Remember football in 2002? It was the age of the dominant running back. Players like Priest Holmes, Ricky Williams, Shaun Alexander, Clinton Portis, and LaDainian Tomlinson were lighting up the scoreboard at a ridiculous rate. The New England Patriots only had one Super Bowl run with Bill Belichick. Rich Gannon was a Pro Bowl quarterback with the Oakland Raiders. Eric Moulds was relevant. Look how far we’ve come.
It’s very rare to be able to travel back in time 10 years and still see some of the same names in today’s NFL. Even in the coaching category, most of the names are no longer the same. It’s especially surprising when you consider the short tenures of Raheem Morris, Lane Kiffin and Mike Singletary. One coach who was there in 2002 that is still coaching at the pro level 10 years later is Jeff Fisher. Fisher is a coaches coach. Many former NFL players turned commentators refer to Fisher as the second-best coach in football behind only Bill Belichick. Looking at how long Fisher’s run with the Tennessee Titans was (16 years), I’d have to say that history supports that statement.
The seasoned coach is in a new situation for the first time in a very long time in 2012. One might say, a “Fish-er” out of water. But just because he’s in a new city doesn’t mean he’s going to suddenly change his mentality. It has worked too well for too long to adjust or tweak. Fisher will go ahead and continue with the philosophy that has worked for him for more than a decade: pound the rock. Fisher’s offenses have turned out some pretty great running back statistics. Guys as talented as Chris Johnson to no-name guys like Chris Brown to complete messes like LenDale White or Travis Henry have found success with Fisher.
Now that Fisher is calling the shots in St. Louis, it’s time for Steven Jackson to give it a go. Jackson is a physical beast. He’s an elite veteran who has proven that he is an every down, workhorse back. In comparison to the previously mentioned Tennessee backs, though, he’s a completely different player. He’s not as agile as Chris Johnson, he’s not the surprise player like Brown, and he’s not the conundrum that LenDale White was. The back most comparable to Steven Jackson, who has experience playing in Fisher’s offense, would be the great Eddie George.
George’s style of play is amazingly similar to that of Jackson. Everything seems to match up in regards to build, speed, strength and experience. Many experts are arguing that Jackson is set to fall apart here in 2012 due to his extended use. There’s a great deal of people discounting Jackson this year because he’s 29 years old and too close to the running back break down age of 30. I thought it would be interesting to travel back in time a bit to the season in which George was 29 years old, 2002. I’ve got to say there’s a lot to like. Here are some quick facts for you.
In the 2002 season, George (29 years old) with Jeff Fisher:
-Posted the third-most rushing attempts in the league with 343 carries.
-Finished the season with 1,165 rushing yards
-Scored 12 times on the ground and twice via the pass.
-Finished with 255 receiving yards.
-Averaged only 3.4 yards per carry.
In the 2011 season, Steven Jackson (28 years old) without Jeff Fisher:
-Carried the ball 260 times.
-Finished the season with 1,145 yards.
-Scored five times on the ground and once via the pass.
-Finished with 333 receiving yards.
-Averaged 4.4 yards per carry.
There are some very interesting facts to take away from those numbers. For starters, is the amount of carries. The 343 that George got is a number that most backs never get the chance to see. Whether it be injury or a running back by committee situation, 300-plus is becoming increasingly rare in the NFL. In fact, in 2011, only Maurice Jones-Drew and Michael Turner broke the 300-carry marker. I’m not saying that Steven Jackson is going to jump up from his 260 carries last year by almost 100. That’s simply not going to happen. But, with Fisher at the helm, the carries will increase.
I don’t think that it is absolute lunacy to say that if Jackson played all 16 games under Fisher that he could approach George’s total. The average of Jackson’s 2011 carries (260) and George’s 2002 carries (343) is about 302. When taking the average of Jackson’s yards per carry over his career, we see that he gets 4.3 yards per carry. Multiplying the increased carries total by his career yards per carry average we get a very impressive 1,300 yards. That’s more than enough to pull through as your No. 1 fantasy back.
The biggest department that Jackson would need to play catch up in is scoring. George found his way past the goal line 14 total times in 2002. Knowing Steven Jackson, you see that he’s not the best scoring back. For some reason, his touchdowns don’t match up to his total yards and carries. But if he can meet George halfway, he’d be in for 8-9 rushing scores. That just seems like an awful lot for a back who has trouble finding the endzone. I’d say that the more realistic number would be 6-7. But what Jackson may not be able to mirror with George on the ground, he makes up for in receiving. George’s single-season high in receiving yards was 458 while Jackson comes in with a staggering 806. It’s pretty clear that Jackson is the more capable back in regards to the passing game.
Now the Arguments Begin
You could argue that there will be more pressure on Jackson than there was on George due to the late Steve McNair directing the Tennessee passing game. The argument of McNair forcing defenses back off the line of scrimmage more than Sam Bradford could be made. But look at McNair’s 2002 passing numbers and compare them to Bradford’s rookie year. In 2002, McNair posted 3,387 yards, 22 passing scores and 15 interceptions. Looking at Bradford’s healthy year, he posted 3,512 yards, 18 scores and 15 interceptions. Bradford threw for more yards and only four less touchdowns as a rookie. Being healthy and in his third season, Bradford will be effective and help ease the defensive attention placed on Jackson to at least the same point that McNair did for George.
You could argue Jackson’s durability against George’s consistent nature. George remained mostly healthy for the majority of his career, missing minimal time for the most part. Many fantasy enthusiasts are quick to shoot down Jackson as an injury prone guy. But, looking at the past three years, he’s been solid. Jackson has only missed two games over the past three seasons. Not bad for an “injury-prone” guy.
If you’re still not sold on Jackson’s ability to perform up to George’s 2002 season, take a look at the Rams’ schedule. Out of all 16 games, there are only two that scare me off, those being the divisional games against the San Francisco 49ers. There is a cherry on the schedule sundae, though, as his fantasy playoff run looks nice. Jackson gets the Buffalo Bills in Week 14, the Minnesota Vikings in Week 15, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 16. The Bills are improved but they certainly aren’t in the red light category for starting your runners against them.
In closing, there is a chance that Jackson matches George’s season. While it may be improbable, it’s certainly not impossible given the numbers. Even if Jackson failed to meet these marks he would still be in for somewhere around 1,200 rushing yards, five rushing touchdowns, 400 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns. Those medium expectation numbers are still No. 1 running back stats.
We’ve seen older running backs like Corey Dillon, Curtis Martin and
still perform after years of similar workloads. Jackson needs to stay on the field for all 16 games, which is no easy feat, as he’s only done it once before. Jackson may not match George in all the statistical categories, but he has the ability to make up for that in other ways. The main point to take away from this is to draft
as your No. 2 running back in the late second or early third round. The numbers will be there, as history tends to repeat itself.