The Dallas Cowboys held their first practice session of training camp on Thursday in Oxnard, California. And their biggest question of the offseason, who will start at the running back position, got even murkier this week.
On Tuesday, the Cowboys waived injured running back Ryan Williams (knee), replacing him on the roster with undrafted free agent rookie runner Gus Johnson out of Stephen F. Austin State University. Then Dallas placed veteran back Darren McFadden on the PUP list as he’s dealing with a minor hamstring injury. Now, the NFL’s active-leader in rushing yards, free agent running back Steven Jackson, has made his desire to play for the America’s Team public.
On Thursday night, the 32-year old veteran tweeted a picture directed at the Cowboys of AT&T Stadium at night, with his number 39 in the clouds above.
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The Cowboys infamously passed over Jackson in the 2007 NFL Draft, opting instead to trade their first round selection to the Buffalo Bills. In exchange, Dallas received Buffalo’s second round selection, a fifth round pick and a first round pick in 2005. With their additional second round selection, the Cowboys chose Notre Dame running back Julius Jones. Although Jones had an impressive rookie season, including a 198 rushing yard, three touchdown performance against the Seattle Seahawks, injuries limited him to just eight games that first year. Durability became an issue with the young back from that point on and Jones was out of Dallas just three years later.
Jackson, on the otherhand, flourished as a member of the St. Louis Rams for nine years, rushing for over 1,000 yards in every season except his first. As well as being the Rams all-time rushing leader, he is also a three-time Pro Bowl selection (2006, 2009, 2010).
“There are 1,000-yard seasons left in these legs.” – Steven Jackson
Jackson currently leads the NFL in active rushing yards with 11,388. The other active running backs trailing behind him on that list are Frank Gore (11,073), Adrian Peterson (10,190), Marshawn Lynch (8,695) and Chris Johnson (8,628). Interestingly, Johnson, who is also a free agent, has expressed his interest in joining the Cowboys as well. In fact, earlier this week, CJ2K’s agent claimed to have been in contact with representatives of America’s Team.
Likely the biggest question Cowboys fans will have about Jackson is: Can he still play at a high level? At 32-years old, most running backs have experienced a major decline in ability, and subsequently, performance. According to the numbers, Jackson is no different. In the past two seasons, as a member of the Atlanta Falcons, the 11-year pro posted the worst yards per carry average of his career. (2013 – 3.5 YPC, 2014 – 3.7 YPC) He also failed to reach the 1,000+ rushing yard mark during his time in Atlanta for the first time since 2004.
But Cowboys fans should also consider the fact Atlanta has one of the worst run blocking offenses in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus, the Falcons were ranked 28th in that category in 2014. And Jackson believes he still has what it takes to get the job done as a professional running back.
"“Make no mistake: I can still punish a defense,” Jackson wrote on his personal website following his release from the Falcons in February. “I still have a warrior’s heart. There are 1,000-yard seasons left in these legs. I know what I am still capable of, and I have every intention of proving it.”"
Jackson may have a point when talking about still having the ability to punish NFL defenses. Last season, the aging superstar ranked 9th in the league in yards after contact average (2.7, 512 total), according to PFF. In contrast, the Cowboys former hard-hitting running back, DeMarco Murray, ranked 16th in the same category. (2.5, 998 total) Jackson also scored 12 total touchdowns in his two seasons in Atlanta, proving he’s still valuable as a short yardage back.
With the recent release of Williams, and the hamstring injury to McFadden, the Cowboys could be in the market for a veteran running back sooner rather than later. And Dallas has certainly been window shopping. Whether they decide to actually go inside and buy Steven Jackson off the shelf is anyone’s guess. But the veteran certainly thinks Dallas is the right landing spot for him.
"“My mindset has not changed,” Jackson wrote on his site earlier this offseason. “I still love the game. I still want to play the game, but I will stick to the pact that I made with myself from the beginning. If I am going to play, it has to make sense for me. It has to be for the right situation, the right opportunity and the right team…For me, number one is to be on a Super Bowl winning team. Alongside that is to continue to carry the flag as the NFL’s active-leading rusher and to be a spokesman for the running back position, which I’m very passionate about.”"