The debate has raged through decades of football: Who is the NFL's best active running back?
From Jim Brown to Gale Sayers, Walter Payton to Barry Sanders and Marshall Faulk to LaDainian Tomlinson, (just to name a few) each generation has had its star back that, at one time or another, laid claim to the throne.
But as we gaze toward the 2010 season, it's clear that the position may have never been as deep with players staking their claim to the title of best. Paramount in that conversation is St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson.
At 26, S-Jax is fresh off the second best statistical season of his career. But while No. 39's numbers didn't quite reach the statistical highs of his stellar 2005 campaign, they came under even more impressive circumstances.
Consider that the Rams were working last season with an offensive line in flux, a corps of wide receivers that didn't have a 600-yard receiver among them and a quarterback situation questionable that St. Louis took a signal-caller with the No. 1 pick in this year's draft.
With the team on his back, Steven carried for 1,416 yards last season on 324 carries and with 322 yards on 51 receptions, No. 39 amassed 1,738 total yards last season. As an individual, Steven accounted for 39 percent of the Rams' offensive yardage last season. ESPN's Mike Sando wrote recently about what puts Steven in the conversation as one of the league's best backs.
"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."
Sando also gave No. 39 credit for what he offers in both size and speed, rather than just one dimension, but Sando noted that picking the best running back is a subjective conversation, one that is always decided in the eyes of the beholder:
* No back in the league can match Jackson's combination of size, speed, power, running ability and versatility. He is 6-foot-2 and 236 pounds. Stand next to him and you'll realize this isn't a typical back.
* The debate gets much more subjective from here. What do you like in a back? Johnson can do things Jackson cannot do, and vice versa. There's a lot to like about Peterson even though he fumbles too frequently.
I'll gladly take Jackson's side in any argument about which running back is best, but a lot of it will come down to what each person likes in a runner.
In the 2010 season, Steven will be running for his sixth consecutive 1,000-yard season, a rare achievement in the increasingly passer-friendly NFL.
If there's one thing that can turn a running back from good to great, it is consistency and over the last five years, no back has been more steadfast than Action Jackson.
No. 39's 1,416 yards on the ground last year marked the fifth straight season that S-Jax has rushed passed the century mark. Only one other back has been able to match that consistency over the last five years: Thomas Jones, now of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Chris Johnson has opened his career with two straight 1,000-yard campaigns and Adrian Peterson has done so over three consecutive years, but both backs will have to maintain that success over a longer frame to be reach the longevity that No. 39 already has as he approaches his 27th birthday.
A benchmark has been set and Steven Jackson is it.
MINOR SURGERY IS A MAJOR RELIEF
One important adjustment that will help S-Jax to his sixth straight 1,000-yard season will be the back surgery that Steven had performed in April to alleviate the discomfort that he experienced toward the end of the 2009 season.
"The surgery, really, was up to me," No. 39 told Frank Tadych of NFL .com. "I decided to have the surgery, because I was still in the gray area of needing the surgery or not going with the surgery. I met with three specialists around the country. No one definitely said, ‘Get the surgery,’ but looking at the season and being able to fully recover from the injury and being able to go to training camp, April was kind of the deadline."
He told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the pain became just too much to ignore:
"It was really tough," Jackson said Tuesday, the first day of organized team activities at Rams Park. "The pain, it was there; it was there all the way until the surgery. And it's a different type of pain. Muscle pain, I've been able to deal with that. But nerve pain, it just doesn't go away.
"Anybody who's had a back problem knows it's a different monster."
Steven told reporters he felt immediate relief after the surgery and provided an update that he is four weeks into his eight-week rehab and expects to be full go for training camp.
"I'm still in shape," he said. "Although I'm not on the field running and cutting, those things come naturally. My wind is still there. I make sure I get in the pool. That allows me to keep my endurance up and stay in shape."
And Rams fans can expect the best Action Jackson come game time in September.
"Whenever my time comes for me to suit up, I'll be ready," he said. "I play with reckless abandonment. I'm going to play football the only way I know how. I wouldn't be doing myself justice if I tried to alter my game. I feel like what you get is what you get when you see me.
"I don't need to come in and feel timid about anything."
Steven Jackson best back? (ESPN.com, May 22, 2010)
Rams RB Jackson getting healthy following surgery (NFL.com, May 18, 2010)
Steven Jackson says he'll be ready by training camp (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 19, 2010)