What do you buy the NFL star who has it all? Steven Jackson’s contract with the St Louis Rams will pay him £7m this year, but the Rams running back nevertheless declared himself delighted with the presents he received this Christmas. “My kids got me some great gifts,” he said after practice on Thursday. “I got two turtlenecks – I might wear those in Seattle – I got a new tie, and some new Ugg house-shoes.”
Conveniently, December 25th fell on a Tuesday this year – a day which the Rams, like many other teams, give their players off from practice. Even so, not everyone had the privilege of spending Christmas Day with their families. With end of the season just a few short days away, and relatives spread across the country, more than one Rams player said they had unofficially delayed their celebrations until after the season was over.
That is not to suggest they are counting down the days. It is a safe bet that many players around the league have begun to do so – physically and mentally exhausted individuals on losing teams whose playoff hopes were long ago extinguished. There is no respite to be found on an NFL field, and it is not easy to keep putting your body on the line for a hopeless cause.
But in St Louis, a sense of unfinished business remains. Rather than wishing away these last few days, several Rams players expressed frustration this week that the season could not go on a little while longer.
“Last year, everyone was ready for the year to be over with,” said the quarterback Sam Bradford as he reflected on the different atmosphere in this locker room to that which had prevailed as the Rams closed in on a 2-14 finish in 2011. “But this year, winning four of our last five, looking to make it five out of the last six this week … [it’s different].”
There is a temptation to lament the close losses – against Detroit in week one, perhaps, or Miami in week six – or even that tie against the 49ers in San Francisco, when Danny Amendola’s 80-yard reception in overtime was wiped out by an entirely avoidable illegal formation penalty which had no impact on the outcome of the play. Win any one of those games, and the Rams’ playoff hopes would still be alive.
In reality, of course, this weekend’s game against Seattle might render all that academic. Fresh from a 42-13 demolition of the highly touted 49ers, the Seahawks are playing as well as anybody in the league. They have scored 150 points the last three weeks, while over the course of the season they have given up just 15.5 points per game – the fewest of any team in the league.
It was perhaps with such statistics in mind that Rams head coach Jeff Fisher refused to overstate the importance of this one game. “As I’ve said all week, this game’s not going to define our season,” he told reporters on Thursday, after being asked whether it was important to end the year with a win. “We got better out here today on the practice field and that’s been the approach all year.”
Fisher would, of course, prefer to end the season on a high note. Victory on Sunday would allow the Rams to finish the year with a winning record – 8-7-1 – for the first time since 2003. It would also mean that they had gone unbeaten against divisional opponents, with that tie against San Francisco the only blemish on their NFC West record. They beat the Seahawks 19-13 when the two met in St Louis in September.
But it is reasonable for Fisher to insist that this year’s progress should not be overshadowed by the outcome of any one game. For this team to be where it is, a year after finishing 2-14, represents a large step in the right direction. Throw in the fact that the Rams also boast the youngest roster in the NFL – as well as multiple first round draft picks in each of the next two years – and it is easy to understand why Fisher would feel optimistic about the direction his team is moving in.
The great unanswered question, of course, is whether Jackson will continue to be part of this team as it takes its next steps. Although the running back has one-year left on his contract, both he and the team will have the option to void it this offseason. Jackson has previously always said that he wants to finish his career in St Louis, but teased reporters on Thursday with the idea that he might walk away from the sport altogether.
“I’ve always thought about what my exit strategy is going to be,” he said when asked if he had ever considered how many more years he had in the game. “If I had to write my story, I’d rather go out like (former Lions running back) Barry Sanders – leaving people to want more rather than leaving too late.”
Pressed on whether he knew how many more seasons he would continue, Jackson added: “Maybe this [is the] last one. Those hits hurt.”
In reality, though, he was likely just stirring the pot. Jackson has fielded endless questions on his future all season long, and could be excused for making a little mischief just to alleviate the boredom. Earlier in the same conversation with reporters, he had also said: “I see a very bright future for this organisation, and why wouldn’t I want to be a part of that?”
Affixed to the middle of Jackson’s locker at the team’s Earth City training facility is a list of the NFL’s top 10 all-time rushing leaders, along with a similar list of the only players ever to reach 10,000 yards rushing and 5,000 receiving. Jackson might not be intent on reaching the top of those lists – Sanders, after all, only sits third on the former – but he would like to be included among them.
For now he remains 2,196 yards behind his former Rams team-mate Marshall Faulk, in 10th place on the all-time rushing list. This weekend he will attempt to shave a little off that number against one of the best defences in the league. And then show off a brand new turtleneck in the locker room afterwards.
In the news …
A couple more stories about the Rams this week that readers might want to check out:
There were no St Louis Rams players nominated for the Pro Bowl this year, but the ESPN Radio host Bernie Miklasz explains why he isn’t the least bit troubled in his column for the St Louis Post-Dispatch.
Five-minute interview: Rams offensive lineman Rob Turner
When you joined the Rams this past offseason, it looked like they wanted you to play at guard. But with Scott Wells injured at the start of the season, you’ve found yourself bouncing back and forth between that position and center – where you have also played a lot in your career. How have you found this year as a whole?
I think that’s part of why they brought me in – because I was versatile, and I’m able to do that – move back and forth. Each position comes with its own challenges, so just getting the practice time to get adjusted to each one and what we’re doing each week is really the key thing.
Do you have a preference between the two positions, or are you happy doing either?
The only preference I have is getting the chance to practice at the position I’m playing that week. Sometimes I’ve got to bounce around because of injuries, but as long as I can get the reps and the timing with the guys I’m playing with it really doesn’t matter.
Earlier this season Cortland Finnegan told us he really wanted to play at defensive tackle (http://www.nfluk.com/opinions/articles/our-man-missouri-2). Is there a position you would secretly prefer to play rather than guard or center?
Yeah, you can tell Cortland that I want to play at cornerback. We’ll switch for a week.
I’m fairly confident Coach Fisher would go for that. On a completely unrelated note, how was your Christmas? Did you get any great gifts?
Christmas was good. It was quiet. I’m wearing a jacket that I got for Christmas right now [shows off new camouflage-themed waterproof]. Usually for me the best gift you can give me is something I can use every day. That’s what I like best, is something I can use all the time.
You also came to London earlier this year. How did you find that experience?
I really enjoyed it. I had never been over to London, I had never been really anywhere overseas. So I didn’t know what to expect, but the people were really a lot more friendly than you hear about. Cultures are different everywhere you go, and I had a good time, I really did. Got to see some stuff, got to go by Buckingham Palace and see Big Ben. I enjoyed it.
I didn’t eat at a McDonalds, so I can’t confirm or deny that.
Do you get to the end of the season and go for a big food blow-out?
Not so much the food. I just like taking some time to de-compress once the season’s over. Hanging out with some friends, hanging out with some family, kicking back and not thinking about much of anything.
Why should fans in the UK get behind the Rams?
I think the coaching staff and the general manager have done a good job of putting together a nucleus to build from. And I think that we’re going to be a team that other teams are going to have to look out for in the years to come.
Playoffs next year, then?
I’m not guaranteeing anything, but obviously that’s the goal!