of big plays. He had a sack, he had some other pressures on the quarterback, he had a big pass deflection on a two-point conversion, he made some big tackles just all over the field.”
The quarterback of Carolina’s defense, Kuechly leads a ferocious Panthers linebacking corps that also features the veteran Davis and Shaq Thompson — the No. 25 overall pick of the 2015 draft. Kuechly recorded his second sack of the season against Arizona last Sunday.
“They’re a great front. Probably the best [linebackers] crew that I’ve ever come across, that I’ve ever played against,” Rams quarterback Case Keenum said. “Luke’s a great player. He gets those guys lined up, and they’re very rarely not lined up right. We have to I.D. the fronts, get ready and attack them on the back end.”
But a significant factor in Carolina’s victory last Sunday was the club’s heavy blitzing. That’s not necessarily a strategy the Panthers will employ every week, according to Rams offensive lineman Rodger Saffold, but when they do, it’s effective.
“It’s tough, but you never know exactly what they’ll do with you,” offensive lineman Rodger Saffold said, “because there’s games like Arizona where they blitzed a bunch. There’s games like New Orleans where it wasn’t as much because their offense was doing a lot of throwing the ball, and they needed to drop. The same thing goes with Atlanta. So it just all depends on what type of team we’re going to get.”
“Personally, I think we’ll get more of the blitzing, just to kind of put Case under duress to try to take away the running game,” Saffold continued. “But, if you do what you do effectively, there’s some running lanes there. And there’s some gashes that you can find in some of the zones.”
It was plainly apparent last week that the Panthers are willing to blitz in almost any situation — be it first, second, or third down. That can be a challenge for teams to prepare for on a weekly basis.
“We need to be able to recognize some of these blitzes so that we can put ourselves in the best situation,” Saffold said. “That way you don’t have those mismatches that you had where you have guys free, if you’re able to block them all. So it’s just experience. The more games that you have, the more that you’re able to understand the team.”
That’s why in order to come away victorious in this game, the Rams will have to protect the passer well. And that is not just a job for Saffold and the rest of the starters up front.
“Protection involves more than just offensive linemen, it also involves running backs and tight ends. But it’s important,” Rams head coach Jeff Fisher said. “You see what happens when you don’t get the time, like what happened Sunday against the Cardinals — eight sacks and a lot of hits. It’s hard to win football games that way.
“Case knows he’s going to be pressured at some point because they’re so talented,” Fisher added. “He can extend plays like some of the other players that we watched in the past in the games that were successful against them.”
Rams seek recommitment to running game, Todd Gurley. The last time the Los Angeles Rams played -- seemingly forever ago, but actually Oct. 23 -- they attempted 53 passes, a total they hadn't exceeded in more than three years.
It is not ideal.
"I was as surprised as anybody when I saw the stat sheet at the end," said offensive coordinator Rob Boras, alluding to the fact that the Rams threw on 15 of their 20 first-down conversions during their 17-10 loss to the New York Giants from London. "... That's not the way it was designed to play. Obviously, we want to run the ball."
It might not be by design, but the Rams have gone away from Todd Gurley over their past two games.
Gurley averaged 3.97 yards per carry against the Detroit Lions and Giants, a subpar rate that was nonetheless better than the 2.74 yards he averaged through the first five weeks. In those two most recent matchups, though, Gurley only carried the ball a combined 29 times, with just 13 of those carries coming in the second half, even though they were basically one-possession games throughout.
Todd Gurley has crested 100 yards in just one of his past 15 games, something the Rams aim to change. AP Photo/Duane Burleson
The Rams need to -- and want to -- get Gurley more involved, because relying on him for offense is typically a much better option than having Case Keenum try to beat opposing defenses down the field, regardless of Gurley's struggles on the ground in 2016.
For the season, Gurley ranks second-to-last in the NFL yards per carry (3.01) and dead last in average rushing yards before first contact (1.34). To counter, the Rams have looked to Gurley more frequently in the passing game. He has already been targeted as a receiver 26 times, only one fewer than his targets through 13 games as a rookie last season. His 21 catches tie his mark from 2015.
"I think not being able to get things going in the running game, I improved a lot in the passing game," Gurley said on a conference call with Panthers reporters ahead of Sunday's visit from Carolina. "... Just staying patient and trusting the process. You've got to keep working hard even though something's not going. Hard work doesn't always pay off at the right time, but you still have to trust the process and keep going."
Gurley has now failed to reach 100 rushing yards in 14 of his past 15 games, a stunning stretch for such a gifted runner. The Panthers have given up the third-most passing yards per game but feature a talented front seven that has allowed only 3.26 rushing yards per carry, the lowest mark in the NFL. And like everybody else, they'll be fixated on Gurley.
"He's still a dynamic player," Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "He’s big, he’s powerful, he’s explosive. I think he’s a very unique running back that is a challenge for you. He can kind of do a little bit of everything. He’s not just a fast guy, he’s not just a strong guy, he’s not just a guy that can catch the ball out of the backfield. He’s able to do all three."
The Rams haven't been able to display that man just yet. Getting there hinges on a trio of factors. It's Keenum keeping defenses honest through the air, it's Gurley having the patience to let holes materialize and, most important, it's the offensive line improving. Rams guard Jamon Brown, who returned to practice seven days after undergoing minor surgery on his left hand, believes his unit has to "amp it up a little bit."
"We have to pay more attention to detail," Brown said. "Just do more. Obviously we knew that everybody was going to have a plan for Todd, try to contain him. As an offensive line, we know that it takes work; it’s a grind. It’s not going to be perfect, but we just have to continue to put our bodies on other bodies and Todd will eventually do his thing."
A satirical look at more than 75 years of Football's Rams history, combined with discussions of American Exceptionalism and almost 50 years of personal experience in the life of a Rams Fan. The history parallels and intertwines life to form a humorous, yet serious look at American History, World History, an American Footballteam, and Political Science.