It was Steven Jackson’s misfortune to arrive in St. Louis just as the curtain was dropping on the “Greatest Show on Turf” era of Rams football.
Jackson had a chance to experience the last hurrah.
The Rams were coming off a 12-4 season when they chose Jackson with the 24th overall selection in the 2004 NFL draft. The Rams made a deal with Cincinnati to move up two spots to pull Jackson, who enticed them with his exciting combination of power and speed at Oregon State.
The Rams were still optimistic about the future. Over the previous five seasons they’d led the NFL in scoring, with an average of 29 points per game. They were often spectacular in rolling up the best winning percentage (.700) among NFC teams. They had won a Super Bowl and two NFC titles.
The Rams envisioned another Super Bowl ahead, and Jackson’s young legs would help take them there. As a hopeful Jackson entered his ’04 rookie season, he had Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Orlando Pace as teammates.
Coach Mike Martz was still viewed as the league’s preeminent offensive mind. Quarterback Kurt Warner was gone, but a seemingly ascendant Marc Bulger put up impressive passing numbers in ’03.
Though the Rams played unevenly in 2004, going 8-8, they rallied late in the schedule to qualify for the postseason and won a tense wild card playoff game at Seattle.
As Faulk’s backup, Jackson rushed for 673 yards and averaged 5.0 yards per carry as a rookie. With Faulk's knees deteriorating, the Rams made the logical move and installed Jackson as the starter in 2005.
“Our confidence is unbelievable right now,” Jackson said during the ’05 training camp. “We feel as if we can play with anybody, and beat anybody.”
Jackson was so young then. He had no reason to believe that we were all about to witness the slow, sickening and painful demise of the best NFL team St. Louis history.
When the torch was passed to Jackson, little did we know that Rams Park was about to go up in flames.
Head coaches were hired and banished. The roster rotted at the core, doomed by a series of horrendous drafts and dumb free-agent signings. The familiar stars faded. The franchise fell into a swift, irreversible state of decline.
Jackson, it seems, was the only man left standing.
“He’s everything to that franchise,” Faulk would say a few years later.
Jackson never made it back to the playoffs as a Ram. He never savored a winning season. With so many roster changes, he was the one constant. But it also meant that he would be, symbolically speaking, abandoned to fight alone.
Jackson offered sentimental farewells to teammates that were old, physically battered, or mentally destroyed by the hopelessness of Rams football.
Through it all, Jackson remained upright – a pillar that could not be knocked down. Nothing could diminish the strength in his body, drain his enthusiasm or weaken his competitive resolve.
These merciless bloody Sundays may have obliterated morale and ruined careers but could not defeat Steven Jackson.
His spirit was indomitable.
“Every year I watch the Super Bowl. ... I would think of holding the Lombardi Trophy, and I wanted to hold it as a St. Louis Ram,” Jackson once said.
Try as he might, Jackson didn’t get his wish here. After a long and valiant fight he’s transferring the dream to a new team, the Atlanta Falcons. After nine mostly gruesome seasons in St. Louis, and approaching his 30th birthday, Jackson finally will have a shot at winning a Super Bowl.
The parting was the right thing to do for both sides.
The Rams had the NFL’s most youthful roster in 2012, and figure to be even younger in ’13. Jackson’s role was being reduced.
Jackson is an ideal fit in Atlanta, where he’ll fill one of the Falcons’ few glaring voids.
There is no reason for bad blood, not after Jackson gave plenty of his own blood and the best years of his career to the franchise.
Jackson is one of the greatest bad-team players in NFL history, and that isn’t an insult. It's a compliment. He could have demanded a trade a long time ago. He could have went public with a blast of "Get me out of here!" noise.
Instead, SJ rumbled his way to eight consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
"When you got ready to play the Rams, you always knew Steven Jackson was going to bring it," San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said. "No matter what was going on with his team, you were always going to get his best."
Despite Jackson leading the NFL in rushing yards and total yards from scrimmage over his nine-year stay, the Rams went 44-99-1.
Counting only the games that Jackson competed in, the Rams’ record was 43-87-1, a winning percentage of .332.
Based on my research, only six running backs in NFL history (minimum 100 games) had a lower career winning percentage than Jackson:
O.J. Simpson (.322), Moran Norris (.321), Steve Bush (.305), Chris Hetherington (.286), Gene Mingo (.283) and James Wilder (.276.)
The losing wasn’t Jackson’s fault. He was the one reliable, the one permanent ray of light, the one Ram that commanded respect and Pro Bowl honors.
Jackson did his job, and did it exceptionally well.
He never got the help he needed.
The Rams wasted his career.
It always astounded me to hear some pitiful fool ripping Jackson for the Rams’ terrible record. Blaming the Rams’ abysmal finishes on Jackson would be akin to blasting catcher Ted Simmons for the Cardinals’ mediocrity in the 1970s. Or attributing the St. Louis Browns' futility to pitcher Ned Garver.
Including the 2004 class that brought Jackson to STL, the Rams drafted 80 players during his term here. Only one of the 80 made a Pro Bowl: Steven Jackson, who got there three times.
To underline the point: the Rams tabbed Holt with the sixth overall choice in the 1999 draft. Holt, one of the top wideouts of his era, was honored with seven Pro Bowl selections.
The Rams have drafted 121 players since making the Holt pick. Of the 121, only Jackson made it to the Pro Bowl as a Ram. (Cornerback Dre Bly was voted to two Pro Bowls after leaving the Rams to sign as a free agent with the Detroit Lions.)
The Rams' endless turmoil and stunning incompetence in drafting and developing players probably cost Jackson a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In his nine seasons Jackson played for six head coaches, three sets of owners and four general managers. Jackson was teammates with 13 quarterbacks, 33 wide receivers, 20 tight ends and 50 offensive linemen. In all, Jackson had 290 teammates as a Ram.
It’s easy to be a winner when everything is positive.
You learn a lot more about a person’s character during difficult times.
No matter how bleak the situation, Jackson would rally himself to rise above it. In a weekly show of stubborn resistance he’d buckle up, defiantly slam into linebackers or hunt down defensive backs to run them over.
Jackson could have pouted, cursed the unfair nature of his destiny, or lost focus while daydreaming of what might have been. Suppose the New England Patriots or Pittsburgh Steelers had drafted him instead? Playoff games, Super Bowls, the Hall of Fame ...
I wouldn't have blamed Jackson for being bitter. But he never was. I do not know how he managed to do this without losing his head.
Other than a regrettable (but brief) contract holdout in the summer of 2008, Jackson was the consummate team player. He was willing to do anything to pull a fallen franchise to higher ground.
When he came to St. Louis for the first time, Jackson was part of the Greatest Show’s last hurrah.
Now it makes sense for him to search for his personal last hurrah, in Atlanta. He earned this chance. He earned it during all of those bloody Sundays.
Long may you run, SJ39.