It is one of the first things you notice about Atlanta Falcons running back Jamal Anderson, after you get past his penchant for baggy suits ("He looks like one of the Oompa-Loompas," Falcons free safety Eugene Robinson says), his abundant nicknames (Jam, Jam 32, Trey Deuce, Jam the Juggernaut) and his curiously retro hairdo ("I think he's trying to bring back the jheri curl," says defensive end Chuck Smith). The man is preoccupied with status.
Last spring Anderson and his left tackle, Bob Whitfield, took in an Atlanta Braves game. As the two friends strolled through Turner Field, several fans acknowledged the running back, who turned to the 6'5", 310-pound lineman and said, smugly, "You see how large I am in this town."
In hopes of bringing Anderson back down to size, Whitfield kept track of how many people recognized Anderson and how many recognized him. Anderson won on the basis of his popularity with "white guys over 45," says Whitfield. "That's his demographic. Kids had no idea who he was. Women didn't look at him."
They didn't then, but they do now. The Falcons are 13-2, champions of the NFC West and playoff-bound for only the sixth time in their 32-year history. At long last Anderson has closed the gap between his robust opinion of himself and his feats on the field. He has, in the parlance of the players, blown up.
Serving as the primary bludgeon in coach Dan Reeves's medieval but effective ball-control attack, the 26-year-old Anderson has rushed for a team-record 1,743 yards this season (second in the NFL only to the Denver Broncos' Terrell Davis, who had 1,830) and 13 touchdowns. Not bad for a guy out of Utah who lasted until the seventh round of the '94 draft, men found himself fifth on the Atlanta depth chart when he reported to training camp. Upon entering a coach's office that spring and seeing his name at the bottom of a list of running backs, Anderson picked up a marker and drew an arrow from his name to the top.
"He's been cocky like that since the day he got here," says Whitfield, who is only too happy to point out that this self-assurance was sometimes misplaced. As a rookie backing up Craig Heyward, Anderson had two carries for minus-one yard. "And it wasn't 'cause there was no blocking," says Whitfield. "He just missed the holes."
After another season behind Heyward, Anderson served as a secondary option in the run-and-shoot scheme of then coach June Jones, rushing for a respectable 1,055 yards in 1996. The firing of Jones after the '96 season and the hiring of Reeves—who favors more of a run-run-run-and-shoot offense—portended bigger numbers for Anderson. So did the signing of bulldozing fullback Bob Christian, a free agent from the Carolina Panthers whom the Falcons brought in to clear holes for him. Anderson, who goes 5'11" and 234 pounds, took one look at the 5'11", 230-pound Christian and said, "You need to eat more."
"Before I got to know Jamal, I was thinking, I'm supposed to put my butt on the line for this guy?" says Christian, who injured his left knee on Dec. 13 and is out for the season. "But when you get to know him, you realize that [trash talk] is just his shtick. He knows we know that's not really him."
Even with a bum right ankle and an offensive line unaccustomed to Reeves's smash-mouth style, Anderson picked up 1,002 yards in 1997. But once his blockers got the hang of the system, Anderson responded with a breakout season that has been the most successful in the history of this often sad-sack franchise. His 147 yards in Sunday's title-clinching 24-17 victory at Detroit marked the 11th time Anderson has rushed for more than 100 yards in '98, and his 392 carries lead the league. Due in large part to him, Atlanta's average time of possession, 33:31, was the NFL's best through Sunday's games. Thus does Anderson help keep the Falcons' defense fresh and their quarterback conscious. When number 32 is in a rhythm, opposing defenders can't zero in on Chris Chandler, the team's talented but brittle signal-caller.
"He's got great feet," says St. Louis Rams linebacker Roman Phifer. "If he has room, he'll make a move, but when it's tight, he puts his head down. With his power"—Anderson squats 670 pounds—"he always goes forward." Never quite so far forward, it seems, as when the opponent is St. Louis: In two games against the Rams this season, Anderson rushed for 360 yards.