Ito Smith has been running as the team’s top back for weeks now. He’s either matched or exceeded Todd Gurley’s carry count in each of the past four weeks, and he has 167 yards on the ground and 20 yards receiving from Weeks 12-15 compared to 60 yards rushing and 34 yards receiving for Gurley in Weeks 11, 13, 14 and 15. While there was nothing official to indicate that Ito was the lead back for Atlanta and Gurley had been demoted, in practice that’s exactly what has happened, even after Gurley returned from injury.
With two games left, though, Raheem Morris has decided to make it official. Ito is the starter and Gurley has been benched for reasons that aren’t related to injury, per the team’s interim head coach.
Raheem Morris said Ito Smith is the lead back in this offense now. Todd Gurley's role has changed to complementary and it hasn't been due to his knee, Morris said.— Jason Butt (@JasonHButt) December 21, 2020
Interestingly, Jason Butt noted in a later full story that Dirk Koetter delivered something like a no comment when asked about what was clearly Morris’s decision to make Smith the starter:
“With us being out of the office (Monday), I haven’t really had a chance to talk to Raheem very much,” Koetter said. “I’ll just let it stand at that.”
If you’re reading that and thinking that Koetter wasn’t entirely on board with benching Gurley...well, you and I would be on the same wavelength.
This doubles as an audition for Ito’s role with the next Falcons regime, given that he’s one of just two backs under contract. Smith has not been asked to handle 20 touches in a game at any point yet and there will be roles for both Gurley and Brian Hill, but it makes perfect sense for the team to give by far their most effective runner more snaps and for Ito to have an opportunity to prove he can be a complementary player in 2021 alongside the seemingly inevitable draft pick. He’s certainly earned that chance.
Gurley had three productive games in the first five weeks of the season and was a scoring machine over the first nine weeks of the season, but his effectiveness has waned to the point he has not averaged over 3 yards per carry with more than 10 carries since Week 5. He’s also had a number of mental mistakes, from scoring when the team didn’t want him to (defensible) to trying to bounce the ball outside on a clear run-up-the-middle situation (less defensible) to blowing a key block against the Buccaneers (even less defensible). Gurley was always a signing partially animated by a desire to get local fans excited about the team—he was an absolute stud at UGA and is beloved by that fanbase—but his effectiveness in 2019 did seem to be limited just as much by Sean McVay’s weird handling of his workload as his own health. There may be offenses in which Gurley can still be an effective lead back, but Dirk Koetter’s has not proven to be a good fit for him, and if he’s a zero as a receiving option and not his usual terrific self as a blocker, there’s just no real reason to play him.
Hill, meanwhile, has seen his opportunities shrink as Ito’s have grown. He still occasionally contributes as a receiver but like Gurley, his usefulness as a runner has waned, and he stood absolutely no chance on Sunday against the Bucs as he was repeatedly destroyed in the backfield before he had much of a chance to move forward. As an impending free agent, a good year might’ve helped him stay in Atlanta, but increasingly I think the Falcons will simply hit the reset button outside of Ito Smith.
Like many, many other things that happened in 2020, it’s a shame that the Gurley signing has not worked out. Getting Ito all the snaps he can handle over the final two weeks in the hopes of getting some kind of ground game going and giving Smith his opportunity to push for a major role in 2021 just makes sense, even if it took far too long for this coaching staff to make it official.