Jackson a keeper

The 49ers didn't make any big moves over the weekend in free agency, but they made the right one in re-signing Terry Jackson. The two-year deal that brings back Jackson to San Francisco might not make headlines across the NFL, but his return to the Niners is the kind of thing that can help hold a young team together.

It was heavily speculated in recent months that Jackson wouldn't be asked back for his seventh season with the 49ers due to salary concerns and the belief that the team could easily replace him with a younger, cheaper running back.

But that would be missing the point with Jackson.

He's much more than just a versatile backup who can play both fullback and tailback positions. He's also the team's valued special teams captain and – perhaps most significantly – a leadership presence in the locker room.

Like several 49ers veterans last season, the brewing disgust of the team's 2004 nosedive could be seen in Jackson's face as the season progressed. Like the stoic veteran he is, Jackson refused to make waves or point fingers, but he did tell SFI after the season, "I think there's a lot of talent on this team. But, obviously, you would like to get it cultivated a little more."

It was easy to read between those lines as Jackson had the foresight that big changes would be coming in the team's coaching structure. What he didn't know then is if, as an impending unrestricted free agent, he would be asked back after those changes took place.

"Obviously, they want to get better here," Jackson said. "Nobody likes the situation we were in this (past) season. It was difficult. I mean, any time you lose, it's difficult. I mean, in Little League it's difficult to lose. As a veteran, you're out here to win games for your teammates, the fans and for everybody. A football game is a game of inches, and we just didn't make plays in critical situations, and that's the difference between winning the extra four or five games that we didn't (in 2004)."

Jackson can be counted on to make plays in countless situations. Rebounding last year from two injury-plagued seasons in which he didn't carry the football, Jackson was third on the team with 101 yards rushing on 26 attempts last year as a third-down back – second only to his career-high 138 yards rushing with the Niners in 2001. He also was sixth on the team with a career-high 21 receptions for 139 yards.

But Jackson's biggest impact, as usual, came on special teams, where he ranked second on the 49ers with 17 tackles. This is nothing new for Jackson, who had a career-high 22 special teams tackles in 2003. He was second on the team with 21 special teams tackles in 2001 after leading the team with 19 special teams tackles in 2000.

Jackson generated some interest on the open market because of his prowess on special teams, but when the new 49ers coaching regime showed genuine interest in him returning to San Francisco, he was quick to go forward and get a deal done with the team that drafted him in the fifth round of the 1999 draft.

Though the Niners are looking for another tailback to groom behind incumbent starter Kevan Barlow, Jackson's role likely will remain the same as it always has been with the team – that is, a special teams stalwart who also can be called upon in a pinch in the offensive backfield. The Niners may consider asking Jackson to concentrate more again on fullback, his primary position with the Niners when he entered the league.

Regardless of where Jackson fits into the offense, the 49ers have taken a big step in securing one of their best veteran players in one of the few areas where the team had some success last year. The team's relentless review of 2004 game film during the past month obviously revealed that Jackson was the glue that held together those specialty units.

Despite the 49ers' struggles last year, Jackson is confident a turnaround can happen fast, and he's excited to be part of it.

"I mean, I think a position here or there, a play here or there, and it's a totally different season," Jackson said. "I don't think we just need to totally overhaul everything. I think a position here or there, a play here or there (goes) differently in the season and we have a chance to make the playoffs, just like every other team in this league. I think I can help this team, and I know they're doing their best to make things turn around. I think the potential is there."

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