This is what fans want from their sports franchises. Show aggressiveness. Recognize opportunity. Keep the important players from the past season and bring in difference-makers for the next one.
This is how teams win championships.
What the Falcons did Thursday illustrates how they’ve been moving in the direction of that finish line with more consistency and seemingly a greater sense of urgency than any other Atlanta team. That sense of momentum spoke to Tony Gonzalez, who decided to come back to the Falcons for one more title run, and it spoke to Steven Jackson, who decided to join him.
The Falcons signed Jackson to be their leading running back. There’s your punctuation in free agency, Atlanta.
Jackson doesn’t have to be the best running back in the NFL next season. Some folks have made too much of his age. At 29 years old — he’ll be 30 by Week 1 — and with 2,395 carries and 10,000 yards of tread already on his legs from his nine seasons in St. Louis, he almost certainly won’t be the NFL’s best back next season. But he doesn’t need to be Adrian Peterson to help the Falcons reach the next level — that being, the Super Bowl.
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said, “Steven has been on our mind since the days leading into free agency.”
There’s a good reason for that. He remains a highly productive back and, equally important, is motivated to win something more substantial than the honor of being a game’s high rusher.
This is the Gonzalez acquisition all over again. He was a long-time successful tight end in Kansas City. His Hall of Fame credentials were secure. He wanted to finish his career with a franchise where games in November, December and potentially January meant something. The Falcons made their move.
Jackson has been recognized as one of the better running backs in football, but he wanted out of St. Louis. When he decided to exercise a player option following the 2012 season, he left $7 million on the table. Even with contenders expected to compete for his services, there were no financial assurances. That was confirmed when the Falcons gave him a three-year, $12 million deal, of which only $4 million is guaranteed.
But of all the times athletes say it’s not about the money, it really isn’t for Jackson. He is a three-time Pro Bowler who hasn’t played in playoff games since his rookie season (a win over Seattle followed by, ironically, a loss to the Falcons in the second round).
Jackson doesn’t cure all of the Falcons’ ills. They still need to improve their pass rush. They need a linebacker and a cornerback (which could be resolved with the re-signing of Brent Grimes). But Jackson fixes a lot for a team that finished 29th in the NFL in rushing and too often hasn’t been able to convert in third-and-short.
Dimitroff and his staff have watched enough tape of Jackson to know he can still be productive. “We’re not concerned about the critics talking about Steven’s age,” he said.
Jackson can still run. He can still catch. There also will be less pressure on him to carry the offensive load because he will be surrounded by so many weapons: Gonzalez, Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones.
Dimitroff again: “He brings a great deal to the table for us.”
This is how it’s done.
Dimitroff has made major moves every offseason since he arrived in 2008. There were some woe-is-us sound bites flowing out of Flowery Branch for the past several weeks, given impending free agency and the team’s proximity to the salary-cap ceiling. But anybody who has paid attention for the past five years knew a significant move had to be coming.
“We’ve done something big every year,” Dimitroff said. “We don’t go hog wild in free agency but we supplement, and we build through the draft. We don’t just sit still here.”
It would be nice if all teams operated that way.