It is impossible to analyze the Eagles' decision to release DeSean Jackson without the requisite context, and that context is Aaron Hernandez.
This is not to say that whatever Jackson did to warrant dismissal in the eyes of Jeffrey Lurie, Chip Kelly, and Howie Roseman is morally or legally equivalent to the first-degree murder charges that Hernandez faces. The reasons that the Eagles released Jackson vary, depending on which source is providing what reason, and they are aligned in a diverse array: on-field reasons and off-field reasons, gang ties reported in an explosive NJ.com story Friday, his general demeanor and work ethic and their impact on the younger players on the team, a mysterious burglary of Jackson's home in January that still has no suspects, Kelly's belief that he can find another receiver to match Jackson's production within the Eagles' offense.
Above all, though, the decisive factor here is the Eagles' deep concern that they "didn't know what they didn't know" about Jackson - that is, they were worried that graver, more damaging information and anecdotes about Jackson may eventually come to light. They did not want to take such a risk, and that risk is more acute and less excusable in a post-Hernandez world.
It would have been nice of Lurie, Kelly, and Roseman to tell everyone exactly why they had released Jackson, to quell the speculation and the rumors. They themselves should have explained why they were willing to eat some $6 million to play it safe, to cut Jackson loose two years after the team agreed to a five-year, $40 million contract extension with him. The move mirrors one the Patriots made last June. They released Hernandez while he was still under police investigation - and just a year after they'd signed him to his own five-year, $40 million deal.
Remember: The Patriots had been, and in many respects still are, regarded as the NFL's model franchise. They had mimicked former Eagles president Joe Banner's strategy of locking up promising young players to long-term contracts that, they hoped, would prove cost effective over time as the players improved. A series of poor drafts had made the Patriots even more apt to take a chance on a player such as Hernandez, who had reportedly failed several drug tests during his career at the University of Florida.
When it came to Hernandez, New England fell victim to what former NFL agent Joel Corry called "the whole 'Father Flanagan syndrome.' Teams will sometimes think, 'If we surround the guy with the right type of people, then we'll be able to take a questionable guy and turn him into a good guy.' " For some time now, the Eagles' organization - Lurie, in particular - has operated with that same mind-set, and it contributed, at least in part, to two of their most controversial player-personnel decisions of the last decade: Their trade for Terrell Owens in 2004 and their signing of Michael Vick in 2009. One could argue they applied the same philosophy in extending Jackson's contract, hoping that the team's leaders would help him mature.
But now that Vick and Jason Avant, the most respected voices among the Eagles' offensive players last season, are gone, the likelihood increased that Jackson would be a daily source of concern. More, if Kelly considered Jackson's skill set to be replaceable - and based on the Eagles' rapturous evaluations of the wide receivers available in this year's draft, he apparently does - then there was all the more reason to eliminate the disturbances that Jackson was already creating.
There's no doubt that Kelly wields a tremendous amount of power within the organization. He's getting what he wants, everything he wants, and one of the things he wants is the opportunity to build a new culture, to bring in players whom he perceives will meet his expectations in how they perform on the field and comport themselves off it.
This is a challenge for most NFL coaches because of the nature of a franchise's day-to-day interactions with its players. Virtually every aspect of a player's behavior and value is evaluated through a football-only prism.
"If a player's doing all the things that objectively are asked of him," a former AFC team executive told me last year, "if he's on time, makes his meetings, makes his lifts, passes his tests every Saturday night in terms of knowing the game plan, and then makes plays on Sunday - it's like, 'Do I want this guy raising my kids? No. But why wouldn't we give him an extension?"
The Eagles had given Jackson that extension, and just two years later, they showed him the door. Again: This does not mean that DeSean Jackson is Aaron Hernandez, not at all. It means that everyone around the NFL is sensitive to risk now, the Eagles and Chip Kelly as much as anyone. It means a powerful coach didn't want a problem-causing player around anymore, not only because of what DeSean Jackson has done, but because of what he might do.