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'Vintage' Todd Gurley has showed up for Rams, but can it last?

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THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Todd Gurley tucked the football into his left arm, then defended himself to his right.

The Los Angeles Rams running back delivered a posterizing stiff arm to the helmet of Tre Flowers, keeping the Seattle Seahawks cornerback at arm's length as Gurley muscled his way across the goal line.

"I had to go Derrick Henry style with the stiff arm," said Gurley, referring to the Tennessee Titans running back. "I thought [Flowers] would try to punch out the ball."

Gurley's 7-yard touchdown run gave the Rams a commanding lead in a win over the Seahawks last Sunday and served notice that Gurley hasn't gone away.

"He's a bad man," Rams quarterback Jared Goff said. "It was vintage Todd."

Gurley's run was powerful. It was assertive. It was game changing.

"It's just like, 'Wow,'" defensive tackle Aaron Donald said. "For you to be able to stiff-arm a grown man and throw him down and score a touchdown, that's pretty crazy."

"I loved it," Rams coach Sean McVay said. "We needed it."

But more than anything, as Goff so deftly pointed out, it was vintage Gurley. If only for a moment.

Signature plays from Gurley, the kind that highlighted his last two seasons under Rams coach Sean McVay and earned him 2017 NFL Offensive Player of the Year honors, have been few and far between throughout the Rams' 8-5 season.

In fact, the stiff-arm delivery last Sunday was the only vintage Gurley move seen in 2019.

Dating to the NFC Championship Game in January, the Rams' $60 million running back hasn't delivered a single 100-rushing-yard game. He hasn't broken for a long touchdown score. He hasn't hurdled a single defender.

As McVay's offense has sputtered and struggled to find an identity a season after powering the Rams to the Super Bowl, Gurley -- who rushed for more than 1,200 yards in each of the past two seasons -- has 721 yards rushing in 13 games (he was inactive in Week 6 with a left thigh bruise).

He had been relegated to a role player, a running back who made record money but was expected to share carries with Malcolm Brown and rookie Darrell Henderson.

But something has changed recently. In three of the Rams' past four games, McVay's playcalling has returned to Gurley, who signed a four-year extension before last season that included a then-NFL-record $45 million in guarantees.

The Rams face an uphill battle to reach the postseason and Sunday enter their latest must-win contest against the NFC East-leading Dallas Cowboys (6-7) at AT&T Stadium (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox).

The last time the Rams traveled to play the Cowboys, Week 4 of the 2017 season, Gurley was the best player on the field. He hurdled Cowboys defenders and raced through their secondary on his way to 215 total yards.

In the third quarter, Gurley caught a seam pass as he cut through the middle of the field, blowing past four defenders on his way to a 53-yard touchdown to jump-start the Rams' come-from-behind 35-30 victory.

"I just remember thinking, 'Wow.' I mean, it was like he was shot out of a cannon," McVay said Thursday. "When you sit back as a coach and you're thinking, 'Damn, I'm glad he's on our team,' that was a really good play and at the moment we really needed that."

Gurley was the Rams' leading rusher and pass-catcher that day, delivering a signature performance that helped the McVay-led Rams serve notice to the NFL that they had arrived.

The last time Gurley rushed for 100 yards was against the Cowboys in the divisional round of last season's playoffs, when he shared carries with C.J. Anderson but still managed to break off 115 rushing yards in a 30-22 win.

Indications are Gurley will again play a prominent role against the Cowboys Sunday.

"The approach for us is that Todd is a big-time player," McVay said. "He's shown that he's feeling good and when he's doing those kind of things -- whether it be through the pass game, through the run game -- good things seem to happen for the Rams."

Gurley has averaged 21 touches over the past four games, compared to 14.9 touches in his previous eight. He had a season-high 28 touches in a win over the Chicago Bears, 20 in a rout of the Arizona Cardinals and 27 in a victory over the Seahawks.

The reason for getting Gurley more involved recently, if you believe McVay, is quite simple.

"Me not being an idiot," explained McVay, the 33-year-old coach who never seemed to lack for good judgment when using Gurley before.

"He said it, I didn't," Gurley said. "That's all I got to say. I don't have anything else to say."

However, it's not as straightforward as it seems. After all, a day after McVay provided such a self-inflicting explanation, he admitted that he doesn't really believe himself to be an idiot.

"I was saying in jest," McVay said, grinning.

The Rams and Gurley have not confirmed reports that the All-Pro back is suffering from arthritis or a degenerative condition in his left knee, and McVay has flat-out denied that Gurley has been placed on a load management program to prolong his season or career.

"No, no. It has nothing to do with that," McVay said. "Shoot, we're just trying to win a game. So certainly it wasn't ever with the mindset of looking ahead before anything was accomplished."

It's no coincidence, nor should it come as a surprise, that in the recent three games when Gurley has played a prominent role, the Rams won by comfortable margins.

"Opens everything, it opens everything," said Goff, whose play has improved sharply over the past two games. "It starts with him, and when he's rolling and we're rolling in the run game, it opens up everything."

Since 2017, including playoff games, the Rams have experienced resounding success when their game plan includes heavy doses of Gurley.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, when Gurley has received 20 or more touches, the Rams are 20-1. They're 12-0 when he gets 25 or more touches.

When the Rams win, Gurley averages 22.2 touches and 127.7 scrimmage yards per game. When the Rams lose, Gurley's averages drop to 15.7 touches and 77.1 scrimmage yards per game.

Through the ups and downs, Gurley, who has scored 10 touchdowns, down from his NFL-best 21 in 2018, has maintained his cool, at least publicly. He's provided reminders that he's not the playcaller. When asked about his knee, he's said it's fine.

If there’s anything Gurley has outwardly taken exception to, it’s any notion that the stiff-arm he delivered last Sunday was vintage.

"Sounds like I suck and then I made a good play," said Gurley, with a straight face and a shoulder shrug. "So, yeah, I guess so."