Bernie: Rams' past meets Rams' future

3 hours ago • BY BERNIE MIKLASZ bjmiklasz@post-dispatch.com

Steven Jackson was so durably effective as the Rams’ longtime halfback, it’s taken a coalition of backs to replace him.

If Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead, Zac Stacy and Benny Cunningham are hoping that everyone in St. Louis will forget about SJ39, they’re out of luck.

The Rams will play Jackson and his new employer, the Falcons, on Sunday in Atlanta. The Rams will face the all-time leading rusher in their franchise history, and will counter with a set of backs who have virtually no NFL history at all.

This will be an intriguing showcase of the Rams’ past, and the Rams’ future.

The Falcons signed Jackson with the hope of winning the Super Bowl right away, and the Rams lined up his replacements with the hope of winning a Super Bowl down the road — at a time when Jackson would have been safely retired.

Sunday’s game probably isn’t a fair test, given the respective experience levels of the old back and the new backs.

In an iron-back NFL career that began in 2004, Jackson has amassed 2,819 touches from the line of scrimmage. Richardson, Pead, Stacy and Cunningham have combined for 161 touches.

The truth is, the Rams still don’t know what they have in their young backs. They obviously think the newbies can be productive, and have the potential to be special, or they wouldn’t be here.

The Rams’ brass had so much confidence in their young colts, they didn’t bother to sign a veteran back for insurance.

“That speaks a lot for us,” Pead said. “And now we have to do the job.”

Obviously, it’s too early to form judgments. Richardson and Pead are in their second seasons; Stacy and Cunningham are rookies. The Rams like what they’re seeing. Which is exactly what you’d expect them to say.

“I think they’re doing a great job,” quarterback Sam Bradford said. “Obviously, it’s tough, because ‘Jack’ meant so much to this offense and to this organization.

“I think the greatest thing is that both Pead and Daryl were here last year and got to learn from him, and they got to see the way he approached the game and the way he worked.

“I think that I’ve seen those guys try to emulate that during the week of practice and in their preparation, and I think they’re doing a really good job of that.”

I asked Bradford if the backs’ shortage of experience is a negative factor at this early stage.

“No,” he said. “I think those guys stepped up. They knew in the spring when ‘Jack’ left that it was time for them to grow up and time for them to mature and that they needed to have a really good spring and good training camp. I think they all did.

“They understood that they were in a competition for the starting running back job. They approached it like that every day. I think they really pushed each other to get better, and I think they’ve made tremendous strides from last year to this year.”

The Rams revised Jackson’s contract to open the free-agent door for him. This was done in part to show him respect and appreciation. Jackson only has so many miles left on his tires, and wants to win a Super Bowl. Coach Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead are sincere when they say they wish Jackson nothing but the best — except for this Sunday, of course.

The Rams had other reasons for making the change. They are committed to youth. They wanted to assemble a roster that will gradually mature, then peak, over the next several seasons. By the time this team is ready to win big, Jackson wouldn’t have been here, anyway.

The Rams also wanted more breakaway potential in their backfield. Last season they ranked 18th in the league with only 10 runs of 20-plus yards. They were 24th in that category in 2011, with only seven runs of 20-plus yards.

The Rams had only one run of 50-plus yards last season — and not by Jackson. It’s a matter of style. Jackson is admired for his stamina and drive and ability to carry a heavy load.

Can he still run free? Apparently so; Jackson galloped for a 50-yard gain against New Orleans last week. But during his last three seasons in St. Louis, Jackson didn’t have a single run of 50-plus yards. Maybe it was the scheme, the blocking, whatever. But Jackson did have seven 50-plus runs as a Ram between 2005 and 2009. Then it stopped.

Richardson had a 53-yard run early last season; he can go. The staff believes Pead has true breakaway speed, but he’s also displayed a disturbing tendency to fumble. Cunningham and Stacy are more power-oriented. All have raw receiving skills. All have demonstrated a desire to buckle up and take on blitzers to protect Bradford.

“They all run so hard, and they’re all physical as well,” Rams guard Chris Williams said. “You can play all of them, because they’re complete backs. They all block and run and can catch the ball. So they’re kind of interchangeable.

“Zac and Benny are more of a load, but Pead and Daryl can open it up pretty good. We have a little bit of everything going on.”

Teams can win with rookie and second-year backs. Since the 1970 merger, rookie or second-year RBs have rushed for more than 100 yards 46 times in postseason games. That includes three 100-yard games in Super Bowls.

The reviews from the Rams’ first game were mixed. Richardson had 25 touches, rushing 20 times for 63 yards, and catching five passes for 33 yards. (Stacy had one carry for 4 yards.)

All in all, a 96-yard day was decent production by Richardson. But in the red zone, he was stuffed on three carries for no yards. And when the Rams went for it on a fourth-and-short against Arizona, they opted to run an unsuccessful quarterback sneak.

Moreover, Richardson suffered what appears to be a minor foot injury; it caused him to miss Wednesday’s practice. He’s supposed to return to the practice field today.

Can Richardson physically handle the demands of being a lead back?

Can Pead hang onto the ball?

Will Stacy and Cunningham receive a meaningful opportunity as rookies?

Other than Richardson, who will earn the coaches’ trust?

It’s one of the many questions facing the young Rams as they try to push forward without Steven Jackson.