ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons went all season without a 100-yard rusher in the backfield last year, so when Todd Gurley became available as a free agent, they were eager to sign him.
Gurley has a history of knee problems and was cut by the Los Angeles Rams just two years removed from consecutive seasons as an All-Pro running back. The Falcons waited a couple of weeks during the early days of quarantine because of the coronavirus pandemic to sign Gurley to a $6 million, one-year deal, hoping he can spark a rushing attack that finished third-worst in the NFL last season.
Gurley, who ran for a career-low 857 yards, was quick to point out he did not have a 100-yard game either. But he said his knees feel close to 100% and that he is ready to go. The Falcons open the season Sunday at home against the Seattle Seahawks.
“I didn’t have 100 yards last year either,” he said. “I don’t know why they got me, huh? But I feel good, man. Week 1, playing against Seattle, a team I’m super-familiar with. Been able to play against those guys nine times. I feel good.”
Gurley, the 2017 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, has a league-best 58 touchdown runs since entering 2015. His 5,404 yards rushing during that span are topped only by Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott, but last season he had just 3.8 yards per carry, the second-lowest average of his career.
That didn’t faze Falcons star receiver Julio Jones. He was instrumental in Atlanta signing Gurley, travelling with Arizona wideout DeAndre Hopkins to visit with Gurley after he was released. They went on long hikes together in California, and Gurley began to warm to the idea of returning to the South, where the North Carolina native starred at Georgia and became one of four Bulldogs to rush for 3,000 yards in his career.
“I mean it played a big role to be able to get comfortable with someone I’ll be teammates with,” Gurley said. “For him and DeAndre to come visit me soon as I got cut, that just kind of shows what the league is all about. It’s definitely a band of brothers, whether you’re on the same team or not. It’s just definitely a good feeling.”
Jones has been impressed with what he’s seen of his new teammate thus far.
“Just knowing him as a person and things like that, because at the end of the day, it’s all about bringing each other together, finding a common goal and purpose,” Jones said. “We share the same things. I got you and you got me. He’s going to do his thing in the running game and I’m going to do my thing in the passing game. For him to his thing in the running game, I’ve got to go out there and block. For me to do my thing in the passing game, he’s got to sit in there and take care of protection.”
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan sensed that Gurley lit up when the team held a scrimmage at Mercedes-Benz Stadium earlier this month.
“There’s just an energy level that you feel from him when it’s time to go,” Ryan said. “The great players that I’ve been around in my career have that ability to do it. You see it. You feel it. He gives off that kind of vibe when you’re around him. Certainly, that felt like the case in our scrimmages when we were down at the stadium. You could feel his intensity.
“It’s hard to describe, but you know it when you’re around it. I’ve been around some great players to know what that looks like, and he certainly has that.”
Gurley’s workload in training camp was monitored closely by coach Dan Quinn, who gave the running back several days off to keep his knees fresh.
“I’ve had a great plan like I’ve always had over the last couple of years to have some off days here, but also to get practice in,” Gurley said. “Feeling good. Hey, man, last year is last year. It’s a new team. I’m just happy to be a part of the brotherhood and see what I can bring to the team.”
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George Henry, The Associated Press