Rams running back Steven Jackson enters his eighth season with the Rams in search of his first winning record, his first trip to the playoffs, and something to put on his mantlepiece before the NFL's punishing age curve for running backs catches up with him.
It's rare to get Jackson talking about his legacy, but Bill Coats of the Post-Dispatch used Marshall Faulk's Hall-of-Fame enshrinement as a way to pry open that door.
"Me as a player, I'd be lying to say you don't think about it," Jackson said. "But first things first. I've got to get into the playoffs, win a Super Bowl. Those kinds of things I feel makes you more prone to be voted into the Hall of Fame.
"Is it a dream of mine? Of course. But it's not my sole purpose and my sole focus."
Now that Jackson has turned 28 years old — that mythical point when the careers of NFL workhorses tend to reach a cliff and fall off — the team around him is perhaps finally worthy of his talent. The question in the back of every loyal fan's mind, watching him grind and pound for extra yardage play after play, is how long he will be around to enjoy the team's rennaissance?
It may come as a surprise to those who think 28 is knocking at death's door, but historical comparisons of backs similar to Jackson give him slightly better than 50% odds to maintain or improve his level of production over the next three years. Full analysis after the break.
The Workhorses and the Age-28 Cliff
According to stats by Pro-Football-Reference.com, there have been 26 true "workhorse" backs in the last 40 years that carried the load for their teams through their age 26-27 seasons. (And by "carried the load," I mean carried the ball at least 600 times in those two seasons combined.) Steven Jackson makes the 27th.
Of those 26 runners, 12 of them were essentially done at age 28. And this group of players are the ones that come to the forefront of your mind when you think of a guy suddenly hitting a wall. Larry Johnson. Edgerrin James. Willie Parker. Herschel Walker, just after being traded to the Vikings.
For these players, their plummet from the top ranks has become their legacy. They are the workhorse backs who simply couldn't hold up, or who got so brutally overworked that they fell apart. The only exception in this group is the Redskins' Stephen Davis, who was headed down this path of ignomy until being traded to Carolina at age 29, where he put together a miracle comeback season (1444 yards, 8 TDs).
However, there is a second group of players who were able to age more gracefully. Their 28th birthday had an impact on their productivity, but their skills and their offensive surroundings were still strong enough to sustain healthy production for a longer period of time.
This is an interesting group of players, including K-Gun running back Thurman Thomas, and the perennially underrated Ricky Watters, as well as a few Hall-of-Famers such as Emmitt Smith and former Rams great Eric Dickerson.
There is a noticable dichotomy here between "shifty" backs whose careers continued to decline steadily, and "power" backs who were able to hold on to their power — or continue running behind powerhouse offensive lines. The latter appear to have longer, more productive careers of this group.
With his work ethic and running behind the rebuilt Saint Louis line, Jackson could slot in comfortably among this group. Thurman Thomas makes an interesting comparable, rushing for 1,000 yards in each of his next three seasons while scoring 7-8 touchdowns per year, while also catching 100 balls total in that three-year span. He wasn't at the height of his powers, but he was able to continue contributing to a perennial championship contender in Buffalo.
Of course, if you're feeling really optimistic, there is a third group of players who aged extremely well. In fact, they got even better in their age 28 year.
O.J. Simpson's age 28 season and Barry Sanders' age 29 are literally off the charts good. Simpson had his career best season, with 1817 yards rushing an 16 touchdowns in only 14 regular season games – a full season in 1975. This was his fourth of five consecutive years being named to the Pro Bowl. Sanders, meanwhile, simply looked ageless until his shocking decision to retire at the top of his game, without even getting close to a ring.
But aside from these Hall-of-Famers, there is a player here that is potentially comparable to Jackson in Curtis Martin, the long-time Jet who is widely underappreciated across the league. (For comparison, Jackson's 85.7 average yards per game across his age 26-27 seasons is actually slightly better than Martin's 83.4 mark, but in the same neighborhood.) Martin made the Pro Bowl at 28, and again at 31, and quite simply willed himself through season after season, performing as the heart of a Jets team for far longer than anyone could have expected.
Martin's career ended without a championship, as the Jets floundered through coaches and quarterbacks alike. We can only hope that Jackson's time in Saint Louis comes to a happier ending, with coach Spagnuolo's tenacious identity imprinted on the team and quarterback Sam Bradford at the helm.