Decision time looming for Jackson

ST. LOUIS – Another season will end for Steven Jackson and the Rams in two weeks. And for the eighth straight year, it won’t include a trip to the playoffs.

Ahead in the next few months will be a fascinating storyline to watch unfold as Jackson decides whether or not to opt out of his contract and become a free agent.

The options are quite simple: Jackson could take the $7 million owed to him and return for the final year of his contract, or he could opt out of the contact, become a free agent and try to find the multi-year deal he desires somewhere else.

Jackson is the heart and sole of a Rams franchise that hasn’t had a winning season since he arrived in 2004. Twice they’ve finished 8-8 and only once have they made the playoffs – in his rookie season in 2004 during the final days of the Great Show on Turf era.

The past eight years have been extremely painful for Rams fans to watch. Knowing they’ve wasted one of the greatest performances in NFL history makes it that much tougher.

Jackson will be a borderline Hall of Famer whenever his career ends. He reached the 10,000 rushing yard mark Sunday, becoming just the 27th player in league history to achieve the feat. Had Jackson spent his career in a larger media market like New York or Dallas, he’d already be considered one of the all-time greats.

And because of this Jackson has a tough decision to make. Does he stay in St. Louis to finish out his career and believe that new coach Jeff Fisher will be able to get the Rams back into the playoffs in the next few seasons? Or does he believe his best chance of winning his first Super Bowl title would be to go somewhere else.

Jackson became just the tenth player to reach 10,000 rushing yards with the same team. But only four players ahead of him on the all-time list spent their entire career with one team. It brings up an interesting dilemma for the Rams’ all-time leading rusher.

Does he want to join Walter Payton (Chicago), Barry Sanders (Detroit), Jim Brown (Cleveland) and Tiki Barber (New York Giants) as the only players in NFL history to reach 10,000 rushing yards and play their entire careers on one team? How much does loyalty and finishing his career where it started mean to him? We’re about to find out.

Asked about his future following Sunday’s home finale – a 36-22 loss that basically eliminated the Rams from playoff contention – Jackson wasn’t ready to commit one way or another.

“I have two games for sure,” Jackson said. “We have a decision to make in the offseason, but I will seek the counsel of some people that I have great respect for and I don’t think about that. I still have two games to do my job and to do it at the way that I play, I need to be completely focused on that.”

Jackson needs just 91 yards in the final two games to become just the sixth player in NFL history to post eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. He’s been durable – playing in at least 12 games in each of his nine seasons – but has seen the Rams go just 43-98-1 with him in St. Louis.

There’s no denying that a player like Jackson deserves better. He deserves a chance to play on a winning team and have a realistic shot to win a Super Bowl. But will that chance come if he stays with the Rams?

Jackson has said on numerous occasions that he hopes to finish his career as a Ram. He reiterated those comments in the days leading up to Sunday’s game when asked if he would think about the possibility of it being his last home game in St. Louis.

“Yes and no,” Jackson said last week. “It will be something that I look forward to dealing with and handling at the end of the year. I’m very optimistic that I’ll finish my career as a Ram. Have I thought about it? Yes, I have.”

Asked if he figured to take in the sights and sounds a little more than usual, Jackson responded last week, “No, I won’t. I won’t because I expect to be back next year.”

The Rams could always decide to release Jackson if they decide he’s not worth the $7 million he’s owed next season. Under that scenario Jackson could either resign a new deal to stay in St. Louis at a lower rate or leave to find greener pastures elsewhere.

Jackson will soon be faced with the biggest decision of his career. And his legacy both within the St. Louis Rams and the NFL depends on it. His chance of winning a Super Bowl could depend on it as well.

What will he decide is most important? We’re about to find out. And it figures to be great theatre.