Less than three weeks since it appeared the Los Angeles Rams had amicably agreed to part ways with star running back Todd Gurley, the two sides appear to be headed for a messy divorce.
On March 19, the Rams released their star running back and former face of their franchise.
Gurley helped lead the Rams back to greatness, winning the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year Award in 2017 and a Super Bowl appearance in 2018.
After the 2017 season, Gurley was rewarded with a four-year, $60 million contract with over $45 million guaranteed. Gurley's volume has decreased the last two seasons, as he's dealt with arthritis in his left knee.
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Therefore, the decision to release Gurley, albeit a surprise, made sense for multiple reasons. The team had backed themselves into a salary cap corner, and had 10 unrestricted and eight more restricted free agents, that they would need to replace ahead of the 2020 season.
Gurley was still productive for the Rams, especially when they gave him the ball. However, before the 2019 season, the Rams seemingly put Gurley on a "load management" type of restriction, only unleashing him once their season reached a breaking point in the second half.
Gurley was not on the only causality for the Rams this offseason. He was one of six players that was released by the team for contractual reasons. Including fan favorites and team leaders Clay Matthews and Nickell Robey-Coleman.
NFL team's releasing star players after handing them a huge contract is nothing new. In fact, it's been around longer than Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Gurley himself seemed to understand that when he hilariously tweeted, "Damn I got fired on my day off," the day he was released.
Initially, both sides seemed to be taking the separation in stride. The Rams released statement offering nothing but high praise and compliments for Gurley. The running back moved on quickly as well, signing a one-year, $6 million deal with the Atlanta Falcons just a few days later.
The Rams used the money they saved on releasing Gurley and spread it out among areas of need. They signed outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson, and re-signed offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, defensive tackle Michael Brockers, and guard Austin Blythe.
In recent days, it appears the divorce between Gurley and the Rams was not as rosy as originally thought.
It began on Monday, when Rams head coach Sean McVay and general manager Les Snead discussed their decision to release Gurley during a conference call with the media.
McVay and Snead were asked directly about their decision to release Gurley and if it was solely a salary cap issue.
"In this case, I don't think it's a salary cap issue," said Snead according to ESPN's Lindsey Thiry. "But in the puzzle, like I said in putting together your short-term and long-term vision of trying to consistently contend what you pay players comes into play, obviously producing comes into play,”
McVay backed up the sentiments of his boss.
"A lot of the decisions we make aren't exclusively about a player, but you're talking about how to fit a big puzzle together with your team," McVay said. "These are conversations that require a lot of different directions and kind of projections based on where we're at, where we want to be... but there certainly were a lot of things that went into the discussion and ultimately the decision to make that move."
Both are not wrong in the fact that Gurley's production had dropped off in 2019 compared to the two seasons prior. Gurley's nearly five yards per carry in 2018 went down to 3.8 yards per carry in 2019.
Some of that decline is directly related to Gurley himself, but not all of it. First and for most, his carries and targets dropped significantly over the past two seasons. From a career-high 279 carries in 2017, to 256 and 223 in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
Additionally, after composing one of the best offensive lines in the league in 2017 and 2018, the Rams watched two Pro-Bowl caliber players leave in free agency and re-built it piecemeal during the offseason. Riddled with injuries, rookies, and declining players, the Rams offensive line was ranked second-worst in the league last season.
To no fault of his own, Gurley fell victim to that, as did Jared Goff, and the Rams' offense as a whole.
The Rams needed to address their weaknesses in the offseason in order to return to the Super Bowl in the near future. With a savings of $5.5 million in 2020, and even more over the next two seasons, the decision to release Gurley made sense from a salary cap perspective.
If Gurley was cut because of his contract, that's something he could understand from the perspective that the NFL is a business, and the Rams had to make a difficult business decision. In this case, rather than hold a grudge against his former team, or feel slighted because they felt he was unable to perform at the same level, Gurley and the Rams could shake hands and move on affably.
All McVay and Snead needed to say on Monday was that the salary cap was obviously the biggest factor in their decision, because clearly it was. If Gurley was only making $1.5 million, which is the average salary of a running in the NFL, then he would have never been released; regardless of his production drop off in 2019.
The difference between the Rams admitting publicly it was a financial decision and not a performance based one, is all about how they want to end the relationship with their running back. The former, provides no added motivation for Gurley when he inevitably goes up against his former team. The latter, simply provides additional fuel and bulletin board material. By insinuating that talent played a part in their decision, they are placing their proverbial foot in their own mouth, and possibly giving a former MVP-caliber player extra motivation for the upcoming season.
If the Rams public response wasn't enough evidence of a small crack in the relationship, Gurley publicly calling the team out on Twitter on Wednesday is.
Gurley took to Twitter to voice his discord that he had not been paid the contract bonuses he was owed by the Rams.
Sounding more like an LA-based landlord than an athlete, Gurley wrote that the Rams were "past due" and to "send me money."
Former teammate, Clay Matthews, who was cut by the Rams on the same day as Gurley after just one season with the team, replied to Gurley's tweet and wrote:
"You and me both TG! Better get some interest with that too."
The fact that the tweets came on the heels of McVay and Snead's public comments is probably not a coincidence, and an example that resentment is building as the once prosperous relationship is headed for a messy divorce.