Nov. 10, 2009
By Cameron Hollway
Special to

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Unless you're a diehard Rams fans, you probably aren't aware of the season -- or career -- that Steven Jackson is having. Other than "SJ39," there hasn't been much reason to watch this team.

As the Rams have piled up loss after loss after loss -- 17 in a row before they knocked off Detroit in Week 8 -- Jackson quietly has been putting together his best NFL season. Midway through the year, he's on pace for 1,568 yards, which would surpass his career-best of 1,528 set in 2006. He's 3 yards behind Minnesota's Adrian Peterson for the league lead in yards from scrimmage with 970.

Jackson is averaging 4.8 yards per carry despite being the focus of defenses. (Getty Images)
"I just wish we were winning more games so the whole league and country could see how great a player he is," quarterback Marc Bulger said of the Rams, who are 1-7. "Everyone knows it, but he flies under the radar because of that. If we can start winning some games I think he'll start getting the recognition he deserves."

If Jackson keeps putting up consistently strong numbers, he will be impossible to overlook. Consider:

Jackson, 26, has started 57 games in his career (he has missed nine games to injury and was a backup to Marshall Faulk most of his rookie season). In the history of the NFL, among players who have started 57 or fewer games before turning 27, Jackson is No. 1 in career rushing yards, with 6,075 -- and he has eight more games before turning 27 in July.

Take out the games-started criteria, and Jackson is 18th all-time in rushing yards through his age-26 season, again with eight games to go.

If he were to match his first half of 784 yards in the second half, he would climb to 10th on that list, bumping Faulk. The top 10 is a who's who of NFL backs: Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Walter Payton, Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis, Jim Brown, Jerome Bettis, LaDainian Tomlinson, Eric Dickerson and Faulk.

Select company, indeed.

"Historians will have to evaluate all that," said first-year Rams running backs coach Sylvester Croom, who was the offensive coordinator at Detroit in 1997 when Sanders ran for a career-high 2,053 yards. "With the ball in his hands there's not much better than Barry and a guy like Gale Sayers.

"I've talked to Steven about being more of a Walter Payton type. Walter could do anything, and so can Steven. It's rare to find a man Steven's size (6-feet-2, 235 pounds) who can line up wide and run routes. We try to get him the ball out in space. Steven's developed into a complete player."

In his breakout season of 2006, when Jackson had 2,334 total yards and 16 touchdowns, he had a lot of help. Orlando Pace and Adam Timmerman anchored a veteran offensive line, and Marc Bulger threw for 4,301 yards, with Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce winding down their "Greatest Show on Turf" highlight reels. Fast forward to 2009, and the youthful Rams have ... Steven Jackson.

Yet despite being THE player that opposing defenses focus on, Jackson is averaging 4.8 yards per carry, a half-yard better than the 4.3 career number he brought into this season. In the past two games, against Indianapolis and Detroit, he has rushed for 134 and 149 yards, and he's starting to hear his name being discussed as one of the league's elite players.

"It's meaningful," he said. "But we still have a lot of work to do around here. We want to be a winning organization. We don't want to get kudos sparingly. ... We have some talented guys around here. We've just got to grow up. We're a team that's learning how to win."

The Rams, who are coming off their bye week, host 8-0 New Orleans on Sunday. They'll try to control the clock against the Saints' 19th-ranked run defense, pounding Jackson much as they did in crunch time against the Lions. With the outcome in the balance in the fourth quarter at Detroit, Jackson had nine carries for 82 yards, including a 25-yard TD burst that was the winning score. Big chunks: 7 yards, 11, 10, 5, 17, 25 ... only two of the nine carries gained less than 5 yards.

"Seventeen games is a long time," Jackson said of the losing streak he helped snap. "And that game was too close to let get away. ... I was willing to give everything I had to make sure we won the game."

Jackson is in the second season of a six-year, $44 million contract that he signed after holding out before the 2008 season, and the Rams have decided to build around him. In the offseason, they invested in a good center, Jason Brown, 26, as well as fullback Mike Karney and tight end Billy Bajema, both considered outstanding blockers.

With the No. 2 overall pick in April, they drafted Jason Smith out of Baylor. Smith starts at right tackle now but is likely to find a home on the left side after this season, a free-agent year for starter Alex Barron. They love their guards, Richie Incognito, 26, and Jacob Bell, 28, and believe they have the nucleus for a line that has and will continue to get better as it grows up together.

As the Rams have loaded up around Jackson, he has reciprocated by becoming accountable as a leader, a trait the team didn't know he had before this season. Jackson has been quick to praise teammates, unwilling to gauge his success in light of the team's struggles, is a full-fledged believer in first-year coach Steve Spagnuolo's system and has become one of the harder-working players on the team.

Contrast that to the half-cocked, boastful player the Rams drafted out of Oregon State with the 24th pick in 2004. During his rookie season he complained of playing time, trying to bump the aging Faulk out the door.

"Over the next couple of years, I'm trying to separate myself from Marshall," Jackson said then. "Only one guy can be on the field at one time. Two, three years from now, if I haven't done that, then that must say something about my level of play."

In December 2007, Jackson was critical of Rams fans who sold their seats to Packers fans for a home game (the Rams were 3-10 at the time). And in September 2008, he publicly criticized coach Scott Linehan's decision to bench Bulger in favor of Trent Green.

Croom had heard the rumors, did his homework when considering the job, then decided to start with a "clean slate" with Jackson. He said he has been pleased with the player and person.

"He'll be the first to tell you he's still working on some things emotionally, knowing when to say things as well as how to say things. Understanding that what he says affects the other players," Croom said. "I knew he was a good running back. But he studies the game, he's very intelligent, and his work ethic has been totally different than some of the things I'd heard about. ... He's a great player and wants to be the best there is. I feel like it's my job to help him reach that goal."

The main criticism of Jackson is that he isn't reaching the end zone, with just the one TD this season. But Jackson has had only five carries inside the opponents' 10-yard line, and he has never been a breakaway back, as his career-long run of 59 yards would suggest. He has the speed, but to this point in his career he has preferred to run over the last line of defenders rather than try to get by them. Croom said they are working on "setting up" defensive backs with footwork, as well as on understanding blocking schemes and continuing to develop as a pass-blocker.

For Jackson, who has played for five head coaches -- including two interims -- it's time to get things done.

"You get tired of starting over," Jackson said. "So I'm kind of at the point now where we're going to make this work. And we're going to make it work now. ... I'm welcoming the challenge of helping to turn this organization around."