FOXBOROUGH — Football limbo is never a fun place to hang out, especially when a player has the credentials that Steven Jackson owns.
Yet that's where Jackson landed, after the Atlanta Falcons released him in February after two seasons. Jackson, along with his eight 1,000-yard rushing seasons and three trips to the Pro Bowl over an 11-year career, felt he had more football in him, despite being 32, an advanced age for an NFL running back.
No team bit on Jackson during free agency, or during training camp. When the season started, Jackson would get the occasional workout, but nobody was willing to sign a 6-foot-2-inch, 240-pound power back with 11,388 career rushing yards and 68 touchdowns, someone who has gone more than 600 carries since his last fumble, and has averaged nearly 42 receptions per season.
Cue the Patriots, who found themselves in the market for a running back when Dion Lewis, then LeGarrette Blount, suffered season-ending injuries, taking their 937 combined rushing yards and eight touchdowns with them. The Patriots had Jackson in for a workout last week, and signed him Tuesday.
Jackson, who is 18th on the NFL's career rushing list and has gone more than a calendar year since he last played in an NFL game, is back in the league.
"I'm excited. I feel I got a Christmas gift," Jackson said Wednesday, during a brief interview session with a large media gathering. "I'm just looking forward to continuing to get better, and continue to learn the way of the Patriots."
Jackson took part in his first outdoor practice with the Patriots, a day after he joined his new teammates for a session inside the field house. His availability for Sunday's road game against the Jets is unclear, but the Patriots just last week dressed wide receiver Leonard Hankerson after he participated in only two practices.
Without Lewis and Blount, the Patriots beat the Titans Sunday dressing only three running backs: Brandon Bolden, James White, and Joey Iosefa, who carried 14 times for 51 yards in his NFL debut. Now they've added a back with 158 games under his belt. But they've also added a decorated player who had been available to every team, for 10 months, and was unable to find a job until this week.
"I don't think there is any question about Jackson's intelligence, work ethic, character, or anything," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "He was a great player. Where is he now? I don't know. We'll see. It's been a long time since he's been on a football field."
Just over a year, in fact. Jackson last played on Dec. 21, 2014, his final appearance with the Falcons. He had two subpar seasons for Atlanta (543 yards in 2013, then 707 in 2014), when compared with his first nine NFL years, all spent with the St. Louis Rams.
When he was with the Rams in 2011, he had Josh McDaniels as his offensive coordinator. McDaniels now has the same job with the Patriots, so Belichick said Jackson comes in with a better background of the offense, based on that connection.
That 2011 Rams team also featured Patriots receiver Danny Amendola, who was teammates with Jackson from 2009-12.
"He's a great guy, great teammate, good friend, great football player," Amendola said. "He's big and strong, fast. He's had a lot of experience, he's played in this league for a long time. He's played in a lot of big games.
"We're happy to have him. I got to talk to him before he got here. He's excited to be here, for sure."
It sounded as if Jackson was pinching himself at the sudden turn of events.
"I think initially, when the phone call happened, it was all sort of surreal, but now I've kind of settled down," he said. "Playing football, doing what I love."
Jackson said he stayed in shape while looking for a job by "working out three days a week and jogging," but seemed to know what kind of team he was joining, and why he finally got that phone call.
"This team, they're already a championship team, and they just needed some depth to the chart," he said. "I'm just coming here to be the best running back for the organization I can be."
Jackson never led the league in rushing, but he was a dependable back asked to carry a heavy load: Over his final eight seasons with the Rams, Jackson averaged 283 carries, and missed 11 games. His best season was 2006, when he had career-best numbers in carries (346), rushing yards (1,528), receptions (90), and receiving yards (806).
Nobody is expecting Jackson to have that kind of production with the Patriots. Or anything close to it, actually. A week ago, in football terms, Jackson was on the street, looking for a home, and wondering if he'd ever get another shot at the NFL. He had concerns.
"You know what? Initially, I did," he said. "But I have a mom with strong faith, and she continued to instill that in me."
Now he's here, reunited with McDaniels and Amendola, and trying to earn playing time against a trio of running backs (Bolden, White, Iosefa) whose combined career rushing total (916 yards) would be considered a disappointing season when put up against Jackson's numbers.
The Patriots' most recent addition could pay immediate dividends. The move might also show why every other team chose to bypass him.
Until then, Jackson is trying to get up to speed, sending playbook questions to Tom Brady and the rest of the running backs.
"More about, 'What does this word mean, and what's the best way to do it?' " he said.
"I have to get in as fast as possible and learn the offense, and whenever Coach calls my number, be ready to execute like any other guy in the backfield."