FLOWERY BRANCH — Steven Jackson is even more excited about the potential of the Atlanta Falcons' offense now that tight end Tony Gonzalez is back at practice. Jackson signed a three-year, free-agent contract as the NFL's active leading rusher in March for a myriad of reasons.
But chief among them was the chance to play alongside Gonzalez, the league's No. 2 career leading receiver behind Jerry Rice.
Jackson said earlier this year that he always heard how intensely Gonzalez, a 17th-year veteran, works in practice, later adding that it was impressive to watch in person.
Gonzalez's return has reinforced Jackson's belief that working efficiently on the practice field is more valuable than taking snaps in the first two weeks of preseason.
"Now we have Tony back, we haven't been together as a full team, for a whole offense, for a whole game," Jackson said on Thursday. "I don't take anything from (the first two preseason games), but what we've done on the practice field I'm proud of."
Jackson and Gonzalez both considered retiring after the 2012 season, though Gonzalez's decision was far more publicized — in part because of his place in the NFL record books, but also because the Falcons went 13-3 last season and finished 10 yards shy of the Super Bowl.
When Gonzalez announced on March 12 that he would return for a final season, Jackson signed a $12 million contract two days later.
Jackson arrived in Atlanta with a reputation for practicing hard and smart, but the regimen never brought him satisfaction in the standings. St. Louis, which drafted him No. 24 overall out of Oregon State in 2004, hasn't had a winning season since '03.
But Jackson didn't want to forsake his pride as a professional, deciding early in his career that he wanted to beat the average odds of an NFL running back's career — 3½ years — and play at a high level for several seasons.
When Jackson saw how hard his predecessor with the Rams — running back Marshall Faulk — worked in practice, he established a benchmark for himself. Faulk, now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, helped St. Louis win one Super Bowl and advance to another, and he influenced habits that Jackson still uses.
"It's not before a big crowd and lights are on, but I think this is actually when you win games," Jackson said. "This is actually when you put together a winning season. The longevity of a career is on the practice field, continuing to work at your craft and honing it."
In last week's defeat at Baltimore, the first-team offense improved its performance on the ground from the previous week's loss to Cincinnati, but the Falcons are putting much importance on preseason statistics.
"I thought we controlled the line of scrimmage better from week one to week two," coach Mike Smith said. "I thought Steven did a very nice job, had very good vision. I thought the whole running game improved. Josh (Vaughan) and Antone (Smith) had explosive runs, so we did some nice things."
Jackson believes it might take several weeks to develop a common understanding with his offensive line, which has a new center in Peter Konz and an ongoing competition at right tackle between Lamar Holmes and Ryan Schraeder.
Left tackle Sam Baker, left guard Justin Blalock and right guard Garrett Reynolds are established veterans, but Jackson is having to learn not only the tendencies of each player but the tendencies of the line as a whole.
"I don't think there will be a moment of epiphany that it's all just going to come together in one moment," he said. "But I think over the course of the year, especially as we get into the regular season and games mean something, we'll better get a feel for one another, but right now I'm very pleased at the rate that we're growing."
The Falcons have a potentially major concern offensively if four-time Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White doesn't recover from an ankle injury before the Sept. 8 season opener at New Orleans.
But with White missing practice since getting hurt at Baltimore, Jackson appreciated that Gonzalez's return four days ago boosted the team and gave quarterback Matt Ryan another important target.