TSX: Around the League (Part II)

Len Pasquarelli discusses Steven Jackson's injured finger, the impending chaos of free agency, Hall of Fame running back James Henry Johnson, Steelers' good deeds and more.

One-armed bandit
Despite gaining 1,241 yards, the third most of his seven-year NFL tenure, St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson averaged a career-low 3.76 yards per carry in 2010. And general manager Billy Devaney offered some insight into a mark that was nearly six-tenths of a yard less than Jackson's average for his first six seasons. Devaney reminded that Jackson played more than half the season with a broken left ring finger, and two surgical pins in the digit.

"He couldn't stiff-arm anybody, which is a big part of his game ... and he couldn't even switch the ball from one hand to the other," Devaney told The Sports Xchange. "He was basically playing one-handed."

The break, which occurred in the seventh game of the season, was hardly a secret. The extent to which the injury impacted Jackson, though, may have been a bit underplayed. One NFC West linebacker allowed, however, that opponents were "well aware" of Jackson's handicap. In the first seven games of the season, Jackson averaged 4.14 yards per carry and 88.1 yards per game. In the final nine games, playing with the broken finger, those fell to 3.44 yards and 69.3 yards, respectively.

Getting ready
There have been quite a few stories recently about how teams are better prepared for the presumptive start to signing undrafted free agents this year, because scouts have now had considerable time to study the prospects, rather than be subjected to the feeding frenzy that typically ensues when the draft concludes. Here's another twist: Several player agents have told The Sports Xchange in recent days that they have used the "down time" during the lockout to prepare for contract negotiations for their draft prospects by more closely scrutinizing team trends, spending and signing policies, and the habits of the individuals with whom they will be bargaining.

There will be a cluster-fudge to get drafted players under contract once the lockout ends, and the preparatory work taking place now might actually speed the process a bit. Of course, if a rookie wage scale is part of a new CBA, and takes effect immediately, much of the current work being done could be rendered extraneous. Still, it's somewhat heartening to see that some agents are making productive use of this slow time.

Remembering JHJ
Belated condolences to the family of Hall of Fame running back John Henry Johnson. In most appreciation pieces, JHJ was principally recalled as a member of the famed "Million Dollar Backfield" in San Francisco. But, showing our age here, we remember him for the six seasons (1960-65) he spent with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and how he was the primary excuse for plunking down $1 on "Kids Day" at Forbes Field or Pitt Stadium to see Johnson run, particularly his battles with the great Jim Brown.

The two faced each other nine times, and Johnson out-gained Brown on four of those occasions. The late Buddy Parker, then the coach of the Steelers, once described Johnson as "a man who ran mad" and whom he "didn't want to see in an alley." That was pretty much JHJ. But recall this: Johnson played longer for Pittsburgh than for any of the other three franchises that employed him, and the 4,381 yards he gained for the Steelers was roughly four times more than he gained for anyone else.

Good guys
The arrests and run-ins with the law that have taken place during the lockout aside, there have been some terrific stories of public service on the part of NFL players and coaches. One that hasn't garnered much publicity, and actually has been delayed a bit, is the plan by Pittsburgh stars Hines Ward and James Harrison to purchase a home in the Stanton Heights section of the city, and transform it into a youth center.

LB James Harrison
Joe Robbins/Getty

The home has particular meaning in Pittsburgh, because it's the site at which three Pittsburgh policemen were killed in April 2009 while responding to an alleged domestic disturbance call. The shooting deaths of the three officers - Paul Sciullo III, Stephen Mayhle, and Eric Kelly - sent shock waves reverberating through the city.

Recently, a memorial was dedicated to the three in my old Bloomfield neighborhood, which was once home to Sciullo, and residents have had a difficult time getting over the incident. The purchase of the home, by Harrison and Ward, will at least help heal some wounds. Unfortunately, the sale of the home has been delayed by some legal maneuvering by the defense team representing alleged gunman Richard Poplawski. But the two Steelers standouts are to be lauded for their efforts to turn a place of miserable memories into something constructive.

--Teammates with whom he has practiced informally have been impressed by the work ethic, and obviously the physical potential, of Kansas City first-round wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin. The former Pitt standout had the reputation of being a bit of a diva before the draft, but veteran players haven't evidenced any of that with Baldwin so far.
--There's always been a lot written about how Indianapolis seems to lose a linebacker in free agency almost every year. Less attention has been paid to the linebacker exodus in Atlanta, but if Stephen Nicholas exits the Falcons as an unrestricted free agent (think Detroit), it will leave the team will none of the veteran linebackers who were with the club in 2007, the year before coach Mike Smith arrived. Keith Brooking (2009), Michael Boley (2009), and Demorrio Williams (2008) all departed via free agency. Nicholas could be the next to depart, and Mike Peterson is also an unrestricted free agent, although the Falcons could re-sign him.
--There have been at least two agent switches this week by players chosen in the draft only seven weeks ago. Cleveland wide receiver Greg Little, a second-round pick, has gone to Rosenhaus after initially being represented by Octagon. And Buffalo third-round linebacker Kelvin Sheppard apparently has left SportsTrust Advisors, the firm recently created by the merger of veteran agents Pat Dye Jr. and Jimmy Sexton, to sign with a still-unidentified group.
--Devaney is the latest general manager or personnel director to suggest to The Sports Xchange that his department , with the lockout continuing, is deep into work on the 2012 draft.
--Although there's been plenty of chatter of late about the Chicago Bears adding a proven wide receiver, a team source insisted this week that there is no veteran pass-catcher "on the radar" right now.
--A year or two ago, critics of Jeff Backus were lobbying for the Detroit Lions to dump the veteran left tackle. Now, with Backus having played well in 2010 and a dearth of potential replacements, the Lions' brass has made signing him to a contract extension a priority when the lockout ends. Backus, who will be 34 in September, is entering the final season of the six-year, $40 million deal he signed in 2006.
--A couple personnel men whose teams could upgrade at linebacker in free agency this week noted the participation of Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis in drills with his teammates. The six-year veteran has blown out his ACL each of the past two seasons, and appeared in just seven games in that period, but apparently remains of interest to a few clubs.
--Speaking of the Panthers, a few veteran players noted to The Sports Xchange after workouts this week that they are more impressed with Cam Newton's diligence and work ethic than with his accuracy and mechanics.

The last word
"I don't think I'll ever get football 100 percent out of my system. I don't think that will ever happen. Maybe it will. I know I'm going to be a little bit rusty, and I'll be a little bit behind. (But) I feel I can go in and help the team win. ... Since leaving Nebraska, it's been a less-than-stellar professional career, hopping from team to team, league to league, having injuries and uncertainty." - Former Nebraska quarterback and 2001 Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch, upon signing with the Omaha Nighthawks of the UFL, the fourth different professional league in which he has played.

Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.

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