LOS ANGELES – All year long, he’d been cast aside. Passed over in Denver, cut in Carolina, waived after six days in Oakland. Just last season, he was one of nine across the league to rush for 1,000 yards, and now, C.J. Anderson was persona non grata, relegated to running back purgatory, where so few ever return.
Anderson had always kept the faith. But who could have possibly foretold how fate would intervene from here? Who could have possibly predicted the next three weeks would turn him into a budding playoff hero on a now-flourishing Super Bowl contender? Six days after his release from the Raiders, the Rams called merely looking for insurance for their ailing running back. That was all. Neither side had any idea then what would come of their serendipitous arrangement.
But three weeks after that, it was 4th-and-1 on the goal line, with a conference championship bid hanging in the balance and a raucous crowd roaring, and it was Anderson who trudged toward the huddle, while Gurley watched from the sideline. It was Anderson who took the handoff, rumbling into a wall of Cowboys. It was Anderson, bursting out of running back purgatory and into Rams infamy, rolling into the end zone for the decisive score that would send the Rams to the NFC championship with a 30-22 victory.
On a night in which the Rams rushed for more yards than at any other point in their playoff history, Anderson was the one powering the rushing attack, first and foremost. Even as Gurley racked up 115 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries, Anderson carried the heaviest load in the most crucial win of the Rams season, steamrolling Dallas’ vaunted run defense for 123 hard-fought yards and two touchdowns.
Together, the Rams’ unexpected 1-2 punch at running back combined 238 yards and three touchdowns – by far the most the Cowboys had allowed all season.
The Cowboys, with their old-school offensive approach, were largely expected to run over the Rams questionable run defense, which ranked dead last in the league in yards per carry this season. But as Ezekiel Elliott struggled to find running room, the Rams flipped the script, pounding the ball from start to finish. Elliott, the league’s leading rusher, would tally just 20 carries for 47 yards on the night, outdone by a running back who’d been cast out by three teams within the past season.
“I just kept my head down, kept pushing,” Anderson said. “I always believed in my ability and what I can do. It’s not like I haven’t been in these positions before. It’s not like I haven’t been a 1,200-yard back all-purpose or Pro Bowl back in this league. I’ve always found a way to hold my own.”
The 5-foot-8, bowling ball of a back has done far more than that since he was signed. In the two regular season games in which he took the reins from an injured Gurley, Anderson rushed for 299 yards and two touchdowns as the centerpiece of a run-heavy Rams offense. It wasn’t long ago that Anderson rode a similar role all the way to a Super Bowl with the Broncos.
“I guess it was a good thing I got hurt,” Gurley said. “C.J. was able to come in, and he was able to do his thing. I mean, he’s been doing this thing his whole career.”
With Gurley ready to go on Saturday, though, Anderson was expected to play a lesser role, spelling the defending Offensive Player of the Year when necessary. But that plan was nixed quickly as Anderson steamrolled the Cowboys defensive front from the opening drive, racking up 78 yards in the first half alone. As Gurley checked in and out of the lineup, often loosening up on a stationary bike in between drives, it was the back who the Rams intended only as insurance who stabilized an offense that, before his signing, looked far less than stable.
“He’s been running his tail off and doing everything right,” quarterback Jared Goff said of Anderson. “The last two weeks without Todd, he showed what he can do. This week, having both of them, it’s special. It gives you a real dual threat of backs, different backs. Todd is what Todd is, the best back in the league if you ask me. And C.J. knows his role and knows what he needs to do.”
That role hadn’t even existed until three weeks earlier. But as the Rams stand just one win away from a Super Bowl, with a reinforced rushing attack in tow, Anderson has proven more folk hero than fill-in. Even if he won’t acknowledge that just yet.
“I’m the backup running back to All-Star Todd Gurley,” Anderson said. “I haven’t proved nothing. It’s just three games.”
But with less than two minutes remaining, his mere presence said enough. The Rams needed just one first down to clinch the franchise’s first playoff win since 2004, and as Gurley watched from the sideline, Anderson stood behind Goff, waiting for the snap. On first down, he bowled ahead for five yards. On the next snap, he burst again through a sliver in the defense, needing only to get to midfield to let the clock melt away.
Once he rumbled ahead, crossing the 50, Anderson fell to the turf. He leapt up, signaling triumphantly for the first down. And then, he looked to the Rams sideline and took it all in, suddenly well aware of the unexpected road he’d taken to arrive here.
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