Just the thought of Steven Jackson having played his last game as a Ram sends shivers up and down my spine and makes me quite emotional. Despite the fact that Jackson is still under contract, at least technically, for all intents and purposes he can be viewed as a free agent. One of the bigger questions the Rams have to answer this off season is whether to bring Jackson back or to let him go to another team (or retirement?).
In determining whether Jackson will or won't return to the Rams many factors must be considered. This post briefly analyzes those factors and then asks YOU to determine if he will return to the Rams for the 2013 season.
The won/lost column
2012 was a turnaround season for the Rams, finishing with a record of 7-8-1. In games where Jackson carried the ball 18 times or more the Rams record was 6-1-1. In games where he carried the ball fewer than 18 times the Rams record was 1-7. I will let you decide whether this statistic is significant and meaningful or not. Given the wide disparity between the two records, it certainly is hard to ignore.
Money, the salary cap and possible contract restructuring
Jackson's contract calls for him to be paid 7 million in 2013. His 2013 bonus of just under 2 million was moved forward late in 2012 to count against the 2012 salary cap. It is no secret that the Rams currently have a very tight cap space situation for 2013. Jackson's contract is one of the more obvious ones that could be targeted by the Rams for restructuring (or outright cutting). It is also no secret that the Rams are not likely to pay Jackson 7 million to retain him for 2013. Reaching terms that are agreeable to both Jackson and the Rams may be the key factor in determining whether or not he is a Ram next season. 3.5-4.0 million would be my estimate of the figure that would be necessary to achieve an agreement on a contract.
Can the Rams find an adequate replacement for Jackson?
It is debatable as to whether an adequate replacement exists at this time. In Isaiah Pead, Darryl Richardson and Terrance Ganaway, the Rams may feel that they already have the replacement for Jackson on their roster. There is risk associated with that thinking. Ganaway is an unknown quantity. Neither Pead or Richardson have given any indication that they can (as of yet) replace the power running of Jackson, have the ability to carry the ball 20+ times per game, or replace the terrific blocking and receiving skills that Jackson possesses. However, all three do show promise and have upside. There are possible options in the draft, names like Eddie Lacy, Montee Ball, Le'Veon Bell, Stepfan Taylor and Knile Davis, who may be available anywhere from the second round through the seventh round. In addition, there are plenty of options in the free agent market this year. Players such as Chris Ivory, Shonn Greene and Ahmad Bradshaw could possibly be signed, with each having 1000 yard potential at a relatively inexpensive cost.
Does the presence of Steven Jackson impede the growth of Pead, Ganaway and Richardson?
There is little doubt that the presence of Jackson in the feature back role limited the reps of the younger backs last season (especially in the latter half of the season). His continued presence in the line-up may be limiting their development and the Rams ability to assess their long-term potential. Fisher could decide, however, to begin the process of transitioning/phasing Jackson out of the feature back role and into a running back by committee system if he remains a Ram.
Jackson has remained a model of consistency over his career with the Rams. The 2012 season was his eighth consecutive season with over 1000 yards rushing (1042). He proved last season that he still is a productive running back. His YPA of 4.1 was close to his career average of 4.2. He also remained a steady force as a blocker and caught 38 passes for 321 yards (8.4 YPC), statistics that were in the range of his career averages (8.2 YPC). His production and consistency over the years is all the more remarkable considering the mediocre offensive lines that he has had blocking for him throughout his career.
Demand in the free agent market
Before the trade deadline during this past regular season, the Rams received many inquiries regarding Steven Jackson. If Jackson is allowed to test the free agent market there will likely be a fair amount of interest. The Green Bay Packers are one team that has coveted Jackson for quite some time. Jackson would be at the top of most free agent running back lists. It has also been suggested that Jackson might like to finish his career with a contender (although the Rams will be one shortly!). If money is one of the bigger factors in determining whether Jackson remains a Ram or not, then this expected demand for his services makes it more difficult for the Rams to sign him at an affordable cost, given the constraints of the salary cap.
Age and the Rams youth movement.
Since the arrival of Jeff Fisher and Les Snead, the Rams have had a massive roster turnover. The Rams became the youngest team in the league in the process. The Rams are committed to building through the draft and to developing their young roster into Super Bowl contenders. Jackson will turn 30 in July and would be entering his tenth season with the Rams. By any other measure he is considered to be relatively young. However, in terms of a career as a running back in the NFL, he is considered to be "old" and nearing the end of his career.
Jackson has begun to show some signs of wear and tear. That is to be expected after such a long career at the running back position. He has proven to be quite durable however. He has missed only 2 games due to injury in the last four seasons. After 9 seasons and 2395 rushing attempts (and at the age of 30) the Rams have to consider the possibility of a decline in production and increased risk of injury in the coming seasons. Few running backs in the history of the NFL have remained productive and injury-free well into their thirties.
Steven Jackson is the unquestioned leader of the Rams, both on the field and in the locker room. Leadership is not easily quantifiable in terms of statistics or wins and losses. However, it is one of those intangible characteristics that is very important to the success of an NFL team. Having a veteran leader like Jackson on your team is important for helping to create team chemistry and a winning attitude, especially on a team as young as the Rams are. Or is it time for Sam Bradford to finally take over the leadership of this team?
The Super Bowl
When Jeff Fisher took over the Rams last year I believe he had a plan in his mind on how to turn around the fortunes of the Rams and make them into Super Bowl contenders. My guess would be that the plan will take 3-4 years to come to fruition. Fisher has successfully completed year one of the plan. Should Jackson be considered an integral part of the plan going forward? Or should the Rams be looking now to replace the qualities and attributes mentioned in this post, bearing in mind the goal of reaching the Super Bowl?
Emotion plays a significant role when thinking about the potential loss of Steven Jackson. Who wouldn't like to see him retire as a Ram? We think of all the years of great production on lousy teams. How he seemed to be the only bright light of excellence on a dysfunctional, losing team. We admire his leadership, his willpower on the field and the classiness he has shown. We can't bear the visuals of him bursting through a hole in the line in a Packers uniform. Many of us think that the Rams organization owes him the same loyalty that he has given to the team over the years. When all is said and done two things come to mind when I put the emotional aspect aside: professional football is a business, one where decisions have to be made without emotion, for the betterment of the team. The concept of "team" also weighs into the thought process. The ultimate team player Steven Jackson will understand this more than most. No one player is more important than the team itself. And as SJ39 will agree, whatever decision is made in the coming months will be about what is best for the team, now and in the future.
One final thought. I admit I sway back and forth on whether to keep Jackson in a Ram uniform. You can replace the running back........but can you replace the man???? I guess after being a Ram fan for 43 years (since I was 10) I tend to get a little bit sentimental from time-to-time!
Please vote in the poll and share your thoughts in the comments. Your opinions and commentary are always welcomed and appreciated!