ST. LOUIS — Don’t let all the happy talk fool you.
As cordially and professionally as Steven Jackson and his old team are talking about each other this week, you can be sure there’s some resentment buried beneath all the platitudes.
How could there not be on Jackson’s side? He gave the Rams nine strong years and became the franchise’s all-time leading rusher yet didn’t have a single winning season to show for his efforts. Then comes Jeff Fisher to turn around the franchise and one promising season later, with Jackson set to make $7 million, he is shown the door.
With no proven running backs behind him, the implication had to be as clear to him as to you and me: The Rams didn’t think Jackson, at age 30, was worth the money.
Even though Jackson said more than once that he wanted to retire a Ram and was willing to consider a restructured contract, the two sides never came close to an agreement that would have kept Jackson in blue and gold. Perhaps his demands were overly exorbitant for the Rams but he joined the Falcons for $12 million over three years, not exactly a break-the-bank deal.
But there was Jackson in a conference call with St. Louis media, sidestepping controversy by not quite answering a question about whether a revised deal ever was discussed.
“We talked about just going forward in my career and what were my expectations, what did I want to look for and how did I want to go out ending my career,” Jackson said. “Once we sat down and saw that they were going to allow me to go to the free-agent market, then I left it to the business of my agent.”
Translation: He wasn’t going to beg the Rams to bring him back.
Asked if letting Jackson leave was difficult, Fisher said, “We felt like it was in the best interest of everybody involved. This way the story ends real good.”
Translation: No, it wasn’t.
Fisher is right, of course. This was the best decision for the Rams, who needed to build an offense better suited to Sam Bradford’s skills. Jackson, meantime, said he actually considered retirement but was pleased to land on a Super Bowl contender after all those years of losing.
And now, days before facing the team that sent him packing, he says he’ll approach it like any other game.
“Of course I want to get the win but I have to come out there and just remain in the zone, in my focus and not get too up,” he said. “When you allow emotions to take over, your wind becomes short, you’re not on you’re A-game. So I have to remind myself to stay in control. Have the intensity I normally play with but dial-in and treat this game as if it’s one I’m preparing and have done over the years.”
“He’ll be hungry,” defensive end Chris Long said. “I think they’ll feed him the rock a lot.”
“Steven is going to be ready to roll,” cornerback Cortland Finnegan said.
“We all know how it is when you play against your old team,” added linebacker Will Witherspoon.
Beating his old team isn’t the only motivation for Jackson, either. In Atlanta’s opening 23-17 loss at New Orleans, he couldn’t catch a last-minute pass just short of the goal line that could have given the Falcons a victory. Falling to 0-2 at home against the Rams would border on disaster in a place where hopes are so high.
Jackson led the Falcons with 77 yards rushing on 11 carries against the Saints but he no longer has to shoulder such a heavy load on the field or in the locker room. The Falcons feature Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan, a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in Roddy White and Julio Jones and a future Hall of Famer in tight end Tony Gonzalez. Jackson says he is just trying to fit in.
“I’ve really taken on that role of just sitting back, allowing the guys to continue to operate the way they have over the years,” he said. “If I see a need to step up and say something, especially to the offensive line, that’s when I’ll step in and take my leadership role. But other than that, I’ve just actually fallen back and taken on being a follower.”
He still is in contact with many of his ex-teammates, notably his successor at running back, Daryl Richardson. As he did last year when Richardson was a rookie, Jackson continues to offer a veteran’s guidance.
“I talk to him mainly about how to handle being a pro and what that entails being on the field and off the field,” Jackson said.
Part of that, Jackson said, is showing the way at practice.
“It’s that dog days that no one wants to practice that you have to push yourself through and kind of mirror yourself as an engine,” he said. “When guys are down or you’re having a sluggish practice, you’ve got to come out running hard to motivate guys, to up the ante.”
In all his years with the Rams, one worry Jackson never had in practice was being hit too hard. To preserve his body, he always was off-limits.
“Steven never went live because you wanted him healthy for your ball club,” Laurinaitis said. “You’d find yourself getting fired if you take him down and hurt him before the games.”
Laurinaitis has seen enough of the 6-2, 243-pound Jackson to know that tackling him won’t be easy.
“He’s a big man,” Laurinaitis said. “Bigger than me, bigger than (linebacker Alec) Ogletree, bigger than all of us.
“Steven Jackson anytime is a tough guy to bring down.”
Expect him to be even tougher on Sunday, no matter how nicely he talks about his old team beforehand.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.