Rethinking Steven Jackson

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For quite some time now, I've heard various people talk about trading Steven Jackson. No one in particular; just general talk that Jackson should be dealt while he has so much value. 

All along, whenever the subject has come up, I've been vehemently opposed. I don't care if the team is bad at the moment; you don't trade away a franchise back when you're trying to take steps toward respectability. Trading away the team's best player at this point would be completely asinine and would quite likely alienate even more of the fans whose posteriors you're attempting to fill your seats with. 

Well, I have an admission to make. Recent events have conspired to force me to reconsider my position. I'm not quite ready to say I've switched sides yet, but I do think the idea merits at least a little bit of discussion. 

So what has caused me to change my tune? Two things. Wait, no, three things, actually, though two of the three are sort of the same thing. Let me explain. 

This week, both LaDainian Thomlinson of the Chargers and Brian Westbrook of the Eagles were given their walking papers, released by the teams they made their names with. Neither of them are just run-of-the-mill sort of players, either; each of them was among the very best at his job in the NFL at one time. 

Now, I know what you're thinking: is he really going to suggest the Rams trade Steven Jackson and replace him with one or both of Thomlinson and Westbrook? This guy is even dumber than I thought! No, gentle reader, I assure you, I am exactly as dumb as you think, but certainly not dumber. 

No, the reason the releases of LT and Westbrook have really served only to underscore in my mind a fact I've known forever, but doesn't really come up all that often: running backs, even the great ones, have expiration dates. And it isn't like the expiration date on yogurt or salad dressing, where you can probably push it without too much trouble. No, the expiration date on a running back means business. 

The cutoff for a running back in the National Football League is set, pretty much across the board, at 29, maybe 30 years old. It doesn't seem to much matter what sort of back a guy is, either; both the bruisers and the elusive guys seem to hit the wall at roughly an equal rate. There are exceptions, of course; guys like Jerome Bettis and Emmitt Smith, but those are true outliers in every sense of the word. Betting on a back, no matter how gifted or well-conditioned, to follow the aging curve of either one of those guys is an almost impossibly bad idea. 

The other thing which has gotten me to thinking about possibly moving Steven Jackson is the beginning of the NFL's Scouting Combine. The Combine is the official kickoff for Draft season each year, and it's got me all hot and bothered. (In a strictly platonic way, of course.) Reading scouting reports and dreaming of extra picks has that sort of effect on me. 

Steven Jackson will play the entirety of the 2010-2011 season at 27 years old. He missed significant time in both 2007 and 2008, and played several games this past season while fighting back spasms. The point is this: Jackson has had more than his fair share of injuries in his career, and he isn't getting any younger. 

Of course, there's nothing at all wrong with Jackson when he's on the field. His production numbers have been excellent despite playing behind patchwork offensive lines for most of his career. He isn't trending down, either; if anything, he's actually gotten better the past couple years as his workload has increased. He averaged 4.4 yards per carry in 2009, while matching his career high for number of attempts per game. So it certainly isn't as if Jackson isn't holding his own. 

Then again, those production levels also mean Jackson is very valuable, and could bring a considerable haul back to the Rams in the form of draft picks. The same may not be true in another season or two. After all, 29 seems to be the approximate dropoff point, but Jackson has already had several truncated seasons due to injury. It wouldn't be a complete shock to see him start a steep decline phase a year or two early. 

At this point, Steven Jackson is the most valuable commodity the Rams have. This is the question: by the time the Rams make themselves into a truly competitive team, will Jackson still be an impact type player? Considering he's working against what very well could be a three-year clock (or maybe even less), it's tough to say the Rams are going to be good enough soon enough to make full use of Jackson's abilities. On the other hand, how much more quickly could the Rams move through this extensive rebuilding process with the drafted talent they could get in return for the present-day, Pro-Bowl quality Steven Jackson? 

On balance, I still hesitate to move Jackson, both from a football standpoint and a business standpoint. The team on the field would be significantly worse in the immediate, and Rams' fans are already seemingly at the breaking point in their willingness to continue supporting such a sorrowful franchise. I wonder if the fans will continue to show up if the Rams dealt their only elite talent. 

Then again, life in the NFL is a lot like "Logan's Run": you spend most of your time in a dome wearing a uniform and then at a certain age you just sort of...disappear. Why not try to get the value for Jackson while the value is there? After all, slow and steady building is great, but the man is on the  clock. 

So for now, I think the answer is still no. I think I still hang on to Jackson. I think. On the other hand, it wasn't so long ago I was sure I held onto him. Now I just think I do. 

An extra pick or two sure would be sweet, though...

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