HOUSTON – By the numbers, Tyson Jackson's career in the NFL hasn't lived up to the lofty draft slot he earned coming out of LSU.
A No. 3 pick like Jackson is expected to be a perennial Pro Bowler, a devastating force with eye-popping sack numbers, no matter what position he's asked to play.
Those numbers have never materialized in Jackson's eight seasons in the NFL. First with Kansas City and now with Atlanta, Jackson has nine career sacks and no Pro Bowl appearances, but the West St. John High graduate says his career has been better than many people believe.
"When you're playing the two-gapping defensive end position, it tends to be overshadowed," Jackson said. "People tend to look more at the outside linebacker position in that type of defense, but I'm what they call a team player. At the end of the day, I just care about wins and not stats."
Pass rushing was never supposed to be Jackson's specialty. According to his NFL.com draft profile from 2009, Jackson's strengths were all suited best to stopping the run: size, strength, an ability to contain and disengage from blocks.
The profile also says he lacked the burst, closing speed and pass-rush moves to consistently create pressure against the passing game despite 18½ sacks at LSU, including 8½ in 2006.
Scott Pioli, Kansas City's general manager at the time, wasn't worried about a lack of pass-rush skills. Pioli wanted an anchor to play the end, plug two gaps by taking on multiple offensive linemen and free up the linebackers to make plays.
"The scheme is the scheme," Jackson said. "I got drafted to a 3-4 team to play a 3-4 defensive end position, and going into that situation, just looking at players that play that position, it's one of those positions that's not glamorous when it comes to numbers."
Fans in Kansas City saw a player who didn't live up to the billing, and after four seasons, Jackson took a $10 million pay cut, then headed to free agency a year later, looking for a new place to call home.
For some Chiefs fans, Jackson is one of the emblems of a disappointing Pioli era, an investment that failed to pay the kind of dividends Kansas City needed.
Jackson looks at his time in Kansas City differently.
"I saw it as a success," Jackson said. "Scott Pioli drafted me over there, and people try to give me a tough time, but people don't understand, the guy is unbelievable."
Pioli, now with the Falcons, still believed in Jackson, enough to convince the Falcons to give him a five-year, $25 million deal three years ago.
Back then, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan — just hired in New Orleans as linebackers coach — was installing Jackson's kind of system.
"It was the perfect scheme. They were switching over to a 3-4 at the time, with the old coaching staff," Jackson said. "Scott Pioli was in the front office, and I just felt like this would have been the perfect scheme for me to come in and produce my talent and show what I was worth."
A year later, everything changed.
When Atlanta hired Dan Quinn, the Falcons shifted to the 4-3 system he'd run in Seattle, placing Jackson on the edge of no-man's land. Atlanta's defense favors penetration on the defensive line at every spot other than nose tackle, and Jackson had to learn to play a different role.
"It changes a whole lot, because we're not two-gapping any more," Jackson said. "There's some principles that still apply, and I still get to play the same position that I played, for the most part, my entire career in the NFL."
Used at defensive end on obvious rushing downs and shifting inside to defensive tackle at times, Jackson has averaged 22 tackles a year in three seasons in Atlanta, speculation will increase after the Super Bowl that Atlanta could part ways with Jackson, who will count $5.85 million against the salary cap, in the offseason.
"For sure, I've had some ups and downs, but I continue to battle, and I try to treat football as much like life as possible," Jackson said. "You're going to get knocked down, and you've just got to find a way to get up and fight."
Jackson's fight has helped the Falcons reach the ultimate stage.
Until nine days ago, Jackson had no sacks in Atlanta. Three full seasons, 48 games without taking down a quarterback, but the Falcons needed him to help fill the role of an injured Adrian Clayborn against Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
A sack materialized, part of a Falcons defense that held Rodgers at bay long enough for Atlanta's offense to bury Green Bay's defense and punch Jackson's ticket to the Super Bowl for the first time.
A member of LSU's 2007 BCS national championship team, Jackson has won a title before.
Now he has a chance to play for the ultimate prize, and when the former LSU star looks back on his career, he has no regrets.
"This is unbelievable," Jackson said. "It's a childhood dream that came true, and I'm just blessed to be in this position."