Steven Jackson sets the standard

Columnist Jeff Gordon
By Jeff Gordon
STLTODAY.COM SPORTS COLUMNIST
11/03/2009

With his heroic performance Sunday afternoon in Detroit, Steven Jackson underscored his value to a rebuilding problem.

His ball-carrying skills give the team a much better chance of winning, of course, and that is critical. A team can only learn so much by losing, especially when 17 consecutive defeats stack up on the increasingly frustrated players.

A team with a broken spirit cannot progress. At 0-7, the Rams were in danger of withering in the face of repetitive failure.

So Sunday’s victory, however ugly, had great value to the team. Jackson made it happen, almost by himself.

And that is why Jackson is REALLY valuable to the Rams at this early point in the reconstruction. He willed his team to that 17-10 victory at Detroit, plowing through the Lions (and the odd official) to make that happen.

“He is an energetic guy,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said after Tuesday’s practice at Rams Park. “He tries to feed that to everybody.”

What an example he set for the younger Rams struggling to become established n the NFL. What a standard he set for those teammates willing to follow his lead.

“He’s not just into himself,” Spagnuolo said. “He is into the team doing well.”

The new coach didn’t know what to expect from his star running back, except his obvious talent. What kind of man was he?

“I was eager to find out,” Spagnuolo said. “It was a pleasant surprise. It was good to know.”

Receiver Donnie Avery should be a better player for having Jackson drive this squad. Fellow wideout Keenan Burton could learn from this experience, too. So should offensive tackle Jason Smith, who is just starting to figure out what it will take to succeed in the NFL.

Jackson has developed a commanding presence in the games, on the practice field and in the locker room. “I welcomed the challenge of trying to help turn this organization around,” he said.

As Spagnuolo strives to change the culture at Rams Park and create a new beginning for this team, having a star player with such character -– at the age of 26, no less -– is most valuable.

Imagine if his top running back was Chiefs malcontent Larry Johnson instead. Imagine if he had to put up with what Kansas City coach Todd Haley puts up with.

Some Rams fans have called for the team to deal Jackson while he is still in his athletic prime, thus allowing the franchise to gain multiple pieces for the ongoing reconstruction. There is some logic to that, given the team’s myriad needs.

But what good are additional building blocks if there is no foundation to build upon?

How can young players grow when they are surrounded by unsure and inexperienced teammates?

To turn this franchise’s fortunes, Spagnuolo must create an environment that fosters rapid development. Take-charge players like Jackson help the coaching staff accomplish that.

“We still have a lot of work to do out there,” Jackson said. “We want to become a winning organization. We don’t want to get kudos occasionally.”

Jackson didn’t go south when the team staggered to seven consecutive losses. He didn’t lose his patience or composure. He didn’t slack off. He didn’t pop off, although it was tempting to speak out at times.

“That’s me knowing that what makes me go, makes me tick, is not helpful to a young team,” he said.

So he kept quiet, opting not to air grievances through media outlets. He just kept plugging away and encouraging his teammates to do the same.

“You get tired of starting over,” Jackson said. “We’re going to make it work.”

When the opportunity arose to win Sunday, he seized it.

“Seventeen games is a long time,” Jackson said. “I was ready to give everything I had to win that game.”

That intangible quality means a lot to this group -- more than a couple more draft picks or a few more prospects could ever provide.