This is a column about Rams running back Steven Jackson, who may be having the best career of a bad-team player in modern NFL history.
We'll get to SJ39 in a few moments.
First, some relevant background:
Last month I spent two days in Canton, Ohio to participate in a senior committee meeting at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I was honored to be among the five voters asked to choose two "senior" players for Hall of Fame consideration.
After hours of discussion and several rounds of voting, we chose nose tackle Curley Culp (Kansas City, Houston Oilers) and linebacker Dave Robinson (Green Bay.) If the full committee approves during a vote the day before the Super Bowl, Culp and Robinson will be enshrined in Canton next summer.
At the beginning of the process, which began months ago, we probably reviewed more than 100 players. I know I must have researched at least 50 extensively. I was surprised (and a little saddened) by the number of outstanding and accomplished NFL players that were overlooked when they first became eligible for Hall of Fame consideration. That's why there's a senior committee; we try to correct mistakes and rescue Hall-worthy players that slipped through the cracks.
Which brings me back to Steven Jackson.
Will he get lost in history?
Let me throw this out there right now: if Jackson had been drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, I believe he'd be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The Steelers would have surrounded him with layers of talent, and astute coaches would deploy SJ39 in a way that maximizes his skill set.
Instead, Jackson was drafted by the St. Louis Rams at a time when the mismanaged franchise was about to sink to the bottom of the NFL. And the Rams have stayed there, unable to rise and held down by the dead weight of so many wasted draft choices.
Even with everything stacked against him _ including defensive fronts _ Jackson is building a Hall of Fame case. SJ has received little help from the team, but he's consistently put up good numbers over a long stretch of seasons. Jackson has managed to produce at a high level and accumulate the yards under terrible circumstances that put him at a disadvantage. And that makes his career even more impressive.
Jackson hasn't had the benefit of being surrounded by waves of talented teammates. He hasn't had the assistance provided by competent coaching or leadership. He hasn't had the advantage of working for a smart football operation that can keep a roster stocked with quality players.
Jackson hasn't had the extra edge that comes when a RB sets up behind a formidable offensive line. Over the last five seasons (at least) Jackson hasn't had his running lanes opened by a dynamic passing game.
To know what Jackson is fully capable of when placed in a more attractive and just situation, just go back to 2006. That season the Rams had an energetic and youthful Marc Bulger dishing accurate passes to the great wideout tandem of Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. When defenses tried to put the clamps on Bruce or Holt, Bulger could leave burn marks by going deep to a comet named Kevin Curtis.
When the other side scattered more defensive backs on the field to deal with the Rams' passing threat, they would look up and see a fearsome running back coming at them with big shoulders and flying dreadlocks. Steven Jackson didn't dart around. He didn't sting. Instead of absorbing hard hits and giving in to the inevitable tackle Jackson changed the paradigm. He initiated contact and punished defenders. He was a fighting vehicle, looking to smash into anyone in his path.
The 2006 Rams finished fourth in the NFL in passing yards. It's no coincidence that Jackson had his best NFL season in 2006, leading the NFL with 2,334 yards from scrimmage and scoring 16 touchdowns. But the Rams' passing game soon faded into hopeless mediocrity, and defenses began stacking eight men in the box to gang up on Jackson. But SJ39 didn't cut and run; he still rumbled to 1,000-yard seasons.
In his eight seasons in St. Louis Jackson has played for five head coaches: Mike Martz, Joe Vitt, Scott Linehan, Jim Haslett and Steve Spagnuolo. He's had several GMs, and a procession of multiple offensive coordinators. Now Jeff Fisher is in charge, making it six coaches in nine seasons. Jackson has played in many systems, under many offensive coordinators. Continuity has never been on his side.
In Jackson's first eight years, the Rams won 37 games and lost 91 for a winning percentage of .289. The Rams have had the fewest wins in the NFL since Jackson arrived as a first-round draft choice in 2004. But every now and then, you hear the comically off-target putdowns of Jackson. "The Rams haven't won with him," or "he hasn't elevated the team."
There's a phrase for that kind of misguided thinking: blaming the victim.
Jackson hasn't bungled years of draft classes or made idiotic personnel decisions. Jackson isn't responsible for the horrible roster construction, the carousel of coaches, or GMs that thought the term "Scouting Combine" had to do with farm machinery.
From 2004 through 2011, the Rams drafted 70 players. Only one, Jackson, has earned Pro Bowl honors. (He's a three-time Pro Bowl pick.) From 2004-2011, half of the NFL's 32 teams had at least five draft picks develop into Pro Bowl players. And 27 of the 32 had at least three picks make it to the Pro Bowl.
Jackson hasn't a Pro Bowl teammate on the Rams since 2007, when Holt received the honor for the final time in his career. Jackson has had only one decorated offensive lineman with him in the Rams huddle, but even that's misleading because Orlando Pace didn't make a Pro Bowl after Jackson's second season (2005.)
I suppose there are better examples of a standout player being stuck on a chronic loser, but I can't think of one. Several modern-era Hall of Fame running backs toiled for losing teams. The list includes Barry Sanders, O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell, Floyd Little and Gale Sayers. But they never had as much to overcome as Steven Jackson. It hasn't been a fair fight.
Instead of letting loose with a primal scream, ripping the franchise and demanding a trade, Jackson stays motivated. He grinds on, dreaming of the day when the Rams reach the winner's circle. I don't know about you, but I couldn't do it. But Jackson's positive attitude doesn't waver. He's overcome the negative factors and a noxious environment to emerge as one of the most productive players of his generation.
• Jackson is one of only seven backs in NFL history to have seven consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. It could have been eight, but as a rookie Jackson shared time with Marshall Faulk.
• Since 2005, when he became the starter, Jackson leads the NFL in rushing yards and total yards from scrimmage. He's second in rushing yards per game. He's eighth in rushing touchdowns and 10th in total TDs. He leads all league running backs in receptions and receiving yards. And again, keep this in mind ... defenses enter a game with the Rams with one fear, one priority, one mission: do whatever it takes to put No. 39 on the ground. And he still manages to run through walls.
• Jackson already ranks 31st in NFL history in rushing yards (9,093.) With 1,181 yards this season, he'd move into the top 25. By the end of the season, Jackson will probably become the 27th running back in NFL history to amass 10,000 career rushing yards.
• Jackson is 48th in league history for most yards from scrimmage (12,096) and should crack the top 30 this season.
• Jackson is the Rams' all-time rushing leader. This is a franchise that has paid Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk, Lawrence McCutcheon, Jerome Bettis, Dick Bass and Tank Younger to run the football.
• Jackson has already rushed for more yards than four modern-era Hall of Fame running backs: Jim Taylor, Larry Csonka, Leroy Kelly and Floyd Little.
Next Sunday in Detroit, Jackson will begin his ninth season for the Rams. He's 29, and getting close to that age-30 milepost that often marks the beginning of the decline phase for backs.
Since 1960, only 36 backs have reached the 1,000-yard threshold in their age-29 seasons. The number drops to 20 backs with a 1,000-yard season at age 30.
Jackson, however, is in the best shape of his career. He's disciplined and dedicated to enhancing his health, diet and fitness. His body fat is a low and lean 5.1 percent. He has developed increased power and strength in his lower body by putting himself through the extremely tough "Strongman" regimen each offseason.
Barring injury, I don't see why Jackson can't keep powering up past age 30. He should be good to go for another three or four years.
After eight seasons of often going it alone, Jackson is moving into a more hopeful phase. He's finally working for coaches that know the running game, and value the running game.
Fisher's teams in Tennessee were physical and relentless and hammered teams on the ground. Jackson's style seems to be the ideal fit for the Fisher philosophy. And Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer put together a successful rushing attack during his six seasons as the OC for the NY Jets.
As a bonus, Jackson has been joined by two promising rookie running backs, Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson. They seem entirely capable of easing Jackson's burden, and that can extend his career.
Will Jackson make it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame? I don't know. He still has miles to go before he is finished. And though he's been stuck on such a sorry team and trapped in so many hopeless situations, Jackson has carved out the yards to sculpt a pretty amazing career.
That's why I thought about Steven Jackson when visiting Canton last month. I know this much: This man should not be forgotten.