Our Man in Missouri - Week 16

Somehow this felt like an appropriate day for Steven Jackson to achieve a great career landmark. On Sunday the St Louis Rams running back became just the 27th player in NFL history to rush for 10,000 yards, reaching that figure on a well-executed draw play late in the third quarter. Even the Rams’ opponents, the Minnesota Vikings, paused to congratulate him on the achievement.

By that stage the Rams were losing, 33-14. A team which entered the game harbouring dreams of a late playoff push, had seen those effectively obliterated by a combination of inopportune penalties, critical turnovers and the breathtaking brilliance of Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. Jackson himself had played extremely well – he finished with 73 yards on 13 carries and eight catches for a further 73 – but ultimately it all felt like an exercise in futility.

Sadly, some would say the same of his career to date. Over the last seven years, Jackson has been one of the most consistent performers in the entire league – rushing for over 1,000 yards on each occasion. Only once in his career has he failed to reach that figure: back in his rookie season, 2004, when he was serving as the back-up to Marshall Faulk.

That, though, was also the only time in his career that Jackson has reached the playoffs. A powerful, violent, runner, Jackson has always relied on his ability to blast through defenders more than to dance around them. He has sacrificed his body year-after-year in losing efforts, maintaining his own personal high standards even when the same could not be said of all of his team-mates.

So it was on Sunday, Jackson crossing the 10,000-yard threshold just at the point when the Rams’ playoff hopes for 2012 were finally fading away. St Louis had entered this game at 6-6-1, knowing that they would need to win all of their last three games and get some help from elsewhere to make the postseason. But after winning their previous three, that no longer felt quite so improbable. Momentum was building. Confidence was growing.

Minnesota wasted no time in puncturing such self-belief. The Rams had talked all week about the importance of slowing down Peterson, and began brilliantly in that regard. On Minnesota’s opening possession, Peterson ran the ball five times for a total of -3 yards. Only once did he even succeed in crossing the line of scrimmage. And yet the drive still ended with a Vikings touchdown, quarterback Christian Ponder scrambling into the end zone from five yards out.

St Louis did respond, pulling level at 7-7 on a Brian Quick touchdown reception early in the second quarter, but on the very first play of the Vikings’ next drive, Peterson finally broke free – racing away for an 82-yard touchdown. By half-time it was 30-7, and the game was effectively over. Likewise the Rams’ playoff hopes. Although technically still alive in the NFC wildcard race, their chances, in the words of St Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Jim Thomas, “reside somewhere near the intersection of slim and none.”

The challenge now for this team is to do what Jackson has done all through his career: to dust themselves off and continue playing through the last two, meaningless, games just as hard as they have to this point.  “Do we want to mope around as a result of a loss to the Vikings and be that team?” asked head coach Jeff Fisher on Monday. “Or do we want to be the team that’s won three out of the last four games that’s going to go out and try to win another one?”

Neither of the Rams’ two remaining games will be straightforward, St Louis playing on the road against Tampa Bay then Seattle. And even if they were to lose both, this would still have to be considered a positive season – the team’s six wins and one tie representing a considerable improvement on last year’s 2-14 debacle.

But if the Rams needed inspiration to keep fighting through these last two weeks, the need look no further than No39. “I’ve been blessed,” said Jackson after Sunday’s game. “I never forget that I was a young guy just dreaming to be a part of the NFL. When you hope and wish, you never know if it’s going to come true, but I’ve consistently been able to just show up. Show up and be a blue-nosed, hard-working kind of guy.”

Doing that might not have earned Jackson a trip to the postseason. But it has certainly won him the respect of his peers.

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In the news …

A couple more stories about the Rams this week that readers might want to check out:

Brian Burwell of the St Louis Post-Dispatch argues that the real measure of this season will be whether or not the coaching staff can turn it into a building block, rather than another false dawn.

Nick Wagoner reflects on the achievement of Steven Jackson for 101sports.com.

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Five-minute interview: Rams punter Johnny Hekker

You came into the league this year as an undrafted rookie punter, but as well as doing that job you’ve already thrown three passes including one that went for a touchdown against Seattle? Pretty much what you expected from your NFL career?

Coach Fisher told us that your ability to throw the ball was one of the qualities that persuaded him to give you the job. Were you aware of that?

I did not know that; all I knew was that on pro day their coach had me throw a little bit. I knew I brought a little bit of athleticism to the table for a punter – that was part of my skillset – but I didn’t know that was anything he was ever looking for.

Did you play quarterback in high school?

I did, I was a high school quarterback, a three-sport athlete, then I just punted in college.

Did you ever think about trying to play quarterback in college?

I had a little bit of belief in myself when I first went to Oregon State, I thought maybe I’d start practicing with the team, see how we went. But I realised that my earliest way to get on the field and start for the team was going to be to punt, so I just stuck with that and put all my cards in that basket … or whatever that saying is!

Were you thinking about what would give you the best-chance to go pro?

Well my first thought was that I was a walk-on at Oregon State, I didn’t have a scholarship, so I needed to get on the field and cement myself in a starting position to earn one of those. Punting was my fastest way to do that, but then over time it turned into something I loved and became passionate about.

Do you ever watch a missed throw from the sideline and think ‘damn, I could have made that pass’?

No! Never. Never, never, never. These guys – the defences are so dang fast at this level. Even in college. I’m in no position to be criticising anybody.

Was there any other position you would like to have played?

Maybe if teams had a niche for a slow, tall, white wide receiver I might try and do that. I think I have somewhat decent hands for a punter. Like to get out there and catch a couple of passes, but I’m sure the first big hit I’d take from a defensive back I’d change my mind pretty quick.

You went to London earlier this year, how did you find that trip?

That was awesome. It was a great experience to go there with this team. We would have liked to come back with a win, that put a dampener on the whole experience, but the way we ran things over there was a great joy. To go see some of the big landmarks – Big Ben, the crown jewels, the tower, Buckingham Palace, all this stuff… A lot of people I know have never seen that stuff, so it was really a big blessing for me and this team.

Had you ever been to Europe before?

Never. That was my first trip. I took German in high school, I’d like to go to Germany some time – maybe in the next couple of years if I get some good time off in the offseason I’d go there. I’d definitely like to return.

What was your favourite thing about the UK?

Probably going to the Arsenal game. Going there and sitting with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. He’s a really cool dude. I didn’t really know he was that much of a star over in England until afterwards – but just to meet him, and for him to be such a nice young man was a great experience.

What didn’t you like about the UK?

The weather was a little tough. I’m from Seattle, so it’s a little easier for me to deal with. It was just grey, a little cold. But aside from that it was all beautiful.

Why should fans in the UK get behind the Rams?

Fans in the UK should get behind the Rams because we’re a passionate young team that is going to do good things here in the future. And we’ve got a punter who throws touchdown passes!