Last season, on a cold Monday night in October as the St. Louis Cardinals battled for World Series glory against the Boston Red Sox, a depressed cadre of St. Louis Rams fans stumbled into the Edward Jones Dome, dazed by the mixed first half of a season meant to provide them with hope.
By this point, the newly-converted Atlanta Falcon Steven Jackson had left an absence that haunted the Gateway City stadium like a shade. Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson looked ineffective and small early in the year against even the measliest of defenses. And Sam Bradford’s injury the week prior to the Carolina Panthers had sapped the passing game of its energy, as a valiant but ultimately limp Kellen Clemens did his best to fill the void.
Yet there emerged from the young, tender bosom of the Rams bench a new hope for the backfield, fast and strong and powerful and determined, flashing the faintest glimpses of Marshall Faulk from the days of yore.
He was the Immaculate.
He was the Realization.
He was the Staced God.
He is Risen.
Zac Stacy impressed fans all season prior to the Monday night game against the Seattle Seahawks. He had rattled through Jacksonville at the beginning of the month with 78 yards in 14 attempts, good for an average of 5.6 yards per carry. He also played well in the Rams’ 38-13 blowout victory over Houston the next week. He struggled against Carolina, but in all fairness, everybody did; the Panthers finished with the second best rushing defense in the league last year behind only the Arizona Cardinals.
But Stacy displayed the full extent of his ability in that home game against Seattle on that cold October night inside a climate-controlled dome. Although the then-rookie still didn’t find his first touchdown in the contest, he broke out for 134 yards in 26 attempts — new personal bests in each category.
His emergence also showed veteran poise and confidence. With Bradford going out for the season the week before with his ACL injury, the Rams had to rely on a sort-of-tested, not-yet-proven running game. Although no one realized it at the time, it was up to Stacy to find the path of the Rams offense for the rest of the season.
Trusting in Stacy paid off. The trailblazer ran with the aplomb, skill and speed of a much more experienced and groomed back. He suffered from a lingering hip injury throughout the tail end of the season, but he still racked up 976 total rushing yards (1,114 all-purpose) and eight touchdowns for the season with just one lost fumble tarnishing his resume. He had seven games with over 75 yards rushing and four over 100.
Stacy lived up to the reputation he gained when lucky fantasy owners picked him (off waivers in the middle of the season). They called him the “Staced God,” like the Based God but with Stace™ instead of wonton soup. While offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has said this year’s starting position won’t automatically go to Stacy, it’s hard to see how another running back on the Rams’ roster could take his spot.
However, there will be a few candidates more than willing to take up the mantle and and attempt to dethrone the Staced One. Failing that, the Rams have a good fallback group and potentially a stronger backfield than they’ve had in years.
Benny Cunningham, the Loyal Prophet: Cunningham played well in a few outings last season, usually picking up a few carries here and there. Early in the season, the brainiacs on the sideline tried to make Richardson and Pead happen like they were “fetch.” However, it wasn’t going to happen, and opposing defenses knew it. Cunningham largely sat the bench. Then, he had a 72 yard game against Indianapolis, including one 52-yard stunner.
When Stacy got injured against the Bears, Cunningham became the No. 1 back and blossomed, earning 109 yards on just 13 carries and scoring a touchdown in one half against Chicago. After that game, he stopped getting action and opportunities. For some reason. Hmmm.
Cunningham seemingly has the full package — good speed, good aggression, a willingness to run into guys and a fearlessness that could set him apart. He doesn’t particularly excel in any one way, but last year he proved he has enough to be successful.
He’s poised to be Stacy’s first back-up by the start of the season, unless the next contender can claim that spot.
Tre Mason, the Future Messiah: At the risk of sounding too optimistic or delusional, it’s not a stretch to say that Mason could sneak into the starting role. The rookie out of Auburn has top-flight talent and led his team to last year’s Southeastern Conference Championship over the University of Missouri (sob) with 303 rushing yards and four touchdowns in Atlanta. He set a new single-season school record for rushing yards last season as well with 1,816 yards (toppling the record of former Auburn star and probable Mt. Olympus resident, Bo Jackson).
At Auburn, Mason definitely benefited from a strong offensive line and a game plan that favored the run, but his ability to find holes in the defensive line and make space for himself in the backfield led to his — and his team’s — success last year. In the SEC Championship game, he had nine rushes of more than 10 yards, including one for 52, due in large part to his offensive line but also to his ability to evade fast linebackers.
He pulled those kinds of shenanigans all season but turned on the afterburners in the game against Mizzou.
Don’t be surprised to see Tre Mason in a starting role somewhere down the line. He’s faster and more slippery than cheetah covered in KY Jelly.
Isaiah Pead, the One Cast into Forsaken Lands – With the departure of Richardson, Pead’s the last one standing from the old guard. He’s the veteran of the squad if only by age, as he’s just in his third season. Yet, it feels like the football world has gone on without him, or maybe he was never really a part of it at all.
Pead’s story is a sad one. After a disappointing first season which saw him fail to win the back-up spot to Jackson and saw him fall into a deep state of depression and loneliness, he hoped to turn things around last year. However, he saw fewer carries and gained fewer yards and got relegated to primarily playing special teams.
Surprisingly, Pead excels most when used as a receiver out of the back field. Although it’s a small sample size, he averaged 7.1 yards a catch on 11 receptions while his longest was only a 14 yard catch — which points toward consistency, rather than outliers skewing the data.
As far as skill set goes, Pead will continue searching for the form that made him so good at the University of Cincinnati, namely high speed and an ability to fit through small gaps. Part of his problem in the pros has been his inability to adjust to faster defenses that interrupt him in his build-up. They can get on him quicker, and they tackle much better than schools in the AAC. He also might have a bit of a mental block. Watching this highlight reel, it’s hard to see that Pead as the same player as the current Pead.
He could make it into the running back corps, but expect to see him in special teams for the time being.
When all is said and done, Stacy should have the starting job in Week 1 barring injury or an atrocious training camp. Then, Mason will probably take the No. 2 spot, not necessarily because he’s better than Cunningham, but because he provides the change of pace that will benefit the team most. Cunningham would be a solid third back, and then Pead can step out of special teams for extraordinary situations or in case of injury to the guys above. I think Pead makes the roster again, but if not, hopefully he can find his place on another team.
Latest posts by Travis Zimpfer (see all)
- RECAP: Vikings 34, Rams 6 - September 7, 2014
- Jake McQuaide, Private Eye: The Bradford Pear Tree Falls (PART ONE) - September 5, 2014
- What the Hekk: Johnny Hekker’s first radio show - September 3, 2014