For general manager Billy Devaney, the similarity between a certain baseball Hall of Fame outfielder and the St. Louis Rams' star running back goes considerably beyond just their shared surname.
"I like to say he is our Reggie Jackson," Devaney told The Sports Xchange in speaking of St. Louis tailback Steven Jackson. "He's the straw that stirs our drink. Even with the great, young quarterback (second-year veteran Sam Bradford), he is our (offensive) centerpiece. Steven is so vital to what we do."
Although Steven Jackson isn't nearly as flamboyant as Reggie Jackson, or as volatile at times in the clubhouse or as consistent a burr under the saddles of reporters, the analogy is understandable. Except for these two significant things: Reggie Jackson was "Mr. October," and Steven Jackson has actually delivered big plays for the Rams in all four months of the regular season, having rushed for 140 or more yards at least one outing each in September, October, November and December, since he became a full-time starter in 2005.
Sadly, unlike Reggie Jackson, who was a five-time World Series champion, Steven Jackson has yet to ever appear as a starter in a playoff game, let alone participate in a Super Bowl.
That is, of course, a resume void that the Rams hope to address in coming years. To do so, however, St. Louis might have to finally locate a reliable No. 2 runner who can shoulder some of Jackson's estimable workload.
And Devaney is acutely aware of that.
"Let's just say we're looking to develop players and depth at every position ... and running back is certainly one of them," Devaney said. "We're still a work in progress. But so far, at that position, we've done a pretty lousy job of it."
Over much of the past six seasons, which corresponds to his tenure as a starter, Jackson hasn't been just an Everyman for the Rams; he's been more like an Only Man on offense. That changed dramatically last season, with the emergence of Bradford, the top overall selection in the 2010 draft. But even with Bradford, the league's offensive rookie of the year and a guy who completed 60 percent of his attempts while throwing for over 3,500 yards, Jackson still logged 35.7 percent of the St. Louis offensive "touches."
That was slightly ahead of Jackson's impressive aggregate quota, 32.9 percent, for the previous five years.
Even with Bradford aboard, along with an improved receiving corps (although the Rams arguably still require a deep threat), Jackson may be as indispensible to the St. Louis offense as nearly any player in the league.
In August 2008, the Rams signed Jackson to a six-year, $44.8 million contract, and they've been getting their money's worth from the lucrative deal.
Since 2005, Jackson has logged more than three-quarters of the Rams' rushes (77.1 percent to be exact), excluding non-running backs and quarterbacks. Not since '08 has another St. Louis back registered more than 34 carries in a season. It was 2007 when a St. Louis back other than Jackson rushed for 300 yards. In Jackson's six seasons as the starter, the Rams have had another back carry 50 times or more just thrice. The team has also had another back post more than 250 yards only three times.
Jackson has scored all but four of the Rams' 47 rushing touchdowns by backs since 2005. He has accounted for nearly one-third, 50 of 159, of the team's total offensive touchdowns in that period. Even counting non-backs, no St. Louis player has rushed for more than two touchdowns since Jackson moved into the starting lineup.
In a league in which the multiple-tailback model has flourished of late, Jackson has pretty much defined the term "workhorse." And while Devaney emphasized that Jackson has displayed no discernable talent erosion despite being about only six weeks shy of his 28th birthday, and has diligently worked on conditioning and shape throughout his career, the Rams' general manager acknowledged the seven-year veteran could use some assistance.
Jackson has never publicly chafed about his workload, but in his six seasons as a starter, he has had 375 or more "touches" three times, and he has averaged 24.1 "touches" per start. Reducing those numbers, Devaney conceded, will keep him fresh and could prolong Jackson's career.
The Rams have missed out on a few veterans in free agency the past several years. They didn't take a back in this year's draft, although they targeted a few in the third round and later, because, Devaney noted, they steadfastly followed their board and weren't given to the temptation to "reach" for a runner.
Since selecting Jackson with the 24th overall pick in 2004, the Rams have taken only three runners, and one of those, Madison Hedgecock, a seventh-rounder in 2007, was a fullback. Another, Brian Leonard, a second-round choice in 2007, was more a tailback-fullback combination player. After two seasons, the former Rutgers star was traded to Cincinnati in 2009. The third was a seventh-round pick.
There are four other tailbacks currently on the roster, including one practice squad and one injured reserve player, but the quartet totals just one regular-season start in 80 games, 115 carries, and 471 yards. None of the four has ever registered more than 34 carries or 152 yards in a season. Second-year veteran Keith Toston, an undrafted free agent who carried 19 times for 54 yards as a rookie during 2010, did flash some promise, Devaney said.
There have been unsubstantiated rumors linking the Rams to some potential free agent backs (Darren Sproles, Cadillac Williams) or players who might be available in trades (Steve Slaton), but the lockout rules preclude Devaney from addressing any such veteran possibilities.
Clearly, the addition of Bradford, and the continued development of the receivers, along with the anticipated return of deep threat Donnie Avery, who missed all of last season, and a the design of new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels should help. But it's difficult to win in the NFL anymore without a second, viable back.
In each of the past two seasons, only one of the 12 playoff teams did not have a second back with 50 carries or 240 or more yards. In Jackson's six years as a starter, just six of 72 postseason qualifiers did not have such a complementary back. There were never more than two teams in that stretch without solid No. 2 backs.
Of course, saying a team is going to address a lopsided workload at tailback and doing it, are two different things. When the New York Jets, for instance, selected LaMont Jordan in the 2001 draft, then-coach Herm Edwards insisted the addition was made in large part to take some carries from Curtis Martin's huge quota. Every year, it seemed, Edwards made the same promise, and every season the time-sharing plan fizzled.
In the four years they shared on the New York roster, Martin averaged 322.0 carries and Jordan averaged 65.6.
Still, Devaney seems pretty intent on having a No. 2 tailback, whether developing him internally or going outside the organization, who averages 6-8 "touches" per game in 2011.
"Obviously, it's become a two-back league, and we know that," Devaney said. "As good as Steven has been, sure, we'd like to have someone who could take some of the (workload) off him."
And perhaps allow Jackson a chance to contend for "Mr. January" honors at some point in his career.
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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