Decision time has arrived for Rams’ Jackson

ST. LOUIS – Steven Jackson has yet to see a winning season since he joined the Rams as a first-round draft pick in 2004. And he’s not looking to leave just as they appear to be on the cusp of turning things around.

Jackson confirmed to reporters this week that he and the Rams plan to meet in the near future to decide what’s next for the franchise’s all-time leading rusher. Jackson has one year and $7 million remaining on his contract but has the option to opt out of the deal and become a free agent.

“We are definitely going to sit down,” Jackson said. “I would hate to watch this organization go on and be successful, which I believe they will, without me. I want to be a part of that.”

The powerful, physical Jackson became just the sixth player in NFL history to have eight consecutive seasons of at least 1,000 rushing yards in 2012. Four of the others are already in the NFL Hall of Fame and the fifth is not yet eligible.

Jackson also surpassed the 10,000 career-rushing yards mark in 2012, becoming just the 27th player in NFL history to achieve the feat. He’s just the tenth player to have at least 10,000 rushing yards with one team.

But only four – Walter Payton (Chicago), Barry Sanders (Detroit), Jim Brown (Cleveland) and Tiki Barber (New York Giants) – have rushed for at least 10,000 yards and spent their entire career with one team. The possibility exists for Jackson to become the fifth.

Because he’s been hidden in St. Louis on such terrible Rams teams during his career, a case could be made that Jackson is one of the most underrated players in NFL history. He will no-doubt be a borderline Hall of Famer whenever his career ends but had he played in a larger media market like New York or Dallas, he’d likely be a shoe-in.

The Rams won three or fewer games in four of the past five seasons prior to 2012. But new coach Jeff Fisher made an immediate impact, using a strong draft class and reworked roster to lead them to a 7-8-1 record. Competing for a playoff spot next year seems like a reasonable goal.

And now Jackson must decide whether or not he wants to stay in St. Louis and see the full turnaround through. He could elect free agency and sign with the Packers or Patriots and all but guarantee himself his first playoff appearance since his rookie season. Or he could put his faith in Fisher and the direction the Rams are heading and return to finish his career in St. Louis and cement his status as one of the franchise greats.

“The tides have turned around here,” Jackson said. “The feeling is different. Last year at this time we were full of uncertainty of what direction we would go but coach Fisher came in right away and made an impact, bringing in guys like Cortland (Finnegan) and our rookie guys like (Michael) Brockers and (Janoris) Jenkins. Those guys are going to be around here for a while and that’s going to help turn this franchise around.”

The Rams obviously have to decide whether or not they want to pay Jackson $7 million next year and could decide to either release the nine-year veteran or rework his contract and sign him to an extension. All indications are that the Rams want him back.

Asked recently about Jackson, Fisher said, “I think everybody in the building would like to have him back. It’s just a matter of us sitting down and working things out.”

Rumors swirled near the trade deadline in October that the Rams may look to move the former All-Pro running back to try and stock draft picks and allow him to experience greener pastures elsewhere. But the Rams hung on to Jackson and were rewarded down the stretch.

Jackson rushed for at least 70 yards in five of the final eight games. He had two 100-yard rushing games in a span of three weeks against San Francisco and Arizona in November and reached 1,000 yards in the finale game Sunday in Seattle.

The former Oregon State star rushed for 403 yards in the first eight games of the season and 639 yards in the final eight. Anyone questioning what the 29-year-old had left in the tank were given a strong answer: plenty.

“I don’t have a timeline as far as a decision,” Jackson said. “We’ll sit down with the organization as soon as possible. The organization has to do their due diligence on deciding where they want to go with the roster and we have to sit down on our end and make sure were crossing our t’s and dotting our i’s but both sides have agreed to sit down and I expect it to happen soon.”

Asked about his level of confidence in the Rams going forward, Jackson said, “I’ve been a part of some teams that we thought were going to turn the tide around, but this is the best I’ve felt about a head coach. I have a lot of respect and great confidence in coach Fisher.”

As someone who was drafted by the Rams and has played his entire career in St. Louis, having a chance to choose his next destination could be exciting to a player such as Jackson. He disagreed, hinting again at a desire to remain in St. Louis.

“What’s exciting is being a part of something that was dead and being a part of it being alive again,” Jackson said. “That’s exciting.”

So the Rams will meet with one of their all-time greats in the near future and decide if they can reach an agreement to keep fan-favorite and team MVP in St. Louis for 2013 and the rest of his career.

And both sides seem serious about making it happen.

“I think certain guys, you just can’t imagine them in another uniform,” Jackson said. “And I don’t think I or anyone else can imagine me in a different uniform as well.”