Now comes the interesting part for DeSean Jackson and the Eagles.
The franchise tag was widely expected. Now we see if the tag is a temporary patch on a ruptured relationship, or a step toward saving the marriage. The Eagles say they want Jackson long-term. Jackson says he wants to be here.
But a one-year deal that would give Jackson a big raise and leave the Eagles with only a short commitment might make the most sense for both sides.
Yes, both Jackson and the team have tossed bouquets about being together for years to come. Left unsaid in both of their prepared statements was the key phrase: “at the right price.”
It’s obvious that they haven’t been able to agree on that and for all of the encouraging words there is also the PR battle to consider: neither party wants to be seen as the recalcitrant one who forced a split. The Eagles' glowing words about Jackson might be genuine, or they might be a way to drive up his price in a trade, or a message intended to entice him into staying with the team that says they always wanted him.
For the Eagles, a one-year deal basically gives Jackson and the team a do-over of his contract year, a second chance to evaluate the player and his attitude before making a big commitment in years and dollars. If Jackson plays under the tag in 2012, there wouldn’t be any excuses about his being distracted because he’s underpaid. (Money, of course, having a long and illustrious history of solving all problems and bringing out the best in everyone involved).
As with all big Eagles decisions, there’s also the Reid factor. If you believe that Andy Reid is under pressure to win this year, and that Michael Vick is under pressure to win this year, with his contract guarantees running out after 2012, then it makes sense to give them both the receiving weapon they have so often utilized so well. If it doesn’t work, a one-year tag lets the Eagles cut ties with Reid, Vick and even DeSean after the season and build a new offense in a different direction.
For Jackson, the one-year contract and roughly $9.4 million tag tender gives him the biggest payday of his career and still leaves open the door for a top-tier contract in 2013. It's hard to envision the Eagles paying top dollar right now, not after an erratic 2011, but Jackson can place a bet on himself by signing the tag and returning to his 2010 and 2009 form.
If Jackson blows up and the Eagles want to keep him, they’ll have to pay big. Using the franchise tag for a second time next season would require the team to give him a 20 percent raise from this year’s salary, at a minimum, under the new NFL labor deal. And if 2011 turns out to be a one-time speed bump, the Eagles will have far more incentive to put a bigger offer on the table.
Are there risks in a one-year deal? Of course. If Jackson gets hurt or fails to match his previous heights, his value might never recover. Maybe that fear pushes him toward an agreement now. If he plays well, the Eagles know will have to pay more next season.
The two sides have until July 16 to work out a long-term contract (normally it’s July 15, but since that falls on a weekend they get another day). And though most of the work will happen behind closed doors, we’ll continue to watch one of the most mesmerizing, divisive sports figures in the city, no matter how dry the material.
In a highlight-saturated sports world, Jackson is one of the few athletes who can still make you stop and pay attention, because he just might do something you’ve never seen before, and then dance at the end.
He might take an opening pass 80 yards for a score. He might catch four balls for 210 yards and punctuate a score with a childish yet stylish splash into the end zone. He might return a punt for a game-winning touchdown as time expires and prance along the goal line for good measure.
But he can be explosive one week and invisible the next. His personality can veer from showmanship to surliness. He’ll haul in a 50-yard bomb, and then give back the entire gain by needlessly tossing the ball at an opposing coach. He’ll short-arm passes in the end zone, then remind us of his talent with a 62-yard strike that breaks open a season-ending win (a big play that arrived too late, it should be noted, to save the Eagles season). He’ll inexcusably skip a team meeting, then later own up to his mistake and apologize.
Jackson, in my experience, is neither as good nor as bad as most think, though with a distant relationship with most reporters, it’s hard to get to know him. He loves to be a star, but most days shrugs off interview requests with a dead-eyed stare. He can drop a homophobic slur on the radio and befriend a young boy harassed by bullies. He can seem selfish, yet genuinely enjoy the success of running mates Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy.
When reporters spoke to Jackson after the Eagles’ last game, I asked about his big touchdown and whether his celebration carried any added emotion since it might have been his last as an Eagle. He glared back, feeling that the topic was well covered. “Why you always asking controversial question?” he demanded, and stalked away.
A few weeks later, I heard someone call out to me at Philadelphia International Airport. In a fog after an early morning flight, I hadn’t seen him and he could have easily just kept going his own way, but there was DeSean, jauntily waving my way as he pulled his luggage toward another offseason destination.
Just when you think you have him pegged, Jackson does something that defies easy categorization. As he and the Eagles try to figure his long-term future, the safest route might be using one more season to sift through the evidence.