The fact that the current draft needs for the St Louis Rams revolve around the offensive line, the receiving corps, and the defensive backfield represents how comfortable fans and analysts both seem with the running back position. Following Steven Jackson’s departure to the Atlanta Falcons last off-season, many could not have been blamed for predicting that the position would become a major need for the franchise, one which would require serious investment in upcoming drafts.
Fortunately, however, Zac Stacy’s performance last season has allowed Rams fans to breathe a sigh of relief at the prospect of that gaping hole being filled so quickly, and all for the price of a fifth-round pick. This means that the franchise can now focus on those aforementioned positions as they re-assemble a squad ready for NFL domination.
But…is Zac Stacy really the long-term solution at the running back position? Can we, on the basis of 12 starts, already take for granted that this box can be ticked on the Rams’ rebuilding plans?
Now, before I get accused of Rams heresy, I must declare that I am not advocating this position, but rather raising a question for discussion. Indeed, I have never hoped to be wronger in my life, and I am over-cautious by nature. Like most Rams fans, I am overjoyed that Les Snead has discovered a diamond in the lower-rounds rough and that the running game, while perhaps taking a few tentative steps, has not exactly been tackled for a major loss after the departure of 39.
Yes, there was the failed Daryl Richardson experiment, and Isaiah Pead is yet to prove his second-round worth, but Stacy simply picked up the ball and, doing what he does best, ran with it (with Benny Cunningham providing some intriguing back-up). When he was named starter in Week 5, Stacy kick-started a largely-anemic offense and gave the team an ethos that provided more stability than the plan to have Sam Bradford throw the ball to under-performing receivers.
Stacy showed incredible vision for a rookie, and his conviction in hitting the holes opened up for him reflected a robust and resilient attitude that quickly won fans over. There is no doubt that, with a full, healthy season, Stacy would have broken the 1,000-yard mark, and may even have been in strong contention for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. But,perhaps, his biggest achievement was his impact on the hopes of Rams fans.
But, are these hopes justified, or, after a decade of futility, are these fans prematurely jumping on a bandwagon of expectation? The numbers, after all, might be encouraging, but not overwhelming. Stacy averaged 3.9 yards per carry, joint lowest among the League’s top fifteen rushers (Stacy is fourteenth overall), and his average in the crucial second-half of the season was 3.6ypc – only 3.2 in December!
These averages in the final month of the season fluctuated from 4.8 in a mauling performance against New Orleans, to a lowly 1.0 in the final game against Seattle. True, not all of these were down to his abilities – improved defensive schemes and offensive game-plan adjustments were also factors – but this deterioration down the stretch is a cause for concern. As are injuries. Stacy famously suffered a concussion in his legendary performance against Chicago and, save for the New Orleans game, his numbers subsequently dropped.
While concussions are common for running backs, it nonetheless raises questions about his durability, particularly if he is going to continue single-handedly spearheading the Rams’ running game. Plus, I still have memories of individuals, such as Doug Martin, to start making assumptions after one rookie season.
So, what am I saying? Should the Rams already pre-empt a future letdown and invest their high draft picks on a new running back for the future? No, of course not. The expected improvements to the wide receiver and offensive line positions will, for a start, make Stacy’s chances of further success more likely. But, it would not hurt to assemble a stronger team around him by either developing Pead or Cunningham into viable co-starters who can share the load with him, or by drafting such a partner in the third or fourth rounds of this year’s draft, and thereby ensuring that our anointed running back of the future is not burnt out by the sheer weight of carrying both the ball and the expectations of fans.