EARTH CITY, Mo. – Upon his departure for Atlanta as a free agent in the offseason, Steven Jackson exited a running-backs room full of talented youngsters who would suddenly have to grow up.
Heading into a matchup with Jackson’s Falcons on Sunday, the jury remains out as to whether the St. Louis Rams have the parts to equal the sum of Jackson’s whole.
Rams coach Jeff Fisher is pleased with where his young backs are in their progression but acknowledged that there’s plenty of work to be done.
“Well, it’s still early,” Fisher said. “The younger backs, obviously, have ability and it’s just going to take time. They’re going to need snaps and reps and plays.”
There is no shortage of opportunities for those younger backs at Rams Park these days. Richardson won the starting job relatively early in camp in a position battle that never really materialized.
Pead remains as the backup and a player the Rams still have high hopes for despite his early struggles with ball security and his one-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Stacy and Cunningham are promising rookies, but Stacy has just one carry to his name, and that’s one more than Cunningham at this point.
In parting ways with Jackson, the Rams figured to join an ever-expanding group of teams leaning on multiple backs rather than one workhorse.
Jackson is one of the last of a dying breed: a back who stays on the field all three downs and is at once the team’s best runner, pass-catcher and pass-protector. It’s a role that is going out of style so fast that Jackson was prepared to retire if a team wasn’t willing to provide him the chance to be the bell cow.
Replacing your all-time leading rusher is tough. Replacing your undisputed leader and finding one or more backs to fill the various roles Jackson did can be even more challenging.
In an ideal world, the Rams could find a piecemeal way to bring everything together and get the type of contributions they need from the position. Richardson would be the slashing, speedy back who gains the yards there to be gained. Stacy would be the pass-protector and short-yardage guy. Pead would work on third downs, picking up the blitz and catching passes out of the backfield. Cunningham would be a sort of X factor capable of doing it all.
That’s what things might look like if everyone turned into what the Rams believe they could be.
Quarterback Sam Bradford is hopeful the process of replacing Jackson can be expedited by the fact that players like Pead and Richardson worked in Jackson’s company for a year.
“I think they’re doing a great job,” Bradford said. “Obviously, it’s tough, ‘Jack’ meant so much to this offense and to this organization while he was here. They got to see the way he approached the game and the way he worked. I think that I’ve seen those guys try to emulate that during the week of practice and in their preparation, and I think they’re doing a really good job of that.”
On his end, Jackson has done what he can to provide guidance for the young backs in St. Louis, even from afar. He and Richardson grew particularly close last year, and the pair stays in touch on a regular basis.
Jackson said he talks to Richardson about more than football, providing tips on how to handle yourself off the field, how to take care of your body, even ways to conduct yourself during interviews with the media.
“It’s those dog days where no one wants to go to practice, no one wants to work, you have to push yourself forward and you have got to view yourself as the engine,” Fisher said. “When guys are down or you have a sluggish practice, you have got to come out running hard to motivate guys to up the ante.”
Someday in the not too distant future, it’s possible, if not probable, that Jackson will return to St. Louis when his career is over.
“We felt like it was in the best interest of everybody involved,” Fisher said. “This way the story ends real good. You’d like to think certainly his jersey’s retired back here whenever he’s done. We just wish him the best. He’s a class guy and was a tremendous leader in the locker room last year.”
Richardson missed Wednesday’s practice with what the Rams' injury report calls a foot ailment. Pead returned from his suspension and was plenty busy in his first practice back. Cunningham and Stacy had their opportunities as well.
Watching practice and seeing so many backs getting chances for carries served as a reminder that sometimes replacing a franchise legend is really difficult job. Sometimes it takes more than one to get it done.