St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher recently affirmed Daryl Richardson's status as the team's starting halfback. Isaiah Pead, Zac Stacy and undrafted rookie Bennie Cunningham are among those competing for the backup job. Steven Jackson is long gone after posting eight consecutive seasons with at least 1,000 yards rushing.
We pick up the discussion from there.
Mike Sando: I just saw Steven Jackson listed as a 66-1 shot for MVP honors this season. Every story out of Atlanta suggests he's primed for huge season. You and I know soft-tissue injuries will be a threat there. As much as anyone with a heart wants Jackson to go out on top, there were reasons the Rams let him hit the market. They wanted to move on with younger, more explosive players and they weren't going to pay $7 million for Jackson. That all makes sense in theory, but should the reality at running back in St. Louis worry Rams fans?
2012 Rams Rushing Leaders
Nick Wagoner: Jackson was such an important piece of the team in terms of leadership and all the fact that he was well rounded enough to stay on the field for all three downs. Obviously, the Rams wanted to go with a shift in offensive philosophy to move away from a power running game to add more game breaking speed to the offense. They were tied for 30th in the league last year in "quick strike drives" (touchdown drives of four plays or less). They clearly want to see that number change and those big, breakaway runs were the one thing Jackson didn't bring to the table.
Sando: The offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer, defines explosive plays as runs covering at least 10 yards and passes covering at least 20. Jackson ranked 13th in the NFL with 27 runs of at least 10 yards. Richardson had 11. The rate was 10.5 percent for Jackson and 11.2 percent for Richardson -- not a big difference at all. Richardson averaged 4.9 yards per carry overall. The figure was 4.1 for Jackson. I'll be interested in seeing how additional carries will affect Richardson's per-play averages.
Wagoner: The 10-yard runs are a decent barometer but I think the Rams are thinking bigger with Richardson. He brings a more explosive element and had three of the team's four longest runs in a much smaller sample size in 2012. Having Richardson as the starter meshes much better with the offensive personality the Rams are trying to build but it doesn't mean they're all set there. He's still largely unproven and though he had a solid rookie season, he hit a wall near the end of the year and had some ball security issues at times as well. I still tend to think the other backs on the roster will get their share of time, don't you?
2012 Rams Yards Per Carry by Down
Sando: Yes, I would think so, but how well the backs play is going to dictate that, and it's tough to envision the team relying on Pead or Stacy much based on what those players have shown thus far. Does the team still expect great things from Pead?
Wagoner: It would seem that expectations for Pead have been tempered but he also really hasn't had much of an opportunity yet, either. Granted, his ball security issues have been a big reason for that but at this point, the Rams really don't know what they have with Pead or any of the others. Stacy has been banged up the past couple of weeks and missed out on some chances to get valuable work. Undrafted rookie Benny Cunningham might end up being a factor, especially if he can bring some added value as a kick returner. You'd have to think that finding someone you can trust to pick up blitzes will play into all of this too. That's one area where Pead has been pretty good in preseason.
Sando: A team isn't going to hit on every draft choice and it's too early to render judgment on Pead after one season, but a team relying so heavily on young draft choices needs those young draft choices to contribute. Richardson is one of those recent draft choices. The praise Fisher has heaped upon him recently is consistent with the Rams' actions. They were OK letting Jackson go. They were OK waiting til the later rounds before taking Stacy. They shrugged upon learning Pead would serve a one-game suspension. Now, if the team runs out and gets a veteran back, that will be telling. For now, though, Fisher seems content with what he has even though most of us aren't sure what that will be.
Steven Jackson Yards Per Carry
Wagoner: I suppose history tells us that teams can get contributions from running backs in all shapes and sizes from all kinds of different backgrounds. In Tennessee, Fisher used to spend premium draft choices on backs and it usually worked out with guys like Eddie George, Chris Johnson and, at least for a while, LenDale White. The value of running backs isn't what it used to be but it's interesting that a Fisher team could have a stable of backs with only Pead as a relatively high draft choice.
Sando: I've enjoyed watching Schottenheimer and Fisher defy their reputations. They have essentially bet big on Bradford and built a pass-oriented team around him. And they are trusting their eyes on Richardson, who has already exceeded reasonable expectations.
Wagoner: It's definitely going to make for a fascinating watch this year, even if it doesn't all come together right away or even in 2013 at all.