ATLANTA – On Friday the Atlanta Falcons introduced new starting running back Steven Jackson and if the organization were looking for the most compelling spokesman it could find to persuade doubters that they have a championship-caliber offense, Jackson would be their man.
The confident and quotable Jackson said that the Falcons – with talented players who will be all around him in the form of quarterback Matt Ryan, tight end Tony Gonzalez and wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White – were his most desired destination.
“Winning is most important,” the two-time Associated Press All-Pro said. “I believe this will be a great chance for me to finish out my career with an opportunity of doing some special things and putting an exclamation point to what I’ve accomplished so far in St. Louis.”
With the decision by Gonzalez not to retire but to re-sign with the Falcons, the re-signing of left tackle Sam Baker and now the inking of Jackson, the Falcons clearly have a powerhouse offense – even better than the one that brought them to the NFC Championship Game, in which they fell just 10 yards short of a victory against San Francisco, 28-24.
Thus, the big questions remain on defense. After Jackson’s signing of a three-year deal worth $12 million, the Falcons have $5.2 remaining left in cap room. As of Friday, they lacked a starting right defensive end and a starting right cornerback.
That means unless they can get players at those positions at a discount in free agency, they almost certainly will have to concentrate on those areas at the next month’s draft.
But for the organization, Friday was about celebrating the addition of another top-flight offensive piece, one who should be a better fit in offensive coordinator’s Dirk Koetter’s pass-oriented scheme and who has still functioned near peak level. And for those who might doubt whether Jackson still has enough left in the tank, he attempted to erase all doubts. His 4.1 yards per carry in 2012 was only one tenth of a yard lower than his career average.
“Well, the ball doesn’t get heavier as you carry it, so…,” said Jackson, who has 2,395 carries and 10,135 yards to his credit. “The carries and the yardage — the way I train, the way I keep up with myself, I don’t believe it’s going to have an effect – at all. My three-year commitment to this city, to this organization I look to keep on going pretty strong the whole time I’m here.”
In comparison, former Falcons running back Michael Turner, only about a year older than Jackson and whom the team cut on March 1 because of diminishing effectiveness combined with a big contract, had 1,639 carries in his career for 7,338 yards. In truth, Turner did not always keep himself in top shape, something he attested to after a subpar 2009 season.
NFL running backs like Turner and Jackson take a pounding and, increasingly, the trend is that they have become disposable. Such circumstances almost persuaded Jackson to retire – one of the revelations of his press conference at owner Arthur Blank’s palatial family offices in the Buckhead section of the city.
“I was more undecided about maybe retiring,” Jackson said in response to a question about why it took him two days to pick his destination after the start of free agency on Tuesday and after reportedly visiting Green Bay. “I really considered that.”
He said he reconsidered when he thought about how much he had accomplished as an individual but so little in a team sense. He had only played in the playoffs as a rookie, a blow-out loss, coincidentally, to the Falcons in 2004.
“It’s hard to get a winning season,” he said. “I can tell you that.”
But he elected not drag it out his decision in the media.
“I was torn about, ‘Do I continue to play football or do I retire?’” he said. “That was one thing I admire about Barry Sanders.”
Jackson offered kind words to the city of St. Louis, saying he would continue to focus on charitable efforts in education, and the Rams’ ownership that drafted him and kept him over the years. But he also expressed affection for his new city.
He has an aunt who lives in the Atlanta area and said he was at her home watching the NFC Championship Game, which was played at the Georgia Dome against his former NFC West Division rival 49ers.
Jackson said the experience was “gut-wrenching.”
“I was watching it through professional eyes, but watching it with Atlanta Falcons fans,” he said.
Jackson said White, the Falcons’ four-time Pro-Bowl receiver, was a friend. He said they have exchanged text messags but had not communicated much otherwise, as White is in Africa with a few other NFL receivers, including new 49er Anquan Boldin. Jackson also said that he has known Falcons back-up running back Jacquizz Rodgers, who, like Jackson, played at Oregon State, since Rodgers was a teenager.
Some had wondered whether Jackson would mind taking a smaller role in the Falcons’ offense. He said that he would not, but that that had nothing to do with his personal connection with Rodgers.
“I took great pride about being the bell cow, the one guy you always depend on,” he said, “and I’ve learned over the years that you do need other guys on your team to be successful in this league and to be another tool in the toolbox is quite all right with me.”