ATLANTA — This is not the way it is supposed to happen.
The superstar player, after devolving into a non-factor in a championship game to such a degree that he is not even on the field, does not take this in stride. He finds someone to blame and lashes out, spewing that he feels disrespected and unappreciated, overshadowing a great victory by spilling his personal anguish.
That is not what happened with Todd Gurley, widely accepted as the NFL’s best running back. He did so little in the Rams’ NFC title game overtime victory at New Orleans that speculation was rampant his knee must be in bad shape, or something else sinister was afoot.
Gurley was having none of it. Immediately after the Rams outlasted the Saints 26-23, Gurley declared his performance had been “sorry as hell.’’ This week, as the Rams arrived and embarked on their preparation for Sunday’s Super Bowl LIII against the Patriots, Gurley’s state of mind was dissected, again and again. How could a player of his stature be so accepting of a 10-yard rushing performance in a game of such magnitude?
“What do y’all not understand? It’s not about me,’’ Gurley said. “This sport has never been about me. It’s never been about one player.”
There are a handful of players on the Rams and Patriots who might be expected to rise to great heights in the biggest game of all, to be heralded for procuring a Lombardi Trophy for their franchise. Gurley should be near the top of every list. The yards he gains and touchdowns he scores turned the Rams into a prolific scoring attack. The fact he ceded the feature role to C.J. Anderson against the Saints was shocking to the outside world, but unsurprising to his teammates.
“At the end of the day, real team players want to win,’’ Rams starting left guard Rodger Saffold told The Post. “Our mantra on this team is, ‘We, not me,’ and we take that to heart. The biggest star on the team is the team. He understands that, I don’t think he let it bother him whatsoever. He was still cheering [Anderson] on and when we needed him in third down protections he was able to block for [quarterback] Jared [Goff] to be able to get some of those plays and that was huge.’’
All this made for a fairly fruitless experience hanging out with Gurley this week during his media sessions. He had a great season, rushing for 1,251 yards, finishing third in the league behind Ezekiel Elliott (1,434) and Giants rookie Saquon Barkley (1,307) despite sitting out the final two regular-season games with soreness in his left knee. Gurley ran for 115 yards in the NFC divisional playoff victory over the Cowboys, but then turned in that strange and unusual performance in the NFC Championship game.
A pass early in the game deflected off his hands for a Saints interception. He later broke open on a third-down play, but dropped another Goff pass that should have produced a first down. Coach Sean McVay pulled his No. 1 running back and Anderson helped carry the Rams down the stretch of regulation and into overtime. Gurley finished with four rushing attempts and one reception, for 3 yards.
“Any time that you have a player like Todd Gurley on your team, I’ve got to do a better job of getting him involved and getting him into the flow of the game,” McVay said. “That’s something that I have to be accountable for.”
If any of this bothered Gurley, he kept those feelings well-hidden. He was a full participant in practice this week, but concerns linger that his knee is not fully healed. The Rams need him to be at his best if they are to keep the Patriots from winning their sixth Super Bowl in an 18-year span.
After practice on Friday, McVay expressed confidence Gurley will do damage to the Patriots.
“He’s feeling good, a hundred percent. We expect him to play a big role in this game,” McVay said.
“He’s the best in the league,’’ Rams center John Sullivan said. “He’s the best running back in the NFL, hands down. That’s not in question. He’s a dual threat guy, he can catch the ball out of the backfield, he runs the ball incredibly well and he’s great in blitz pickup. He’s everything you can possibly want.’’
Gurley says he is healthy — “I’m fine, bro’’ — and did not exactly bask in the glow of all the attention that comes to prominent players in the days leading up to a Super Bowl. He offered little of significance no matter what the topic, his pulse rate seemingly stuck on neutral.
“You got to think about how much media Todd gets on a daily basis and how many people want to get in contact with him, all these different commercials, things like that,’’ Saffold said. “That can weigh on you during the year, so now that we have the most media, especially after last week, people talking about they didn’t really see him having a great game, of course you can get a little bit frustrated with that.’’
Soon enough, Gurley will get to play in a Super Bowl, rather than talk about it. Then the real story will reveal itself.