Running backs in the NFL not only have a short shelf life but some say they are a dime a dozen. These statements may be true some of the time and for some backs but a true franchise type back can carry an entire offense. Think of them as the engine of the offense, the QB may drive but the running back makes the offense go.
The running game is greatly aided by a good offensive line, but certain backs can get by without the help (see Barry Sanders). Nonetheless an offense will never reach its peak potential without a high caliber running back, just ask former Denver Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan if he ever regretted trading away Clinton Portis.
The St. Louis Rams have the type of back in Steven Jackson that every team in the league would love to have, he’s big, physical, and explosive even showing the ability to be a game changer in the passing game. Unfortunately they haven’t had much success since the '06 season; let’s see how the numbers break down.
The team rushing stats will be in order from 06’-08’ with their NFL rank in parenthesis.
Total Rushing Yards: 1805 (17), -278 = 1527 (25), +122 = 1649 (25)
Rushing Average Per Attempt: 4.3 (8/18), -0.5 = 3.8 (9/13), +0.2 = 4.0 (7/15)
Total Yards Per Game: 112.8 (17), -17.4 = 95.4 (25), +7.7 = 103.1 (25)
Touchdowns: 13 (10/17), -8 = 5 (15/15), +3 = 8 (17/18)
Lost Fumbles: 8 (5/13), 8 (5/14), +4 = 12 (10/13)
With that being said, let’s break down the candidates for the St. Louis Rams running back depth chart.
Projected Starter (Steven Jackson) – Another position and another Hall of Famer, Marshall Faulk replaced. 2006 was Jackson’s first full season without Faulk being on the field and he definitely staked his claim to the starting job.
That season he made the Cowboys second guess their draft strategy, and eased fans worries about losing Faulk. But similar to Bulger, Jackson has since missed nine starts over the last two seasons and various parts of other games.
Jackson has all the tools to be an elite back in the NFL, but with this trend of missing games he has been dubbed “injury prone.” I will give him a little break though in the fact that the team around him has aged, poor management decisions, and too many wasted draft picks have contributed to the team’s downfall.
He is the team's only offensive weapon but the line has been horrible and injury prone the last two seasons which is a recipe for disaster. He has no real threat from any of the backups to take his job.
Here is a breakdown of his stats over the past three seasons.
08’ – 12 games - Rushing: 253 / 1042 = 4.1 yd avg. – 7 Td’s – 3 lost fumbles
Receiving: 40 / 379 = 9.5 yd avg. – 1 td
07’ – 12 games – Rushing: 237 / 1002 = 4.2 yd avg. – 5 Td’s – 2 lost fumbles
Receiving: 38 / 271 = 7.1 yd avg. – 1 td
06’ – 16 games – Rushing: 346 / 1528 = 4.4 yd avg. – 13 Td’s – 1 lost fumble
Receiving: 90 / 806 = 9.0 yd avg. – 3 Td’s
Projected Backup (Kenneth Darby) – Darby a seventh round selection by Tampa Bay out of Alabama who was an all SEC first team selection in 2005 played in only one game for the Bucs, he spent the rest of his time on the practice squads of Tampa Bay and Atlanta before joining the Rams in '08.
He played in 10 games for the Rams in 2008 giving him a career total of eleven. Darby’s career rushing totals are 34 / 149 = 4.4 yd avg. with one lost fumble. His receiving stats are 21 / 199 = 9.5 yd avg., he has even returned nine kickoffs.
I know you’re probably thinking I’m related to Darby but I assure you I am not. He is a better receiver and blocker than Pittman and his stats are better as well.
Third String RB (Antonio Pittman) – Pittman was drafted in the fourth round by the Saints out of Ohio State in 2007. A productive back in college who saw his status slide, then he was drafted by New Orleans who already had a full backfield which is why he didn’t make the final cut in training camp and was picked up by the Rams one week before the season.
Since Pittman signed with the Rams he has played in 23 games over the past two seasons starting in five of those contests. His career rushing numbers are 117 / 435 = 3.7 yd avg. with one lost fumble. His receiving stats are 21 / 147 = 7.0 yd avg.
His best game came against the 49ers during week 11 last year in a 35–16 loss. He rushed for 95 yards on 14 carries for a 6.8 yard average per carry. He may be faster than Darby but he doesn’t excel in as many areas.
Fourth String Rookie (Chris Ogbonnaya) – This year’s seventh round draft pick is a converted wide receiver (freshman year) from the University of Texas. Ogbonnaya holds a school record for most receptions by a running back (46) in 2008, he is also a four-time Academic all Big 12 honoree as well as a seven-time University of Texas Athletic Director’s Honor Roll member.
At 6’0”, 220 lbs. he has the size to be an effective NFL running back but his 4.55 speed is a concern. However with his receiving skills he may develop into a nice third down option giving Steven Jackson a few more plays off during games keeping him fresh.
His collegiate career rushing stats are 140 / 597 = 4.3 yard avg. and 8 Td’s, while his receiving stats are 75 / 792 = 10.6 yard avg. and 3 Td’s. He is still a work in progress with a limited amount of reps but with his academic history he should be able to digest the playbook, which can sometimes be an area of trouble for rookies.
Fifth String RB (Samkon Gado) – Gado has played in 26 career games with eight starts; the Rams are his fourth NFL team. You may remember the undrafted rookie out of Liberty most for the second half of his rookie year when he was assigned to the Green Bay Packers active roster.
In eight games, five starts he posted 659 total yards with 7 Td’s (six rushing). Since then he hasn’t been able to find anything close to that success.
Starting FB (Mike Karney) – Karney has spent his entire career up until now with the New Orleans Saints after they drafted him in the fifth round out of Arizona State in 2004. He has started 46 of 75 career games, and was named second-team All-Pro in 2006.
Mainly a battering ram at 5’11”, 255 lbs. he also contributes by scoring a touchdown every 9.6 touches. An excellent blocker with solid receiving skills, Karney will have an immediate impact on the ground game.
In conclusion, the Rams running back position is an above average unit. This grade rests solely on the shoulders of the starting battery of Steven Jackson and Mike Karney.
As with the quarterback position health will be the main factor in this unit living up to its grade. Karney will not only help make holes for Jackson but he will take some of the pounding away that has hampered Jackson’s health the past two seasons.
Darby and Pittman should also benefit from Karney’s presence when they spell Jackson. Both are young and lack quality experience but have potential to be solid backups in the league. Gado has the most experience and success of the non-starters but I fear he may be nothing more than a flash in the pan.
By drafting Ogbonnaya they have a back lacking speed and experience, but above average receiving skills will help in the new offense. The bottom line is that any injury to Jackson will spell certain doom for the running game, don't be suprised if the Rams go after a proven veteran like Warrick Dunn to add in the mix. But if not hold your breath because it will be a long season.