DeSean Jackson release shows that talent isn't everything in the NFL

Friday March 28th, 2014

DeSean Jackson led the Eagles in catches, receiving yards and TDs, but the Eagles deemed him expendable.
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The demise of DeSean Jackson in Philadelphia is clearly a complicated story with many layers and ample room for interpretation. But on the surface, the real marvel is that his gaudy stats and career-year production last season didn't save his job. That doesn't happen every day in the NFL, a star player in his prime being cut loose despite being a valuable cog in his team's arsenal.

That tells you what ended Jackson's tenure as an Eagle didn't have much to do with the familiar causes of sub-par football or unwieldy finances. It wasn't his receiving talent or the size of his contract that did him in. The judgment made about Jackson had to do with the person more than the player, and it signaled just how much of an unreliable presence he had come to be seen as by the powers that be in Philadelphia.

Talent alone doesn't trump all as much as it once did. Jackson hitting the street as a free agent just months after a 82-catch, 1,332-yard Pro Bowl season speaks to the increased emphasis NFL teams are putting on making sure they have players who are right for their program, and how wary they are of investing in someone they don't trust. Jackson looked like the perfect fit for head coach Chip Kelly's offense in Philadelphia, but there's more to it than that these days.

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I don't know with any certainty to what degree the Eagles were uncomfortable with the decisions Jackson made regarding who he hung around with outside the locker room. The eye-opening report on Friday that Jackson had suspected gang-related ties may or may not have been the final straw that prompted Philadelphia to release him after the finest season of his six years as an Eagle. Perhaps it merely affected the timing of his exit, rather than prompting the team's actual decision to move on.

But this much seems clear in retrospect: Kelly wasn't sold on Jackson as a person, and reportedly had issues with how he approached his job as a player. The rumblings were that Kelly was never comfortable with Jackson's act and didn't believe his attitude, accountability and commitment level matched those of his fellow Eagles. Maybe it was a case of Jackson not fully buying into Kelly's program, or Kelly not wanting to give the perception of cultivating a star system on his roster. Either way, a tipping point was resoundingly reached, and Jackson went from being considered an asset to a liability seemingly overnight. But perhaps it was only sudden from the outside looking in, and had been heading to this point ever since Kelly arrived in Philly in early 2013.

Had this been a year ago, before the specter of Aaron Hernandez and other character-related scandals casting a chilling shadow over the NFL, it's fair to wonder if the Eagles would have been so quick to walk away from a playmaker of Jackson's pedigree. But there is a climate change of sorts taking place in the league when it comes to off-field behavior and what teams will tolerate, and Jackson's release stands as the latest example of the shifting norms.

In time perhaps we'll know the details and understand Philadelphia's motivation behind the move better than we do now. Did the Eagles feel pressure to act because they were worried that Jackson could some day cast the organization in the kind of harsh light that New England found itself in last summer with Hernandez, with the Patriots being forced to defend how they missed any sign of his potential for violence?

Did their character concerns extend that far, or did they view Jackson, 27, as an inconsistent and somewhat mercurial me-first talent who posed more trouble than he was worth? Something of a younger, less-disruptive version of Terrell Owens, roughly a decade after he infamously fire-bombed the Eagles' 2005 season.

We haven't really heard anything from Kelly and the Eagles yet, but they must have had some pretty significant problems with Jackson to warrant letting their leading receiver go without so much as a third-day draft pick in return. The assumption is that the club didn't always like what they got from Jackson at work, and knew enough about his life away from football to consider him a risk that needed to be avoided. Especially in a league that's ever more sensitive today to its image and the damage done to it by player misconduct.

Clearly much thought went into this move, given the amount of smoke there was in recent weeks about Jackson's tenuous status in Philly. After all, Kelly, doesn't have a reputation for going all knee-jerk in the reaction department. He and his Eagles showed patience when the racially-charged Riley Cooper firestorm erupted during last summer's training camp, buying time for the controversy to calm down, before slowly taking steps to reinsert him into the locker room environment. Philadelphia even reinvested in Cooper during free agency, while seemingly preparing to cut ties with Jackson, whose track record of production dwarfed any other Eagles receiver.

But the playing field on gameday obviously isn't where Kelly found Jackson lacking. And this wasn't a just-business salary cap maneuver either. Jackson hung up great numbers in 2013 and hadn't priced himself out of the Eagles' salary cap. This was more about who he was than what he was. It was a judgment call made by Philadelphia that Jackson had become part of the problem rather than part of the solution. The issues the Eagles had with him as a person overwhelmed the positives he produced as a player, and in the NFL, making a call like that is still relatively rare.

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