Odd Man Rush: For Jackson, nothing gold (and blue) can stay

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Updated: 9/13/2013 1:34 pm

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - They say breaking up is hard to do. Unless of course you are going from, say, Charlize Theron in "Monster" to Charlize Theron from "The Devil's Advocate."

Steven Jackson took a similar trajectory when the St. Louis Rams allowed him to void the final year of his contract following the 2012 campaign, leading to the running back signing with the NFC heavyweight Atlanta Falcons. Like a triumphant return to a high school reunion, Jackson will get to show off his new partner this Sunday when the Falcons host the Rams.

An exit was probably one of the last scenarios the Rams and Jackson expected when he inked a six-year deal in 2008. He left St. Louis as the club's all- time leading rusher and having scored 64 total touchdowns over his nine-year tenure with the club since it took him 24th overall in the 2004 draft.

But Jackson made the playoffs just once with the Rams, doing so as a rookie when he was still the backup to Marshall Faulk. He became the starter the following season and began an active string of eight straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons, but with no postseason trips to show for it.

There was also the fact that he was seeing a bit of a reduced role. In three seasons between 2006-2010 when he made at least 15 starts, he carried the ball over 300 times each year. But the 30-year-old had just 260 carries in 15 games during the 2011 campaign and just 258 rush attempts in 16 starts last year.

His role in the passing game also was reduced so Jackson was looking to find a team willing to use him in more of his desired role after having a discussion with the Rams.

"We talked about just going forward in my career and what were my expectations, what did I want to look for and how did I want to go out ending my career," Jackson said on Wednesday. "Once we sat down and saw that they were going to allow me to go to the free agent market, then I left it to the business of my agent.

"I went away on one of my safari runs and I just got away from it all. I put the criteria together as a list, I was telling my agent, 'If teams are not looking at using me to the way in wanted to be used, don't even interrupt my vacation.' I just let him deal with it from there."

Call it unfair to the Rams or even a bit of ego trip by Jackson, but eventually the Falcons came calling. Had they, or any team, not had a role suitable for the Oregon State product, he was ready to call it quits.

"It was a real, legitimate option for me," Jackson said of retirement. "It probably wouldn't have been fun now this time of the year because I know I have a lot left in the tank, but I'm one of those hard-headed guys. Once I believe in something, I stick to it."

Luckily for Jackson, the Falcons were looking to upgrade from Michael Turner, who is only a year older than Jackson but was on the decline and not much of a threat in the passing game.

That is certainly a dimension of Jackson's game and he showed it in a Week 1 loss to the New Orleans Saints. While it was a lackluster debut for the running back on the ground, 77 yards on only 11 carries, one a 50-yard rush, he added five receptions for 45 yards and was targeted eight times by quarterback Matt Ryan, second to only wideout Julio Jones.

"I think that Steven has a great skill set for what we were looking for in a running back because he's not just a running back, he's a receiving back as well. He will allow us to not have to run different packages like we've had to do in the past with the change-of-pace back, and allow us to keep the same personnel on the field. He's got a tremendous wealth of knowledge in terms of playing the running back position," said Falcons head coach Mike Smith.

Smith said this week that Jackson has fit in well with the club, though the back himself said it took some time given that the core of Atlanta's offense, including Ryan, wide receiver Roddy White and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, have been together for more than a few seasons now.

That has also led to him taking a reduced role in the leadership department, something he was a key part of in St. Louis.

"I believe one of the attributes of a strong leader is knowing when to lead and when to back off and follow. This year, I've really taken on that role of just sitting back, allowing the guys to continue to operate the way they have over the years. If I see a need to step up and say something, especially to the offensive line, that's when I'll step in and take my leadership role," said Jackson.

A lot of fresh starts come with overhauls. A bad breakup can lead to an altering of style; maybe a new haircut or fresh new clothes. Jackson, of course, is no longer rocking the colors of the Rams and it was a man in the mirror moment that led to the change finally sinking in.

"It didn't feel different until I actually saw it on film," he said of putting on a Falcons uniform. "When you actually look at it and you see yourself in red and black instead of the blue and gold, it was quite different then."

So what kind of motivation will have Jackson have when he faces the Rams this weekend? He noted on Wednesday that his exit from the only franchise he had ever known was handled as professional as possible.

In fact, from the outside it never seemed like there was any hard feelings between the two. Rams head coach Jeff Fisher, who took over in 2012, was going young with his roster and Jackson only has so many miles left on his tires. A split seemed to make sense and Fisher didn't have the same sort of attachment to Jackson that the rest of the city had.

"We felt like it was in the best interest of everybody involved," said Fisher. "This way the story ends real good. You'd like to think certainly his jersey's retired back here whenever he's done. We just wish him the best. He's a class guy and was a tremendous leader in the locker room last year."

Relationships shape who we are and Jackson will be in position to see just how much he influenced the current Rams from the outside. St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford was just one of many who learned from the Pro Bowl back and will use what he learned from his former teammate as he becomes the face of the offense.

"I think I learned more about being a leader from (Jackson) than probably anything, just watching the way that he handled himself in different situations in the locker room and on the field. Then obviously, on the field he had so much experience. He was really able to kind of help me in things that he saw, so having 'Jack' here was really invaluable for me."

Jackson added on Wednesday that some of his former teammates still check in with him and that they will certainly root for each other throughout the season.

Except this Sunday.

"I'd be lying to say I don't want to get the win," noted Jackson. "Of course I want to get the win, but I have to come out there and just remain in the zone, in my focus and not get too up. When you allow emotions to take over, your wind becomes short, you're not even thinking, you're not on you're A-game.

"So, I have to remind myself to stay in control, have the intensity that I normally play with, but dial-in and treat this game as if it's one that I'm preparing and I have done over the years."

But don't blame him if he shows off his new arm candy with a big smile.

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