Tuesday December 1st, 2020 8:06PM

Gurley celebrates 26th birthday as Falcons' new lead back

By Charles Odum
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FLOWERY BRANCH (AP) — Todd Gurley had good reason to celebrate.

Monday was his first day on the Atlanta Falcons' practice fields, and he was upbeat about adjusting to new teammates, new coaches and his new playbook for the start of training camp.

Gurley also was happy to be close to his friends from his former college home at the University of Georgia.

There was only one problem. Monday also was Gurley's 26th birthday, and no reporters on his video teleconference checked the calendar.

It didn't take long for Gurley to correct that oversight.

“First of all, none of y’all told me happy birthday yet, so I’m kind of upset with you,” Gurley said. “I’m about to be done with this interview right now.”

Then Gurley smiled behind his pandemic-mandated facemask. The threat was just a joke.

“No, like I said, it’s my birthday so I’m not complaining about nothing,” Gurley said.

It was a good day to be reminded that even after five seasons with the Rams, Gurley is still a young player. The Falcons are counting on that youth to carry him through his history of knee problems.

The Falcons cut Devonta Freeman before signing Gurley to a $6 million, one-year deal. If Gurley can play like the running back who was a first-team All-Pro selection in 2017 and 2018, the contract will be a bargain.

Gurley was the 2017 Offensive Player of the Year, and his 58 rushing touchdowns since his 2015 debut lead the league. His 5,404 yards rushing in that span are only 1 yard behind Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott for the NFL lead.

He ran for a career-low 857 yards last season. His average of 3.8 yards per carry was the second lowest of his career.

The Falcons are counting on Gurley to join quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones as the leaders of the offense.

Ryan said in June he spent time with Gurley in California after the running back agreed to the deal with Atlanta in March. Gurley made a good first impression on Ryan, who said the running back is “extremely versatile as an athlete.”

“He looked great,” Ryan said. "He looked healthy and ready to go. I was impressed with that.”

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Gurley wasn't able to take his physical until June, finally making the deal with Atlanta official.

Gurley said last month he wasn't confident the NFL had devised a proper COVID-19 safety plan. On Monday, he seemed more confident.

“I feel like they’ve been doing a pretty good job with that and today it started good,” Gurley said. “It’s a good feeling just to be back out there.”

The Falcons have had six players placed on the team's reserve/COVID-19 list: outside linebacker Foye Oluokun, defensive tackle Tyeler Davison, quarterback Danny Etling, fullback Keith Smith, safety Jamal Carter and rookie safety Jaylinn Hawkins. Those players either tested positive or have had exposure to someone who tested positive.

Gurley's good health was another reason to celebrate.

“You’ve just got to be grateful at the end of the day,” Gurley said. “To still to be able to try to play football. I feel like I’ve been handling this pretty well, just staying positive and doing what I do.”

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