“I want that,” decidedly states St. Louis Rams veteran running back Steven Jackson recalling his rookie season witnessing, “what was the greatest show on turf and how closely those guys worked.” The team captain of five years’ message is clear, “I want people to know when they put on the St. Louis Rams uniform, this is the level of excellence we expect from ourselves.”
For eight seasons in the NFL, Steven Jackson has been a formidable force on the gridiron totaling 12,096 yards from scrimmage, more than 2,000 carries over the last seven seasons averaging 23 touches per game and consecutively eclipsing the 1,000 yard threshold for each of those seven seasons. “I hope to continue on this pace this season to string along 1,000 yard consecutive seasons … but at this point now I’m going into year nine and I haven’t been on many winning teams, actually I have been on none,” expressed an eager to win Jackson.
“That’s more important to me now, to be a part of a winning establishment and hopefully, I would love to do it in St. Louis because the fans have been so supportive of me,” expressed an appreciative Jackson adding, “I think they’ve seen the hard work that I put in and they know that regardless of what a record reflects or what a scoreboard reflect they know that I’m going to give my all.”
After regressing to a 2 – 14 season record in 2011 following 2010’s 7 – 9 finish which saw the NFC West Division Title slip away in the 16-6 week 17 loss against the Seattle Seahawks at Qwest Field, ownership cleared house firing head coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney in preparation of rebuilding the franchise as the ‘winning establishment’ Jackson briefly glimpsed in his rookie season.
Jan. 16 the Rams ended their head coaching vacancy search announcing the signing of the one-year removed former Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher to a five-year deal to become the franchise’s 26th head coach, a move Jackson believes to be a great revitalizing step already with dividends. “Coach Fisher has put together a great coaching staff and some free agents that he has brought in with him to allow us to be a better team,” said Jackson revealing, “Earlier when coach started with the team, it was two things he made reference to, that we are going to play hard noised football, we’re going to get after the opposing offense.”
Proponents of Fisher know all to well the coach’s affinity for physical football which has its professional roots in the 1985 Super Bowl XX winning Chicago Bears defense, coordinated by Buddy Ryan, when Fisher served as a defensive assistant after the Bears placed him on injured reserve that season. Fisher’ tenure with the Titans of course featured a tenacity on offense as well exemplified through the playing styles of Eddie George and Steve McNair, which resonated with Jackson.
“He also mentioned that we are going to be a team that’s able to run the ball and grind the clock,” said Jackson understanding, “that he had a great deal of respect and trust in me,” further adding, “I was very encouraged by those statements and I just want to prove to not only him but to a lot of people that we’re going to be a very productive team and if I have any say to it, a top five team in rushing. I think we have that capability, I think we have the personnel to do so we just got to stay healthy and keep guys on the same page.”
In 2011, the Rams ranked 23rd in rushing, and 3rd in the NFC West just one place above the 24th ranked Arizona Cardinals and two behind the 21st ranked Seattle Seahawks.
The first component to catapulting up the league's team rushing board 16 spaces begins and ends with the front five which was decimated by injury last season much to the ailment of sophomore quarterback and 2010’s number one selection Sam Bradford, who had just received Rookie of the Year Honors. “That is a huge signing for us; that might the biggest move of the off-season in my eyes,” describes Jackson of the team’s free agency acquisition of Green Bay Packers’ center Scott Wells. “He’s athletic, he’s smart. He comes from Green bay, so he is used to winning. The more guys you can bring in there with that kind of attitude, the better off we will be as a team.”
And amongst the coaching additions of the off-season, of note is the procurement of former Atlanta Falcons offensive line coach Paul Boudreaux, whose practice of having the guards block out to the tackles will help insure the pass protection for Sam Bradford as establishing the pass will be vital for achieving the lofty goal of a top-five rushing team.
To the cause, Rams 2012 first round selection of Appalachian State’s wide receiver Brian Quick will be brought along ‘quickly’ as will talented tight-end Lance Kendricks be tasked with emerging from a dismal rookie season that saw the Wisconsin product haul in only 28 of 53 passes while credited with nine drops. Greg Salas, Austin Pettis, and Brandon Gibson will most likely vie for the starting spot opposite Quick, while Denario Alexander and Danny Amendola battle back from injury. The promising squad possesses a potential that has Jackson offering, “If we can get our passing game going in the right direction and where we expect it to be, we’re going to be a very dangerous offense. We have a number of young guys that has come in that they can all grow together.”
And to help water the ‘seeds of development’, the club added offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer unceremoniously released by the Jets at the end of the 2011 season. The position comes full-circle for Schottenheimer making the return to the start of his professional career where he was an assistant coach in 1997. “What he’s done with running backs, in the past I’m really looking forward to the opportunity,” said an excited Jackson of the new OC. “The learning curve wasn’t too bad; two seasons, ago actually Sam Bradford’s rookie year, we ran the west coast offense, so we were still able to retain a lot of that information from that experience,” explained the Rams 2004 ROY informing, “the transition has actually been quite smooth” which Jackson indicating, “guys have picked it up really fast and Coach Schottenheimer has done a good job of installing it; not overwhelming us with information, but giving us the philosophy and concepts behind it so we can make sense of plays and why he is asking us to do certain things or why we need to be in certain areas of the field.”
All the more important for the Rams tight-end who has yet to find the end-zone. Jets tight-end Dustin Keller enjoyed outstanding success leading his team in catches and receiving yards during Schottenheimer’s tenure, a fact the speaks volumes for Kendricks development and the passing game, the value of which as Jackson knows to be an invaluable necessity explaining it as follows:
“We definitely need to be very potent this year because not only does it open up the running game, but it would allow some teams to back off and not attack us in the protection area and get after Sam as much; and we can show that we are able to capitalize on blitz and different looks the team want to throw at us because they believe we can hold up. Once you do that, everything else opens for your entire team and we have better field position, you’re able to put up more points on the board and your defense is on the sideline resting.”
Relating to the defense, ranked 31st against the run last season, the club had major holes to fill. Hence, the Rams traded down from the overall number two slot in draft in order to acquire more picks to full multiple areas of needs and in the process forgoing the opportunity to draft 2011 Heisman Trophy winner, Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin or perhaps Alabama’s 2011 All-American running back Trent Richardson. “By us trading down … I think they show a lot of football intelligence by doing so,” applauded Jackson noting, “It showed me one, not only a vote of confidence in my ability, but it also showed that they are very strategic and they know that timing is everything, and they want to get the right pieces at the right time and not just draft based off what people feel on the outside is best for the team.”
And what the Rams deemed best was selecting LSU’s defensive tackle Michael Brockers 14th overall in this year’s draft and adding former Titans and Fisher favorite CB Cortland Finnegan. Jackson says of the signings, “[with] key guys on defense especially, I think we’re a much better team already on paper, now we have to, over the next four to five weeks in camp, gel and become one team … it’s imperative that we get some good work during training camp.”
And that required critical cohesiveness of training camp will need to transform what looks ‘good on paper’ to the what works great on the field in preparation for what Jackson calls, “definitely … a tough schedule.”
The Rams draw the leagues 5th most difficult schedule facing opponents who totaled a .523 winning percentage last season. “We have the AFC East, and they come with a number very tough teams as well,” knows Jackson who, “expects nothing but the best from each and every opponent that we face [and] each and every Sunday, when people play the St. Louis Rams, I know the first thing is, the key to stop us and myself in the running game, and I look forward to challenge each and every Sunday.”
But irregardless of the schedule Jackson maintains that the squad “can win a division title” and breaks down the NFC West in the following manner:
“San Francisco definitely now is a better team. Seahawks is continually, to always be, a team that typically finish strong, better than the way they start, and the Arizona Cardinals, they’re just like us, they have a lot of weapons, it’s just managing to keep their quarterback upright, they’re definitely a team that can be a sleeper as well. And with all that being said, we definitely want to win our division.”
But it is some out-of-division games from the AFC East that will certainly add some sizzle to the schedule as in week 11, the Rams will face Schottenheimer’s former signal caller Mark Sanchez and the New York Jets as well as travel to face the Buffalo Bills who have signed back-up quarterback Vince Young, whose troubles with Coach Fisher are well documented. “I go back with [Ryan] Fitzpatrick in St. Louis; we drafted him, said Jackson adding, “The Buffalo defense is definitely well improved. Their city that’s built around them are very supportive, so it’s gong to be a tough game regardless who’s at the quarterback spot.”
Jackson is also recently returned from the UK after promoting the October 28th Week 8 game against the Patriots. “The fan reception and the way they receive the game and how knowledgeable they are about the game of football, I was very impressed,” stated Jackson of the abroad fan base that the NFL seeks to grow. “I look forward to the chance to play in front of them on an international level. I never would of thought in my years I’d be playing the game of football in Wembley Stadium.”
Jackson has also participated in the NFL’s Hollywood film making boot-camp as the running back holds strong post career aspirations in entertainment. “I have a great interest in being a producer and director [and] I like to use my creativity behind it and tell stories and entertain and captivate the audience for an hour or two,” said the future film mogul who has already produced a three-part web series entitled A Week in the Life with Steven Jackson viewable at www.sj39.com
The immediate take away from the series is an eye-opening snapshot into the dedication, sacrifice, routine, punishment and extreme measures of the too often short-lived career an NFL running back endures. And as the 3-time Pro Bowl, 2-time All-Pro and 2009 NFC Rushing champion prepares to attack the gridiron for his ninth season in the sport many often metaphorically refer to as war, the universal soldier shares these sobering comments of truth:
“To be a warrior, to be a franchise runner that I’ve been able to, it’s more than just being able to run between the tackles and score touchdowns. It’s having to deal with the pressures of being the face of franchise, dealing with the defensive coordinators that scheme against you week-in and week-out, on top of dealing with the bumps and the bruises that you get playing a collision sport, so I’ve done a great job of being able to adopt a lot of things to keep myself fairly healthy over the years. The NFL, man, a lot of people don’t realize how hard those hits are and how often that we go through this but, I think at the end of the day, you ask each and everyone of us as football players, ‘would want to do anything else?’ we would tell you ’no’ because it’s a game that teaches you a lot about life and you have to be able to push the limits of your body that you might not necessarily give yourself credit for until you’re put into a situation. And when you put yourself second to a team, that’s a beautiful thing and that’s why winning a championship is so hard.” - Steven Jackson #39
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