By Annie Ross
To say the Redskins’ wide receiver DeSean Jackson is looking forward to playing against the Eagles this Sunday at the Linc is an understatement on the order of:
The NFL has had a bad PR month!
In Week 3, Washington’s prized offseason acquisition will get the chance to compete against the team that chose him in the second round of the 2008 draft and dumped him at the height of his productivity, in a move no one anticipated, after six years of service.
With the clash of NFC East foes on the horizon, Jackson was far from peak form Wednesday; he’s still ailing with a sprained left shoulder suffered when he was driven into the turf in last week’s 41-10 rout of Jacksonville.
Unable to practice, he was relegated to a stationary bike and “mental reps” while second-string quarterback Kirk Cousins took his place among the starting offense in workouts that were closed to reporters. And while the Redskins’ trainer hasn’t yet cleared him to compete Sunday, Jackson made his intentions known.
“If it’s all on me, I’m playing,” he said. “I don’t plan on missing this game.”
Jackson, 27, didn’t earn his three Pro Bowl honors by babying his body.
Not quite 5 feet 10, he is the lightest player on the Redskins’ roster at 178 pounds but plays with an attitude that compensates for any lack of heft.
Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall has felt the power of that attitude up close, lining up against Jackson countless times in division games the past five years. That’s why Hall was the first Redskins player to bombard Jackson with texts urging him to sign with Washington after Eagles Coach Chip Kelly released him March 28. Quarterback Robert Griffin III joined the lobbying push, as did Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams.
“You learn much more about your competitors than guys in your locker room when you’re competing against them,” Hall said Wednesday. “When you go against them, you can see that competitiveness in their eyes — in their spirit, in their play. And he has a lot of respect from me for what he can do on the football field. Even though he’s a quote-unquote ‘little guy,’ he makes big plays.
“Anytime you can get a guy like that on your team, I think it instantly makes you better.”
Jackson’s big-play ability still pains New York Giants fans four seasons after he clinched a stunning Eagles comeback by returning a punt 65 yards for a touchdown on the last play of a Dec. 19, 2010, game that seemed destined for overtime. Philadelphia trailed by 21 points at the half but roared back to knot the score in the final seconds. Jackson initially muffed a punt but saw a sliver of a crease as he scooped up the ball and took off, streaking past onrushing Giants all the way to the end zone for the 38-31 victory. And he did it on a sore foot.
That, in a nutshell, is the key to his effectiveness in an era in which prototypical NFL wide receivers are four inches taller and 25 pounds heavier, Redskins Coach Jay Gruden said
“He can run really fast,” Gruden said of Jackson, who ran a 4.35-second 40-yard dash before the NFL draft after his junior year at California. “And he’s really good after that catch. He can catch, and he’s not afraid of traffic whatsoever.”
So why did Kelly let Jackson go following his outstanding 2013 season, in which he led the Eagles with 82 catches for 1,332 yards, including nine touchdowns ?
The decision touched off a flurry of media reports alluding to high-maintenance behavior, tardiness and ties to gangs in his native Southern California. Jackson strongly rebutted the claims as categorically untrue.
At least a half-dozen NFL teams immediately voiced interest in him, with the Redskins signing him to a three-year deal four days later.
On Wednesday, Gruden offered only positives for Jackson.
“Hasn’t been any issue. Hasn’t had a problem as far as being late, as far as any personal problems,” Gruden said. “He comes out to practice, works hard. I don’t have any problem with him. I don’t know what the issue was beforehand; I can’t speak on Philly. But ever since he’s walked in these doors he’s been fine with the players and with me.”
Hall called him “nothing but a joy to be around.”
In a conference call with Washington beat writers, Kelly was no more expansive about the reason he cut Jackson than he was in March. Asked about Jackson’s off-the-field character, Kelly said he had “zero” concern about that.
“We were just going in a different direction at the wide receiver position here,” Kelly said. “Just trying to build the overall team in terms of what we were looking for offensively, and we wanted to get bigger at the wideout spot, and that’s what we did.”
Within weeks of letting Jackson go, the Eagles used a second-round draft pick on 6-3, 212-pound Jordan Matthews, who set SEC receiving records at Vanderbilt. Matthews complements Philadelphia’s other starting wide receivers, 6-4, 230-pound Riley Cooper and 6-foot, 198-pound Jeremy Maclin.
Jackson was asked multiple times Wednesday why he thought Philadelphia let him go. In multiple ways, he made clear he has moved on.
Jackson said he remains close to Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, whom he regards as a brother; the two speak almost daily. He has no idea how he will be greeted by Eagles fans upon his return to Lincoln Financial Field but says he’s prepared for boos and cheers alike. And he no longer wonders about what drove the Eagles’ decision; instead, he counts his blessings to have landed in Washington.
“Burgundy and gold are my colors now,” Jackson said.