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EARTH CITY, Mo. – Through the eyes of an era he grew up watching, Steven Jackson looks at his profession and sees something perverse. The St. Louis Rams running back watches NFL highlights on his flat screen television, and he's transfixed in horror: 5-foot-8 backs, third-down specialists, goal-line platooning. And worst of all, running back rotations.
He shakes his head. Where did three-down backs like Walter Payton go? What happened to tall, big, fast athletes like Bo Jackson? When did it become treasonous to let a running back touch the football 25 to 30 times a game?
Jackson (left) early on during Rams camp.
"It is a dying breed – the big back," Jackson says, tilting back in a chair and unfolding every ounce of his 6-2, 235-pound frame. With running backs trending toward the lithe and diminutive, he knows his sheer size makes him a unicorn among the elites. Even Kansas City's Larry Johnson(notes) and a bulked-up Adrian Peterson in Minnesota are slightly smaller. "This is why I take such pride in being productive, showing that all teams don't have to use the multiple-back system. The Bo Jackson, the Walter Payton, the Marcus Allen – the guys who don't come off the field. That breed is not 'round anymore. I kind of feel like I'm that generation."
Jackson is quick to point out that he's not equating himself with Hall of Fame running backs. However, he believes he has a common thread with history that his contemporaries don't: He still believes in being a 90-percenter – the kind of runner that almost never leaves the field. And he's doing everything he can to prove it to the Rams this preseason.
"I actually hate it. I hate the two-back offense," Jackson says. "Don't get me wrong. I understand it. It's like insurance, not having to depend on one guy. But the guys that I admire, the guys whose [marks] I want to eventually break, these are 25-30 touch guys every week. I still strive to carry that torch."
Whether it's wishful thinking remains to be seen, but with the Rams’ revamped offensive line, Jackson is thinking big. Maybe even as big as 2006 when he touched the ball 436 times, and led the NFL with 2,334 yards from scrimmage. No running back has come close to that number in the two years since. Indeed, the league has seemed intent on wiping out the three-down monster back altogether. Passing games have expanded to more multiple wideout sets, while specialization has become the rage. Teams carrying four or five running backs have strived to use them all, lessening the wear and tear on their primary starter.
And the impact has been noticeable. Since Jackson's output in 2006, Brian Westbrook(notes) tallied 2,104 in 2007, and Adrian Peterson led the league with 1,885 in 2008. Peterson's total marked the first time in 12 years that an NFL running back didn't top 2,000 yards from scrimmage. And it was only the third time since 1991 that it hadn't happened.
While specialization and scheme have played their parts, the spiraling performances of some of Jackson's predecessors have given the league pause. Teams took notice in 2005 and 2006, when maxed out workloads by Seattle's Shaun Alexander(notes) (385 touches) and Johnson (457 touches), respectively, appeared to bring both backs to a crushing halt in the midst of their primes. Both players broke down dramatically in subsequent seasons, leading coaches and personnel departments to re-think the punishment they were laying on highly paid centerpiece running backs.
Even Jackson has had his own share of breakdowns since '06. He missed eight games the past two seasons with various injuries, and played hurt in some of the other 24 games he didn't miss. Those are numbers that undoubtedly play into the mind of head coach Steve Spagnuolo when he looks at Jackson and says, "Thirty [touches per game] is a high number."
"I'm not going to classify him that way," Spagnuolo said. "I'm not going to say he can't do it. I'm not going to say you don't do it because a running back is at a certain age. I think you take it week by week. You've got to be careful saying 'Hey, we'll be OK if Steven has the ball 400 times this year.' "
And while Spagnuolo's wait-and-see approach hints that the offense won't be streamlined entirely through Jackson, the personnel suggests otherwise. Along the offensive line, the Rams invested $37.5 million in free agent center Jason Brown(notes), and used the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft on tackle Jason Smith(notes). Those two deals – Smith received $62 million overall and $33 million guaranteed – send an unambiguous message: The Rams are as committed to building around Jackson as any other part of the team.
Indeed, there isn't another piece of the offense that is capable of dominating games. The passing game still appears to be in flux, with quarterback Marc Bulger(notes) trying to rebound from an injury-plagued and ineffective 2008. And second-year wideout Donnie Avery(notes) is still recovering from a broken foot. In the early going, that's likely to leave Jackson as the Rams' dominant weapon.
"I think he can still be a guy that carries us," Bulger said. "He's going to take hits no matter what. Even if he's on the field and doesn't have the ball in his hands, teams are sending a blitzer or someone else to him and hitting him. That's just like getting hit if he's carrying the football."
Maybe the only thing that could keep Jackson from being one of the most dominant runners of this season is whether the rest of the offense can function well around him. Bulger and the passing game weren't able to create a consistent deep threat last season, and that parlayed into a struggling running game that continually faced a stacked line of scrimmage.
Keeping Bulger upright would help, and the Rams believe they've taken the steps to do that, moving Alex Barron(notes) to left tackle, where general manager Billy Devaney says Barron will be able to better use his athleticism. That allows Smith to be plugged in on the right side (where Barron struggled last season) and gives the Rams hope that they have the bookends they need against pass rushers. But until they see it, it remains just that – hope.
"That [offensive line shuffling] has been the story of the last six years of my career," Jackson says. "That's one thing I hope we can build in this new regime – stability. For so long, we have been kind of playing revolving door with the offensive line. Most teams that have successful running games and backs that are successful, these guys are able to gel with their teams."
As with all new regimes, the results have been mixed thus far. A solid preseason game against the Jets was followed by a struggle against the Falcons. Spagnuolo admits that a large portion of the team is fluid and far from meeting his expectations. Jackson sees it, too. But he remains undaunted in his belief that he can be a steadying force – an every-down monster that rekindles what NFL running games were in the past.
"I've always been told that 26 to 29, that's where you peak," Jackson says. "I'm ready to peak. And I'm hoping I have wings."
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