As the Rams' primary ball carrier over the last eight seasons, Steven Jackson accounted for 69 percent of their carries (2,261 of 3,284) and 71 percent of their rushing yards (9,462 of 13,259). That's a lot of heavy lifting by one man, to be sure. But now that Jackson has moved on to Atlanta in free agency, what's left in St. Louis is a six-pack of running backs that is young and largely untested -- a six-pack that includes second-year player Isaiah Pead, who has a chance to redeem himself from what was, for many different reasons, a disappointing first season.
Along with Pead, Daryl Richardson, and Terrance Ganaway are also second-year players. Zac Stacy is a rookie fifth-round pick. Chase Reynolds is a first-year player who was not drafted. Benjamin Cunningham is a rookie free agent. Among the group, only Richardson (98 for 475 yards) and Pead (10 for 54) have carried the ball in an NFL game.
Although the Rams added some new receiving weapons for fourth-year quarterback Sam Bradford during the offseason — they signed Titans free-agent tight end Jared Cook and drafted West Virginia wideouts Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey — they're still going to have to run the ball successfully if they're going to compete with the 49ers and Seahawks for the NFC West championship.
A lot could change between now and the start of the 2013 season, but it looks like the Rams ground game might evolve from a bell cow to the proverbial running backs by committee.
"I could see the ball being handed off to three, even four guys (in a given game)," coach Jeff Fisher said after a recent OTA practice.
No one is more eager to receive handoffs than the 5-10, 197-pound Pead, who will have to curb his enthusiasm a bit, as he's been suspended for the 2013 season opener for violating the league's substance abuse policy. A second-round draft pick from Cincinnati last year, Pead's limited production and playing time (42 of 1002 offensive snaps) was a byproduct of missed preparation time and made for a self-described "miserable" 2012 season. NFL rules prohibit rookies from participating in their teams' offseason activities until their colleges hold graduation. Because Cincinnati is on a quarters system, its graduation didn't take place until June. Thus, Pead missed almost all of the Rams' spring practices.
Where was he a year ago?
"I was in Cincinnati. Frustrated," he said. "I was on FaceTime with the coach, trying to simulate as if you were in a meeting, but it didn't work too much."
By the time Pead arrived for training camp, he was behind Richardson (a seventh-round pick), if not the eight ball. He touched the ball only six times from scrimmage (four carries for 33 yards, two receptions for seven yards) in the first eight games, then only two times (one rush, one catch) over the next seven.
Pead's description of his season was not as morose as an offseason story on the University of Cincinnati website portrayed it. According to that account, Pead "in his darkest moments" spent a lot of time in his suburban St. Louis house bouncing a tennis ball against a wall, or lying in bed and staring up at the ceiling while listening to music. The story added that "The moment the Rams completed their 7-8-1 season with his exit interview, he arranged a flight and wasted no time bolting town and an empty house that symbolized unfulfillment."
Pead, who reportedly was known for his friendly personality and infectious laughs while he was at Cincinnati, described the story as "kind of exaggerated. As a competitor, you want to play. That's the bottom line. You want to be out there contributing, and that wasn't happening for me. It was just a down feeling, not necessarily the whole year. [The reporter] kind of told me to describe last year in a word, and I couldn't find another word [than miserable].
"When football is your life, and football is your job, and football's not going right, your life's not going to go right, feeling-wise. My life's great. I have a great family, a loving family at home [Ohio], a nice house [in St. Louis] with a great neighborhood, great people. It's just that the football aspect wasn't going as planned.
"It was hard. I made my mistakes and decisions were made. All I could do was capitalize on opportunities, the small opportunities I had."
Fans in the U.K. saw almost as much of Pead as fans in St. Louis did. Late in a blowout loss to the Patriots on October 28 at London's Wembley Stadium, Pead rushed three times for 32 yards, including a 19-yard run around end on his first carry, and returned two kickoffs for an average of 19.5 yards.
It wasn't until the final game of the season, December 30 in Seattle, that Pead received a chance to get into the rhythm of the offense during a game that was still competitive. After the Seahawks took a 13-10 lead late in the third quarter, Pead carried the ball on five of the first eight plays in the Rams' next series. Each of his first two rushes went for seven yards, and he finished with 21 yards.
Even before that game, Fisher's perception of Pead had been positive.
"When he carried in games, he was very impressive," Fisher said. "He stayed 'up and alive' and was ready to play here and there in games in different packages. We got to the point in the [Seattle] game where we wanted to give him something to ride into the offseason program with."
Pead agreed that his performance against the Seahawks helped propel him into the offseason.
"Definitely," he said, "because you know they say you're only as good as your last game. Those images are still stuck in every coach's mind. But I just can't pride myself off of those five carries. I have to pride myself off the work I do every day when we're out here on the field, in the class room. Even outside of football, conversations with the coaches, always keeping a smile on your face."
Pead amassed 4,009 rushing and receiving yards in four seasons at Cincinnati, was named the Big East Conference's offensive player of the year in 2011, and capped off his collegiate career by capturing MVP honors in the 2012 Senior Bowl, where he rushed eight times for 31 yards and set a single-game record with 98 punt return yards. He is hardly intimidated by the glut of players at running back on the St. Louis roster.
"There's competition, but who doesn't want to be in a competitive atmosphere?" he said. "I'm all for it, we're all for it. We're not enemies; we still help each other, ask questions, things like that. But you need competition out there.
"I look at that opportunity every day, whether it be Steven being gone, or somebody getting the question wrong and I get the question right. Every small opportunity I get, I try to capture it."
A year after being on the outside, Pead is front and center as the Rams install their offense in the offseason workouts. Joining his teammates on the field and in the meeting room as an integral part of the chemistry the offense is building should only bolster Pead's confidence.
One of his general goals in offseason is to eliminate mistakes — both physical and mental. He wants to make sure he lines up in the right spot on the field and knows the routes to run when he goes out for passes. One specific thing he is focusing on is pass blocking.
"Yeah, definitely. Body position," he said. "I'm not the biggest guy, so I need every inch. Body position is the number one thing I need, and the physical part will take care of itself. You've got to be a willing blocker.
"I play with a chip on my shoulder. I kind of just play with that electric 'ooh, ahh,' then snap and clear and get back for the next play. I'm a big team guy. I love team victories, accolades, championships. That's number one. Let's be honest: We all want that championship, and I want to contribute to that."
What are the Rams' expectations of Pead in his second season?
"At this point, just keep doing what he's been doing," Fisher said. "He's had a great offseason program so far. He's working hard, he's in really good shape, he's continuing to battle. But there's great competition, he also understands."
That's just fine with Pead. He would rather be battling in the thick of it than standing on the outside looking in, like he had to do a year ago.