Steven Jackson, 2009: unluckiest rushing year ever?

For all intents and purposes, Steven Jackson was the Rams' offense in 2009. He got the ball on first down as often as any back in the NFL, and seldom took a handoff with fewer than eight men in the box. But still he carried the team forward, most notably in the team's one win against the Detroit Lions, when he finished with 149 yards and a touchdown on 22 jarring carries. He traded paint with every player the Lions could throw at him on defense, and they were the worse off for trying to stop him. Count Mike Sando among the believers:

"In looking at Jackson last season, I cannot remember another active player running the ball with such passion and toughness so consistently. It was inspiring and the most impressive individual wire-to-wire performance I saw last season, taking into account circumstances." — ESPN NFC West Blog: Mailbag: Steven Jackson best back?

However, heartwarming testimonials and inspirational perspectives from the real world can't crack the ice-cold heart of fantasy football. From that frosty perspective, there's no getting around the fact that, as a top-five pick in many leagues, Jackson's 2009 season was hugely disappointing.

Those that drafted him are no doubt still kicking themselves, and vowing to stay away this year. But while doing some research for Fanball's Fantasy OwnersEdge column on Jackson's prospects for 2010, I discovered just how unlucky his year was. In fact, it was one of the strangest seasons in NFL history, matched by only three other runners in the modern era.

Essentially, it's really rare for a runner to be this good and to have so few opportunities to score touchdowns. Here's the list of every season since the AFL-NFL merger that featured a rusher with more than 1400 yards running, and fewer than five TDs.

Player Year Carries Yards TDs
Tony Dorsett 1981 342 1646 4
Barry Sanders 1998 343 1491 4
Warrick Dunn 2006 280 1416 3
Steven Jackson 2009 324 1416 4

For Warrick Dunn, 2006 was his best yardage year ever, a surprising swan song for a runner always cast as a platoon back, and one expected to start ceding major carries to younger and flashier players like Jerious Norwood. But the scoring offense in Atlanta ran through Vick, who surprised everyone with a sudden ability to hit his receivers in the red zone. While Dunn led the team in rushing scores, Vick threw a career-high 20 touchdown passes for the 7-9 Falcons.

Barry Sanders saw a team falling apart around him in 1998, failing to add significant talent around him while he single-handedly carried the team to five winning seasons in seven years. When semi-competent quarterback Scott Mitchell went down, leaving the team in the hands of young Charlie Batch, defenses keyed up that much more against Sanders. In a stunning move, Sanders quit the game all together after this season, leaving Detroit in a franchise tailspin from which it is still trying to recover.

In 1981, Tony Dorsett and the Cowboys were in the midst of their primes, with quarterback Danny White (childhood hero of my Texas-bred wife) taking over for Roger Staubach and continuing a string of seven consecutive 10-win seasons that was only interrupted by the labor strife of 1982. Dorsett meanwhile had scored 11 touchdowns the previous season, and accounted for 36 in his first four years in the league.

However, old-schooler Coach Landry always maintained a stable of hard-headed fullbacks, and wasn't afraid to give them goal-line duties. Ron Springs was the lucky man this season, plunging in ten times to the much more heralded Dorsett's four. Perhaps this approach helped save Dorsett from needless punishment in his age 27 season — he accounted for 36 more touchdowns over the next 7 years, with a fullback or two riding herd the whole time.

Of these three comparables, Jackson's season is closest in spirit to Barry Sanders', except for one obvious difference — Jackson hasn't given up. And, as I state in the OwnersEdge impact report, there are reasons for optimism in 2010 assuming Jackson's back holds up: With any regression to the mean in terms of sheer luck, not to mention the real potential of an improved offense, Jackson's red zone opportunities and touchdowns should go up.