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The next chapter in Steven Jackson's career

Excuse me, I'm Steven Jackson, and you're in my way.
Excuse me, I'm Steven Jackson, and you're in my way.

How about a little controversy to while away your morning, maybe even carry you through lunch? Last Friday in the St. Louis Rams preseason win over the Kansas City Chiefs, fans saw something exceedingly rare: Steven Jackson playing multiple series with he starting offense. Jackson typically sits for all but a requisite series or two in the preseason. Seeing him carry the ball 15 times with a very respectable 4.8 yards per carry. 

That performance followed a season and an offseason of hand-wringing about Jackson's future. Had the years of abuse, playing behind substandard offensive lines and surrounded by marginal talent finally taken its toll? It sure looked that way last year as Jackson battled through a groin and a hand injury. Add to that, he was still the Rams player defenses most concerned themselves with...and still had an offensive line that, while improved, offered little in the running game. So, if Jackson done? 

Hardly, but he looks like a different player than the offensive dynamo who carried the Rams to their last respectable record, 8-8, in 2006. What kind of player has Jackson transformed into in his later years?

Here's what Matt Williamson of Scouts, Inc. said following the Rams win last Friday night. 

Despite popular belief-I respect S-Jax to no end, but he looks heavy footed to me. Pure power/technique runner now. Not elusive.

Last troubles for Jackson have been parsed often enough for us to know them by heart. Fans are usually the last to acknowledge when a favorite player is not the same guy he used to be. And it that really does look to be the case with Steven Jackson. 

This is the first time I'm going on record with this. I feel strange. 

Watching the KC again, you can see Jackson just lacks the same pure speed he used to have. Same with the burst of speed that used to allow him to fire off the snap and turn it on as soon as he had the ball in his hand or made a cut. Some of his shorter runs in that game turned into 10-15 yard runs in his prime; even his 25-yard run might have been a home run back in the day. 

Hold off on writing his obituary. 2011 does not signal the end of Steven Jackson; it heralds the birth of a new Steven Jackson, one who can still be productive thanks to his power and veteran savvy. 

Jackson's power did stand out in that game. Several times Jackson lowered his shoulder and plowed through a defender. He was also able to use a very, very strong lower body to scratch out an extra yard or two. 

The key for extending Jackson's career hinges on two things. First, running like a veteran, changing his game to fit what the Rams need and what he has to offer at this stage of his career. Second, having the right complementary players in place around him. 

Some sage words on the late-career running back from Cliton Portis, of all people:

And I think for an older back, once you get wiser you know it's moving the chains, protecting the ball, protecting yourself, staying on the field, and staying above 4 yards [per carry], trying to keep your average up to 4 and 5.

Pretty basic, really. As mentioned above, Jackson can still do things with his power and technique. He can see the field well enough to take advantage of open lanes, clear out a defender with his shoulder and out think his matchups. 

Credit the front office for taking steps to prolong Jackson's career by making smart personnel moves this year. Adding Harvey Dahl to bolster inside blocking and toughen up his linemates was as important as bringing in a pair of complementary backs. Jerious Norwood now takes over the role of the outside speed threat. Cadillac Williams assumes a backup role as well as that of a specialist who can take away some pass blocking duties and work some as a receiver on third downs. (We talked more about Williams' role in this post yesterday). 

There's a third factor here too, one that's harder to control via calculated measures like personnel moves and play calling: Jackson's health, specifically as it relates to his longevity. Jackson is notorious for taking impeccable care of himself physical, mentally and spiritually (yes, all three things are inseparable). 

Through his career, Jackson has dealt with the kinds of injuries that keep him out for a game or two rather than a season. What I mean is that Jackson has never had to deal with ligament replacement or other kinds of injuries that shave entire years off a career. That said, I'm knocking on pressed wood filler right now because those kinds of things can sometimes happen just as freak accidents. He knows how to convert his strength into power efficiently, and is not compensating for a lack of power with a more physical style of play, as you see with some running backs.

I fully expect a productive season from Jackson. Already, it should be apparent that they plan to use him more inside the red zone, something that was seemingly forbidden prior to McDaniels' arrival. With the right moves around him, the veteran's know-how and a little luck, Jackson can wind down his career in a productive way.