Steven Jackson is a physical presence to behold on the football field. The key, however, is keeping him on the field.
Jackson has endured injuries across the past three seasons, mostly of the soft tissue variety. He's had a groin strain here, a quadriceps strain there. Each injury has forced him to miss a few weeks of playing time, also known as an eternity in fantasy football. In 2009, Jackson suffered through the pain associated with a herniated disc in his low back. He missed only one game, but the effects of the injury were manifest in several others. After the symptoms did not resolve with rest and rehabilitation, Jackson underwent back surgery in mid-April.
Specifically, Jackson underwent a procedure called microdiscectomy, which involves removing the offending disc fragment while minimally disturbing all the other protective tissues (muscles, ligaments, bone) in the area. The goal is to relieve pressure from the nerve root that is causing pain and potentially weakness into the leg. Typical recovery and return to full activity is approximately six to eight weeks, but Jackson's particular line of work is anything but typical. Jackson had to restore his physical strength to the point where he could power through the hole, burst down the field and absorb physical contact (including getting pushed, pulled and twisted) of the NFL variety.
Jackson has indeed been taking more than his fair share of contact over the past few years. He has endured the types of blows a bruising back is expected to face when pounding the ball for a 100-plus-yard average per game. But he also has been the victim of a less-than-stellar offensive line that has been injury plagued in its own right. Without a complementary back to shoulder the load in St. Louis, Jackson has been responsible for the bulk of the work, often in the absence of solid blocking support, and the physical toll has been undeniable.
So, following something as serious as back surgery, what did Jackson do to physically prepare himself for the upcoming season? He started by adjusting his workout regimen. Jackson said, "During the month of July, I kind of ratcheted up the weight training portion of it. I was lifting twice a day, morning and evening. Then I would do my conditioning in between the two weights exercises." He explained how the difference in training has affected his muscle development. Said Jackson, "Years previous, I would run twice and lift once. So that [the new regimen] allowed me to put on a little more muscle." Jackson added that he also has adjusted his diet to include "more healthy protein." According to Jackson, cutting back on carbs has allowed him to "build the muscle up that I think I need for the season."
For those who are wondering what visible effects these adjustments might be having on Jackson, there is one thing I can attest to after seeing him at the Rams' training camp: The man is in amazing shape. Jackson always has been a physical presence as a running back, standing 6-foot-2 and weighing more than 240 pounds. In particular, he's been very strong in his lower half, making him better able to use his hips and legs to drive through would-be tacklers and drag them along for extra yards. The difference now is in his upper body mass. While Jackson has always maintained excellent physical conditioning, he now appears equally intimidating up top as he has through his legs. The increased strength through his arms and torso is evident and is just as likely to help him dish out punishment as absorb it.
It's certainly one thing to come into camp in great shape and feeling good, but how does Jackson stay healthy? The first step is not to do too much too soon. To that end, Jackson's activity in camp was limited early. As he progressively showed he could handle increased physical contact, it was allowed, but even that was controlled. According to Jackson, the entire structure of camp has changed to ensure that players are fresh to start the regular season. Jackson noted that last year the team "felt like we were sluggish and tired, beat up still from training camp." And this year? "I can really see that [Rams' coach Steve Spagnuolo] made a concerted effort to make sure we still play physical football," Jackson said, "but he's made sure that we still are going to be able to go out and compete at a fast tempo."
Jackson saw his first competitive action this past Saturday but was limited to four carries. Those four carries produced 20 yards of offense, proving the significance of his presence on the field. Jackson seemed pleased with his first effort. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jackson described what it felt like to get back into competition. "It felt good to get out there with the first unit, the starting offensive line and have us start to work on the chemistry and the tempo of the game," Jackson said. "It felt really good just to get my feet wet and get banged [around] a little bit."
Jackson is not entirely out of the woods. There is always the possibility of a recurrence of disc problems following surgery. It can just as easily come during or after some benign activity, such as a long car or plane ride, as it can during or after physical activity. Jackson's best counterattack is to maintain excellent physical conditioning and avoid unnecessary strain. He is certainly doing his part to keep himself healthy and hopes the Rams' offensive line will be able to contribute in that department.
Maintaining a healthy front five is important both in terms of creating holes for Jackson to run through as well as limiting the physical abuse he takes from one play to the next. The final ingredient in keeping Jackson healthy, however, might be the one thing that is totally out of his control. Jackson spoke about how important it was for the Rams to have their offensive line working as a complete unit. "Now the thing is not to only get us on the field together, but to get us to work together and stay healthy through the duration of a season," Jackson said. "I don't know how long it's been since we've had a starting O-line to start a season and complete it. I would think that's the biggest goal for us, and make sure that our five guys up front stay healthy and play together the whole season."
Fantasy owners might not always be focused in on the members of the offensive line, but their role in keeping Steven Jackson healthy and on the field just might make them household names this fall.