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Steady as He Goes

Posted Dec 13, 2012


It’s been almost a full decade since the Rams spent a first-round pick, No. 24 overall, on a 20-year old running back named Steven Jackson.

With three games to play in his ninth season as a member of the Rams, the only constant in Jackson’s career has been an unrelenting aversion to conventional wisdom.

Through all of that time, nothing has come easy for Jackson. From the moment he was drafted to eventually fill the rather large shoes left behind by his predecessor, Hall of Fame back Marshall Faulk, to today Jackson has been left as the one steady presence in a maelstrom of change.

It is that lone idea, the thought that Jackson has been the one thing fans of St. Louis football can count on for so long, that makes finishing a long and distinguished career right here where it all started that Jackson holds close to his heart.

“I think nothing about my career so far has been norm,” Jackson said. “I haven’t had, by no means, any normal circumstance. I’ve had a lot of situations where I’ve had to be the, not the elite, but the exception. I had to be an exception, so why not be the exception in the free agency era? The one guy that stayed with one team for his whole career.”

At the end of the season, Jackson will have the option to void the final year of the six-year contract he signed with the Rams on Sept. 21, 2008.

It’s a decision that will have to wait until the offseason, the type of choice that could ultimately come down to the eternal struggle between head and heart, the type of option that has so many moving parts that it’s almost impossible to sort out in the middle of a football season.

That’s why, for right now at least, Jackson’s sole focus is on making this, his ninth season, one that he and the city he’s grown to love and that has grown to love him right back, the most unforgettable in a career full of magical memories.

A SEASON OF CHANGE

Going through a coaching change and a major roster turnover as the Rams did in the offseason is far from a foreign concept to Jackson. He’s been around long enough to play for five coaches (including interims) and with hundreds of teammates in his career.

So when Jeff Fisher took over as head coach (No. 6 for Jackson) in January and again turned over the roster on a massive scale, Jackson moved forward with a cautious optimism buoyed by Fisher’s reputation for love of a power run game that could best take advantage of his talents.

That plan seemed to take hold early with 25 touches in the opener against Detroit but when Jackson suffered a groin injury in the second week against Washington, plans changed a bit.

Fisher and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer discussed with Jackson a plan to work rookie Daryl Richardson into the mix more regularly, thus preserving Jackson for later in the season.

It was a plan that maybe the younger version of Jackson might not have embraced but this version, the leader looking for any way to help his team get more victories readily agreed.

“One thing about me, through my travels, I’ve learned that you’re going to have different experiences in life,” Jackson said. “This is just a new experience for me. I’ve needed to take more of a leadership role. Not only have I had to accept a change in my role, but I also show it, in a way, how to handle it. If you’re lucky enough to play this game for a long time, your role on a team is going to change. I’ve seen some good examples, I’ve seen some bad examples, and I’ve made sure that I wanted to set a good example for the younger guys that one day have to go through this transition as well.”

Jackson spent the next few weeks recovering from the injury and taking more limited repetitions. Including the Washington game he had to leave early, Jackson averaged 13.5 touches over the next seven games through the bye week.

“One of the things that we wanted to do early in the season was share time with him to keep him fresh,” Schottenheimer said. “I think that’s helped out.”

Coming back from the bye, Jackson returned with a vengeance as the Rams have leaned heavily on him in the second half of the season. In the three games following the bye, Jackson ripped off 321 yards, a total just 82 yards less than what Jackson posted in the first eight games of the season combined.

The week after, Jackson burned San Francisco for 117 yards from scrimmage in a stirring Rams’ victory. It’s no coincidence the Rams were 2-1-1 in that stretch.

“We’ve done a pretty good job getting him the carries, that’s the important thing is getting him the opportunities,” Fisher said. “And plus, I think, he’s fresher than most backs at this time of the year, particularly because of the way we kind of managed the reps early in the season.”

It should come as no surprise that Jackson figures prominently into the plans for the rest of this season.

“This time of year you kind of go and you go with the hot hand,” Schottenheimer said. “He has that. We certainly have plays for the other guys, but when he’s running the way he’s running it’s hard to take him off the field. The guy’s just a workhorse. He’s playing at a really high level. He’s doing so much for us and we’re thrilled we have him.”

SHARING THE LEADERSHIP LOAD

Having talented young backs like Richardson, Isaiah Pead and Terrance Ganaway behind Jackson certainly have helped ease the load on Jackson in terms of his work load. For his part, he says the rookie backs have been ready and willing learners making it easier for him to provide guidance.

“I see it in the classroom,” Schottenheimer said. “I see him taking the extra time to explain things. There’s nothing like experience. He’s experienced it all obviously in his career, and it’s fun to watch those young guys kind of soak it all up. He’s great on the sidelines with them when he’s not in. I think he’s just a mentor and I think young players need guys to look up to and guys they can ask questions of. Again, who better to ask than him?”

And while Jackson has openly embraced the opportunity to show the young backs the way, he’s also enjoyed the chance to share some of the leadership responsibilities with other veterans such as Cortland Finnegan, Chris Long, James Laurinaitis and a veteran coaching staff.

“The one thing that’s cool about it, sometimes you get leaders and guys don’t really talk to each other,” Jackson said. “It seems like the chemistry of leadership is there. When one guys steps up, no one tries to over talk them. Guys know how to also lead and follow on this team and it’s a good thing. It allows for us to go out there and play for each other 100 percent.”

As one of the captains on the youngest team in the league, serving as a leader for so many young players could be viewed as a daunting and exhausting task.

But as Jackson continues to defy the conventional wisdom that says a 29-year old running back should be slowing to a crawl with his usual inspired, passionate and productive running style, he’s actually gained as much from his youthful teammates as they’ve gained from him.

Surrounded by so many fresh, enthusiastic young teammates has invigorated Jackson.

“I think this year the surge of youth and energy in the locker room has made it not seem like work, but seem more like I’m hanging out with the boys,” Jackson said.

THE NEXT STEP

Barring a late-season injury or some sort of surprise, Jackson will only add to his legacy as the most accomplished running back in Rams history and further bolster some of his eye-popping numbers.

Jackson needs 164 yards to reach the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the eighth consecutive season, a feat matched by only six players in NFL history. He also is within just 71 yards of becoming the 27th player in league history to rush for 10,000 yards.

As a historian of the game and the position, those numbers do have meaning to Jackson because they symbolize the realization of lessons learned from legendary Rams that preceded him such as Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt.

“I look at it as just being able to be consistent,” Jackson said. “Nine years ago, I had a very long conversation with Torry and Isaac. They said that one of the keys to this game is just remaining consistent and being someone that the general manager and the head coach can always depend on. Once they gave me those words of wisdom, I kind of tried to hold on to it.”

Hold on to it Jackson has as he’s put a premium on all of the Rams’ rich history. That’s part of why Jackson has made it clear he’d like to finish his career in St. Louis and the Rams have made it known they’d like to provide that opportunity. But with any decision of that magnitude, there are many factors to consider.

“It’s a lot of moving parts,” Jackson said. “First and foremost, I’ll pray about my situation. I’ve got to do what’s best for my family and from there seek the advice of people that I trust and love and make a very wise and sound decision and that it’s not an emotional one. I think that’s what’s most important that I take all of the emotion out of it and understand that I have great deal and trust in the front office personnel. In my experience with the organization they’ve done nothing but treat me like a class act and I expect that to continue.”

Considering that option, it is a possibility that today’s game could be Jackson’s last in front of the home fans at the Edward Jones Dome.

“It will be something I look forward to dealing with and handling at the end of the year," Jackson said. "I am very optimistic that I will finish my career as a Ram. Have I thought about it? Yes I have...I expect to be back next year."

With big decisions still ahead, it’s certainly not lost on Jackson that there is still unfinished business to attend to right here in St. Louis. He’s doing everything he can to help his team take care of some of that this year but if that can’t be done, it’s something that he’ll take into account in the offseason.

Because, for as much as it would mean to Jackson personally to become the rare athlete to finish his career where it began, he’d like nothing more than to share in the joy of a full-blown football renaissance with the fans and organization of the only NFL city he’s ever known.
 
“It would mean a lot,” Jackson said. “I particularly take great pride in holding on to traditions and holding on to the Rams’ way. To see that return to this city, that deserves it, it would mean a lot.”

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