THE YOUNG boy in the wheelchair at Rams camp smiles for a photo, his face so small next to that of Steven Jackson, who is crouching beside him, a thicket of dreadlocks hanging from his head. "Who's that you're with?" asks the boy's father, rapidly snapping photos.
The boy hesitates, his expression blank. Jackson whispers in his ear.
"Steven," says the boy.
The dad nods, pleased. "That, son," he says, "is our new running back!"
After six years of Marshall Faulk running off tackle and catching five passes a game, St. Louis will open the season with a new featured back. Jackson, a first-round pick out of Oregon State in 2004, had a promising rookie season, rushing for 673 yards, averaging 5.0 yards per carry (15th best in the league) and fumbling only once. Then in July, coach Mike Martz, with Faulk's blessing, named Jackson the starter--a promotion he learned of when he saw it on the ESPN ticker on TV at his home in Las Vegas. However, Martz and Faulk, 32, who was starting to wear down, were grooming Jackson for the starter's job throughout the 2004 season.
During practices last fall Faulk would take Jackson aside for pointers on how to read the defensive schemes and the importance of waiting for blockers, while Martz would call back-to-back-to-back plays for him during preseason games. Says Martz, "I was a little hard on him, and I explained to him, 'I'm just trying to get you ready. You're going to carry the load here.'"
With 4.45 speed in the 40 and a punishing running style Jackson has all the tools to be a 1,500-yard back. At 6'2", 231 pounds he looks more like a free safety or a linebacker than a running back, and unlike the 5'10" Faulk, Jackson often seeks contact rather than eluding it. "Ricky Williams, Bo Jackson, Earl Campbell, Walter Payton, the big bruising, punishing backs, those are the guys I model myself after," he says.
Jackson came to camp leaner and more mature this summer. "He understands what this league is about now," says Martz. "He knows the type of preparation required to play at this level, physically. Last year his knee was at 70 percent and he was a little overweight." Jackson will have a better chance of avoiding the knee injuries that nagged him last season (he had minor arthroscopic surgery on his right knee last January) now that the concrete-hard turf at Edward Jones Dome has been replaced with a softer, rubber-based FieldTurf.
A healthy Jackson is one reason why this offense might develop into one reminiscent of the 1999 edition, which scored a then team-record 526 points as the Greatest Show on Turf. He has to revitalize a running game that ranked 25th in the NFL last year and take the heat off fourth-year quarterback Marc Bulger, who had a 93.7 passer rating, and one of the league's best groups of receivers--Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald.
The offense should benefit from having left tackle Orlando Pace show up without a holdout for the first time in two years. And the Rams will still go to Faulk, who'll be used as a third-down back and a receiver out of the backfield. "Marshall can still run the ball," says Bruce. "If they go to sleep on [number] 28, that'll be their mistake."
The defense can't be overlooked either. After watching the unit improve late in the year then crumble in a playoff loss to the Falcons, Martz added free-agent linebackers Dexter Coakley and Chris Claiborne to shore things up.
Jackson believes St. Louis could be a Super Bowl contender, and it's hard to argue. The Rams are playing in the weak NFC West and have the easiest schedule in the league. Moreover, as was evident during camp, they have their old swagger back. "Our confidence is unbelievable right now," says Jackson. "We feel as if we can play with anybody." --C.B.
Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce are the wide receivers who grab most of the headlines in St. Louis, but they may soon be sharing credit with Kevin Curtis, a 2003 third-round draft choice out of Utah State. The 5'11" 186-pounder caught 17 passes for 334 yards and a touchdown in his last three games of '04, two of them playoffs. Curtis, the third wideout in the Rams' aerial circus, also had at least one reception of 30 or more yards in each of his last four games.
An Opposing Scout's View: Enemy Lines
They're in shambles at the top--all the infighting between the front office and the coach--and I think that stuff's going to trickle down onto the field.... I'm not a big fan of their defensive coordinator, Larry Marmie. Coach Mike Martz needs a strong defensive mind, and I don't think he really has that in Marmie.... On the defensive line Tony Hargrove might surprise some people.... Leonard Little has put on more weight and has lost speed, but he's still a decent pass rusher.... Chris Claiborne has always looked soft and sloppy at middle linebacker.... Marc Bulger is a system quarterback. He does fine in that offense. Steven Jackson is a beast. He has power, size, can run downhill and is pretty shifty.... Isaac Bruce is a poor man's Jerry Rice. He never really went downhill; he just leveled off and will probably ride into the sunset as that type of player.... I see Orlando Pace as a guy who gets by more on athleticism than by taking it to the next level and dominating. He's not mean out there, like a Jonathan Ogden. This offensive line isn't going to hold up. Other than Pace, who are these guys? But I give credit to Martz: In that scheme he finds a way to win, no matter who's blocking.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2004 statistics
2004 RECORD: 8--8
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): OFFENSE T25/5/6 DEFENSE 29/11/17
COACH: Mike Martz; sixth season with St. Louis (54--33 in NFL)
ROLAND WILLIAMS [NEW ACQUISITION]
REX TUCKER [NEW ACQUISITION]
XPs ATT. 32
FG MADE 19
DEXTER COAKLEY [NEW ACQUISITION]
CHRIS CLAIBORNE [NEW ACQUISITION]
JEROME CARTER (R) [NEW ACQUISITION]
SACKS 1 1/2
REGGIE HODGES (R) [NEW ACQUISITION]
NEW ACQUISITION (R) Rookie (statistics for final college year) PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 170)
11 at San Francisco
18 at Arizona
2 at N.Y. Giants
17 at Indianapolis (M)
23 NEW ORLEANS
6 Open date
13 at Seattle
27 at Houston
11 at Minnesota
24 SAN FRANCISCO (S)
1 at Dallas
NFL rank: 32 Opponents' 2004 winning percentage: .445 Games against playoff teams: 5