ST. LOUIS – The man with an unknown future carried on without a care in the world.
A huddle broke to close the St. Louis Rams’ practice Wednesday, and Steven Jackson walked toward the locker room with a helmet in his left hand. Little about the moment was a surprise: There was the same grin from the ninth-year veteran as he chatted with defensive end William Hayes; there was the same personality as big as his 6-foot-2, 240-pound frame; and there was the same poise that comes with seven consecutive seasons with at least 1,000 yards rushing. This was Jackson in full view: Driven on the field and devoted off it.
With time, he moved past a door, his demeanor typical but his situation uncommon. Thursday afternoon marks the NFL trade deadline. The 29-year-old has been mentioned as a possibility for a number of teams curious to see how much tread the workhorse running back has left: Arizona Cardinals, Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers are reportedly among them. Much seems uncertain, though the Rams insist they’re not looking to deal.
“The Steven Jackson rumors are rumors,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said Tuesday. “He’s our running back. We’re not calling around nor are we getting calls, for that matter. So I’ll put that to rest.”
Even if that’s the case – even if Jackson remains with St. Louis past Thursday – it’s easy to recognize a trend suggesting a foggy future. In October, it was announced that he could opt out of his contract after the season. The news continued a pattern of the Rams remaking themselves under Fisher and first-year general manager Les Snead. The proof is found in cold, hard numbers: St. Louis opened with 17 rookies and about 60 percent roster turnover; the Rams entered Week 1 as the NFL’s youngest team with an average age of 25.32.
Time never waits. In a perfect world, Jackson would retire with the Rams, the team that drafted him 24th overall as the heir apparent to Marshall Faulk. He has shared that desire many times this season, including after a Week 5 victory over the Cardinals. He has the right to want such a result after earning a franchise-best 9,496 rushing yards with 53 touchdowns.
But Jackson is an example of an NFL career’s fragility. This is a business above all, one that’s blind to emotion and sentimental value. It’s the same one that made Emmitt Smith finish the last two seasons of a 15-year career with the Cardinals. It’s the same one that sent Peyton Manning to the Rocky Mountains after 14 years in Indianapolis. It’s the same one that creates questions about the Rams’ cornerstone player through an abysmal stretch, a lost era that has failed to produce a postseason berth for the past seven campaigns.
“It would be tough as far as a leadership standpoint,” Rams tight end Lance Kendricks said of Jackson possibly leaving. “On and off the field, I think we definitely need that identity on the team. Hopefully, there is no rumor. Hopefully, he’s staying right here, and we come back to work on Tuesday (next week), and we’re all good to go. Hopefully, we’ll have him here.”
Many others in the locker room want to have him too. But look around, and it’s hard not to notice an evolution under way. Rookie running backs Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson dress as Jackson cracks with veteran safety Quintin Mikell from about 15 feet away. There’s promise in youth. In time, always and forever, the old fades.
Once, Jackson was on the other side. He entered the league as a brash player out of Oregon State. There was friction early with Faulk, with one player setting as the other prepared to rise.
Time smoothed the relationship’s rough edges – Jackson even served as a “roaster” during a roast and toast of the former rusher before Faulk was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last year – but Jackson can relate to ambitious young talents. He can relate to someone eager for a sprint into the spotlight. He can relate to the hunger.
Even so, it’s hard to measure what will be lost when Jackson leaves, whenever that day is. His imprint goes beyond what’s captured in column inches or what’s seen on Sundays. Ask teammates about him, and a uniformity is found in their responses: Labels like “consistent” and “lead by example” are as common as Sam Bradford slot passes to Danny Amendola around these parts. It’s obvious he’s trusted.
“He’s one of the best types of leaders, because he’s a leader by example,” Rams defensive end Chris Long said. “He comes to work every day like he’s a rookie, and he’s trying to prove himself. … He’s just always a consistent guy since I’ve been in the league – respected, works hard, plays at a very, very high level and treats his teammates with respect. That’s usually a formula for people following you.”
True. But how much longer will people follow him in St. Louis?
Jackson carries the rushing load this season, but he’s not alone in the lift like in past years. Richardson has established himself as a capable No. 2 option, standing second on the team with 335 yards to Jackson’s 403. Perhaps a transition to the post-SJ39 era has already begun. Perhaps a move forward is seen each time the rookie scatback crouches in the backfield, an ember compared to Jackson’s flame. Perhaps this is part of the process.
Perhaps this is too: Richardson, a cream-colored towel wrapped around his waist, standing near his stall late Wednesday afternoon talking about Jackson’s influence. The veteran approached the rookie on Richardson’s first day with the Rams and said, simply, “Anything you need, just holler at me.”
“It would be real big,” Richardson said of the void left behind if Jackson were to leave. “I’m a pretty focused guy, but he keeps me more focused just watching somebody who has been doing it for nine years as a professional. He’s been doing it for a long time. It has just been a great experience getting to know him and getting to watch him. … I’m young – this is my first year. He’s going on his ninth year. There’s going to be a point in time where we can’t play football forever.”
Richardson’s voice trailed off. All beginnings, at some point, reach their end.
It remains to be seen how much more time Jackson has left with the Rams.