ST. LOUIS --A quarter of the way through the 2013 season, the St. Louis Rams were on pace to be one of the worst rushing teams in the history of the NFL.
After parting ways with veteran Steven Jackson, who posted 1,000-yard seasons like clockwork, in the offseason the Rams insisted they would be able to replace Jackson's production with a variety of options. Daryl Richardson figured to get the first shot with Isaiah Pead waiting in the wings. That plan left the Rams at 1-3, averaging less than 50 yards per game on the ground through the first four weeks.
A dreadful 19 carries for 18 yards as a team against San Francisco in Week 4 left Rams coach Jeff Fisher and his staff looking to get back to their run game roots. At the center of that plan was finding a back capable of carrying the load. Rookie Zac Stacy had one carry in the first four weeks after falling behind because of some injury problems in training camp and the preseason.
Stacy took over as the starter in Week 5 against Jacksonville and never looked back.
"I was given the opportunity and I pretty much just took advantage of it every week," Stacy said. "There’s really no secret sauce to what I’m doing. It all started up front with the offensive line and just being a pro about yourself. Staying an extra hour watching tape, staying an extra hour working on your footwork and craft and stuff like that. That’s one thing I’ve taken from guys like Chris Long, James Laurinaitis. One thing they told me is just be a true pro about yourself. Eat right, take care of your body. Little things like that."
After nearly a decade of relying on Jackson as the workhorse of the offense and running game, the Rams attempted to go to more of a committee approach but Stacy's emergence took them back to the method that had worked in the run game. Stacy handled the bulk of the work from that point forward, finishing with 973 yards on 250 carries and 26 catches for 141 more yards and eight total touchdowns.
For the most part, Stacy was a strong, reliable centerpiece for an offense that was at its best when Stacy was at his best. But that doesn't mean Stacy didn't have his share of struggles in his rookie season.
As teams loaded the box to try to stop the run more and more, Stacy ran into some difficult games. Seattle and Arizona shut Stacy down completely, holding him to 40 yards on 29 carries. He finished the season with an average of just 3.89 yards per carry. He also battled small injuries that never cost him a game but kept him out of games for stretches of time.
Likewise, Stacy's pass protection got better during the season but can use work in that area as well. That's just one example of the details Stacy plans to attack in his first NFL offseason.
"Just doing all the little things," Stacy said. "Getting a better grasp of the playbook from that standpoint. Obviously getting faster, stronger. It’s a long season that I’ve learned from a rookie standpoint. You have got to be able to take care of your body as well. Keep doing all the little things right, from the weight room standpoint, flexibility, all of that stuff."
By the end of the season, Benny Cunningham was the primary backup with Pead next in line and Richardson inactive as he battled injuries all season.
The Rams seem to have plenty of options for the running game, making it unlikely they'll need to spend much in the way of money or draft capital on another back though a speedy complement might be an option. Stacy might not have answered the running game question in full but he appears to have done enough to earn another shot at starting in 2014.