THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Todd Gurley probably would have won his first NFL rushing title last year if the Los Angeles Rams hadn't rested every key starter in their season finale.
Gurley was sanguine about the decision at the time, saying all the right things about the bigger picture and the Rams' playoff goals.
With Gurley in the NFL rushing lead again as the regular season heads into its final weeks, the superstar running back is telling the real story about the end of 2017.
"Yeah, I was lying," Gurley said with a laugh. "I really did care about the title. I couldn't say nothing. No one really plays for regular (season) goals, but that would be a pretty cool thing to get. I tell people that all the time: 'You play for team goals, but who wouldn't want to be the NFL sack leader? Who wouldn't want to be the NFL passing or rushing leader? It's hard to get it.'"
This time around, Gurley is openly hoping he can get the first rushing title since 1987 for the Rams (11-1) — and their race for the NFL's best overall record might actually work in his favour. With Los Angeles in a tight race with New Orleans (10-2) for the NFC's top seed, the Rams might not be able to keep Gurley off the field in December.
Gurley heads into Sunday's game at Chicago (8-4) with an NFL-best 1,175 yards, but just 26 more than Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott, the 2016 rushing champ. Gurley also leads the NFL with 1,649 all-purpose yards and 19 touchdowns after topping the league in both categories last season.
Gurley is thriving again in his role as the centerpiece of coach Sean McVay's dominant offence, putting him in the running for a second straight AP Offensive Player of the Year award. But this lifelong NFL fan also understands the historic importance of a rushing title, and he wants his name in the books beside the best running backs.
Gurley went into Week 17 last season with the league rushing lead at 1,305 yards, but McVay decided a week of rest for the playoffs was more important than their last regular-season game against San Francisco. Kansas City rookie Kareem Hunt subsequently passed him with a 35-yard TD run on his only carry of the Chiefs' finale.
"Definitely wanted to get it last year, but whatever," Gurley said. "We didn't play in the last game. I'm just going to focus on these next couple of games, and whatever happens, happens. I'm just happy that we were able to clinch a playoff spot and just go from there."
The Rams are already playoff-bound after beating Detroit last week, and they could clinch a first-round bye with a win over Chicago this Sunday. But even if they beat the Bears in chilly Chicago, the Rams are likely to be pushed down the stretch by New Orleans for home-field advantage in a potential NFC championship game matchup.
That race means McVay is unlikely to rest his starters unless the Rams are guaranteed two home playoff games at the Coliseum. New Orleans already beat Los Angeles this season, so the Rams need to finish one game ahead of the Saints.
McVay has another reason to rely heavily on Gurley: Malcolm Brown, Gurley's backup for all four seasons of both running backs' careers, is out for the year after injuring his collarbone last week. Gurley and Brown are close friends who lift weights and hang out together away from the Rams' training complex.
Brown's replacements are Justin Davis and rookie John Kelly, two solid backs with little NFL experience. Gurley generally controls his own playing time on the field, only leaving when he decides he needs a rest, but the Rams are even more likely now to lean on him in any key situation.
Gurley realizes it isn't easy to be his backup, let alone a third-stringer. His 279 touches are second in the league to Elliott's 293 this season.
"It's pretty tough, because you're doing everything during OTAs and you're doing stuff in camp, and then it's like, if you're not a guy on the active roster, you're not really getting many reps at all," Gurley said. "I feel like those guys will be fine when they get in the game. They're definitely going to play, because I'm pretty sure I'll get tired a play or two."
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