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On the verge of the playoffs, the veteran wideout reflects on mentoring Washington’s young receivers, the rise of Kirk Cousins, and how karma came back to haunt his old team

By Robert Klemko
January 08, 2016

ASHBURN, Va. — Among NFL receivers who have entered the league since 2008, DeSean Jackson ranks fifth with 442 receptions. The No. 3 man on that list, Pierre Garçon, dresses three stalls down from him in Washington’s locker room. Directly to Garçon’s right is Jordan Reed, a hulking tight end who is having a breakout season along with Kirk Cousins, the quarterback and NFC Offensive Player of the Month.

Two years removed from an ugly breakup with the Eagles and Philly’s now-fired coach Chip Kelly, Jackson is the home-run hitter in Washington’s suddenly stacked lineup. He’s recovering nicely from a series of leg injuries this season and figures to be a critical weapon as Cousins makes his first playoff start against the visiting Packers on Sunday. Jackson is making his fifth trip to the postseason, but he hasn’t won a playoff game since his rookie year, when the Eagles made a run to the NFC Championship Game. The MMQB caught up with him this week to talk about the road he’s traveled and where his team is headed.

On playing in the NFC Championship Game as a rookie...

Being a young guy and being put in that situation, I think I had great guys to look up to. Brian Westbrook, Donovan McNabb, Brian Dawkins, guys of that nature who allowed me to develop into what I needed to develop into. They talked a lot about not taking anything for granted. So I think early on in my career in Philly, having a great game in the NFC Championship [six catches, 92 yards, including a 62-yard TD in the 32-25 loss to the Cardinals], I think I figured out what it took to be successful—and those guys mentally got me ready for what was at stake. A few other times we went to the playoffs and it was one-and-done. No one has any idea what’s going to happen in this league, so I’ve tried to take advantage of every opportunity and really try to set the bar at a high level in terms of the big plays and the energy I bring to my team. I’m not the talkative, motivational guy. My leadership is on the field by playing and showing what I can do. I’m a firm believer that God has a plan for everybody and it's already set in stone, so I’m just trying to follow on that path.  

On Washington head coach Jay Gruden...

Jay set the mentality early in the season, implementing a structure and sticking with it, and not allowing too much controversy. I respect him for that. He had to make a tough decision with the quarterback, and I think everybody questioned him at first, called him crazy, but you see how it played out. We’re just trying to change the air around here because this team has been losing for so long. To do that you have to make bold decisions; you have to make decisions that certain players on the team might not be happy about, but you can’t really give in to feelings. You have to decide what’s better for the team. He stood firm, and he didn’t care what people said. As a head coach, that’s your whole job. You set in stone your structure, your mentality, the kind of guys you fill the locker room with. With [general manager Scot McCloughan] being added this year, they put great players in the room who feed off of each other. They’re not worried about what some other team said about a guy being a distraction. They see what you’re capable of doing on the field.

On his initial reaction to Gruden naming Cousins the starter over Robert Griffin III...

Honestly, I think everybody liked both quarterbacks. These two dudes have been here four years together, and the same controversy has been going on since Mike Shanahan, benching Robert and putting in Kirk, and vice versa. So that was already happening. But as far as us players, we try not to get caught up in it because we have a job to do—and if we’re not playing well, it’s going to be the same result. We just have to do what we’re asked to do. Sometimes you might not get the ball, but that’s part of being a professional.

On Kirk Cousins...

Overall, he’s had a lot of ups and a lot of downs throughout the season. Any first-time starter sitting in that storm and being that guy is going to face that. I could see last year what he had in his game. I’ve been asked several times who I like better, but I think they have different specialties that are appealing. Robert is able to be mobile, and his arm is stronger. Kirk is mentally strong, reads defenses well, knows where the ball needs to be. They have a different set of characteristics. Kirk waited a long time for his opportunity and he’s taking advantage of it.

On becoming more of a mentor in Washington...

Being able to come here and with the kind of success I had in Philly and getting a fresh start was a blessing. I mean, this is a team that I punished for six years straight. I made so many big plays on them, so to come here it was open arms. I was happy to be here, and they were happy to have me here. So I got a clean slate coming here. This is a place with a tradition they’re trying to live up to, and I think  [team owner Dan Snyder] was thrilled to have a Pro Bowl receiver. So I came to work with a smile on my face, and enjoyed having these young guys look up to me in whatever kind of way. It might not be on the field. It might be, “How do I manage my money or interact with my family?” The knowledge I have is worthless if I don’t help the young guys. I went through a lot, and I have a lot to offer these young guys with so much talent. They’ve got to maximize their talent in any way possible.

On why mobile quarterbacks struggle to attain long-term success...

Because they can’t stay healthy. You can’t take that pounding, trying to be a quarterback but take hits like a running back. I ask Kirk sometimes, do you ever even get sore? Do you ever get tired? They’re not supposed to get hit, they’re not running. All they’re supposed to do is drop back and throw the ball, so they’re not conditioned to be hit. Then you look at Michael Vick, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, and they need to learn at some point in their careers to slide. And it’s hard for a lot of these guys because they’re so competitive. They want that first down, and they can’t bring themselves to slide.

On defining a catch...

Here’s what I would say. I think if you catch it and the ball hits the ground at any time while you’re gaining possession of it, its not a catch. But as long as you’re able to get under it, and you’re cuffing it, and the tip or something hits that ground, that’s OK, that’s a catch. As long as you scoop it before it hits the ground.

The best corner of his era...

Patrick Peterson.

On life after football...

I feel like my calling is to give back to kids and mentor kids and offer whatever information I have, whether it’s training, having a company where I’m helping guys make the transition from college to the NFL. I want to do athlete management, but not necessarily being an agent.

On Nadin Khoury, the 13-year-old who inspired Jackson’s anti-bullying campaign...

I was actually in Hawaii when that story came my way. I got the email that a young boy was bullied who was a fan of mine. And all I could think of once I saw the video was my little brother and what I would want to do if that was my little brother. So meeting him was really touching. I felt like there was nothing he did to deserve what he got. He’s a bright young man and people made fun of him and made jokes. And it inspired me to get involved in the cause and do speaking engagements. I think it all happened for a reason.

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On Chip Kelly’s firing in Philadelphia...

I’m a firm believer that bad karma comes back on you. When you ruin a team like that, you do things to peoples’ families, you release people, you trade people, you get rid of good players who build something with the community, with the fans, with the kids—to have a guy come in and change up the team like that, I just believe in karma. I don’t have any bad words to say about him as far as what he feels he needs on his roster. But the guys that were on that roster created something special, from Jeremy Maclin to LeSean McCoy to Trent Cole to Todd Herremans and myself and Brandon Boykin; it goes on and on and on. When we were there, we were a brotherhood. So for everyone to go their separate ways and to see how it all ended up, it’s a very sad thing.

On changing his approach to meetings and practice after being released...

It made me a lot more mature. I got released coming off what I felt was the best year of my career. I had over 1,100 yards and I still got released? I’m asking myself, What was it that I did wrong? But it wasn’t about my skills. It was about off the field. But I was never a bad guy. I just needed to tighten up on my end, be more of a professional and know that there was more to it than how you performed.

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