DeSean Jackson suffers from growing pains
For the two steps DeSean Jackson has taken forward, there was Sunday's one step back as a reminder that progress can sometimes be arduous.
The Eagles wide receiver's costly late-game unsportsmanlike personal foul offset his finest performance in three years. Jackson caught nine passes for 193 yards and a touchdown and could have doubled the receiving yards had he and Michael Vick connected on a few more deep passes.
Through two games, Jackson is on pace to shatter personal records. The season is young and continues Thursday night when Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs visit, but it's difficult to imagine the speedy receiver regressing in Chip Kelly's explosive offense.
The steps forward he took his first two seasons were followed by more than just one step back. Jackson's numbers steadily decreased the following three years, sometimes for reasons unrelated to his efforts.
But he conceded this week that he felt partly responsible for the Eagles' two-year slide, and as a result has taken on more of a leadership role.
"I'm 27. I got a lot of things riding on it for me this year," said Jackson, 26 until December. "I've had some bad past few years here, so I'm just trying to do everything I can where everybody is believing in each other and buying into what we're doing."
A few years ago, Jackson's comment that he had a lot riding on the season could have been interpreted differently. He was playing in the final year of his contract in 2011 and had self-admittedly let his desire for a new deal become a distraction.
Jackson eventually signed a five-year, $47 million contract extension in March 2012, so there would appear to be little at stake in terms of dollars this season. But his salary next season and beyond isn't guaranteed.
Asked to clarify, Jackson said his goals were strictly team-related. There were times in recent seasons when Jackson isolated himself, teammates have said. But he has seemingly been an exemplary teammate this year. He had the best training camp of any player and was a peacemaker when Riley Cooper and Cary Williams fought two weeks ago.
The Eagles' success, though, hinges on his on-field exploits more than anything. And Jackson has delivered thus far in a scheme that appears tailor-made for a receiver who needs space to operate.
"He's really fast, he catches the ball extremely well, and he's a very difficult matchup," Kelly said. "So as a coach, it's a lot of fun to have a guy like that on your team when you're trying to figure out different ways to get him the football because he can affect the outcome of the game."
Jackson has caught 16 passes for an NFL-leading 297 yards. And he already has as many touchdowns (two) as last season. It would be ridiculous to project his numbers over a 16-game season, but Jackson would need to catch only 3.3 passes for 62 yards a game to top career marks of 62 receptions and 1,156 yards.
On Sunday, the Chargers picked their poison and concentrated their efforts on stopping running back LeSean McCoy, thus opening Jackson up deep. But he caught passes all over the field in Kelly's four-corners offense, especially in the middle of the field.
Early in his career, Jackson was a threat over the middle. But he became less dangerous there from 2009 on and caught only 15 passes for 175 yards and no touchdowns in 11 games last season. He already has nine grabs for 163 yards and a score.
"I think the offense does a great job of allowing me to really go just out there and be moved around," Jackson said. [It] "keeps defenses off guard because a lot of times I come to the line of scrimmage and they don't know where I'm at."
On Sunday, Jackson kept beating cornerback Shareece Wright deep when he was lined up outside. The Chargers mistakenly offered little safety help over time. But Kelly exploited mismatches by moving his receiver around like a chess piece. Last year, Jackson lined up in the slot 17.3 percent of the time, according to Pro Football Focus. This year, he's up to 28.8 percent.
For instance, on one first-down play in the third quarter, Jackson lined up in the slot when San Diego had its base defense on the field. The Chargers were in a Cover 2 zone defense and had only a linebacker underneath and safety over top to defend Jackson.
He ran criss-crossing routes with receiver Jason Avant, who drew the safety toward him, and Vick hit a wide-open Jackson over the middle. The receiver had nothing but green in front and ran the rest of the way for a 37-yard touchdown.
Tackle Lane Johnson's illegal-formation penalty brought the score back, but the play illustrated how lethal Jackson can be in Kelly's up-tempo offense. He already has 142 yards after the catch. Last year, he finished with a total of 249.
Before the season, it appeared possible that Jackson might have played his last season for the Eagles, or at the least would have returned only if he agreed to restructure a contract that pays him a $10.25 million base salary in 2014.
That could end up being a bargain with Jackson poised to post record-breaking numbers in an offense perfectly suited to his skill set.
"If it happens that way then so be it," Jackson said. "But I'm just worried about playing and winning games every time we get the opportunity to go out there."
If he can cut out the ill-timed penalties, Jackson could be one step closer to his goals.
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