PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson knows from experience that there are few things more dangerous in football than an emotionally charged DeSean Jackson, which is why he’s relieved to be sharing a sideline with the wide receiver again starting Sunday against the Washington Redskins (1 p.m. ET, Fox).
It took all of 11 seconds for Pederson to be reminded of that danger during last season’s Week 2 game between the Eagles and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as Jackson darted downfield on the first play of the game, snatched a pass from Bucs QB Ryan Fitzpatrick out of the air and sped for a 75-yard touchdown. That was just the start of it.
“After he had just scored, there was another play on our sideline,” Pederson said. “He looks at me and says something like, ‘You never should have let me go! You never should have let me go!’ And I was like, ‘I wasn’t even there! I wasn’t even there!’… ‘Why you mad at me?'”
Jackson laughed at that exchange during his return-to-Philly news conference in March after the Eagles acquired him from Tampa. “It’s not you, man,” he said of Pederson. No, it was Pederson’s predecessor whom Jackson had an issue with. Chip Kelly pushed for Jackson’s release in 2014, despite the fact that he was coming off a career season with 82 catches for more than 1,300 yards and nine touchdowns. Moments before he was cut, a report dropped laying out Jackson’s alleged gang ties. Jackson called it a “smear campaign and said his release was a “slap in the face.”
He spent the next five seasons making life miserable for the Eagles every time he played them — first with the Redskins and then with the Bucs. Jackson averaged 95 yards per game and a career-best 14.23 yards per target versus Philly, with his team winning five of the six matchups. He celebrated touchdowns by flapping his arms in the end zone, taunting his former team as they exited with a loss, and he acknowledged upon return that those games were personal.
“They had the opportunity to keep me, I guess, and they didn’t, so I get to take out whatever it is I feel on the opponent,” said Jackson, who will play Sunday despite breaking his ring finger last week. “I’ve always had the same mentality. That’s the fierce competitive edge that I have: Whoever I go against, whether it’s my best friend or my worst enemy, I’ve been trained and programmed to go about my business in an orderly fashion — to beat your opponent and beat him bad.”
Given the way his first stint in Philadelphia ended and the pain it caused him, it might seem counter-intuitive for Jackson to openly welcome a reunion with the Eagles. But those close to him were not surprised.
Returning to the Eagles represents a shot at redemption, an opportunity to create a storybook ending rather than letting someone else dictate the script. It gives him a chance to recapture some of the success he tasted the first time. According to his older brother, Byron, it also allows him to reconnect with a time and place that bring him closer to his late father, Bill, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2009 after DeSean’s rookie NFL season. Bill was DeSean’s No. 1 fan and the architect of a team that was assembled around him as a boy and helped guide him from South Central Los Angeles to the NFL. At the time of Bill’s death, DeSean dedicated the rest of his career to him.
“Just arriving in Philadelphia today and driving [around], me and my other little brother [Desmond] were like, ‘Man, I think about Dad when I’m in this city.’ This is where Dad watched DeSean play in the NFL, something that my dad always dreamed about,” Byron said. “And for DeSean to come back to this city, to this team, he gets to almost embrace that type of feeling all over again, which is special.”
Jackson was gone for five years and came back a more mature man. His inner-circle has been tightened. He’s now 32 years old and has two sons, 4 and 1. A few days off might once have meant a trip to South Beach, but now it is usually spent with family.
“DeSean has kids. Kids are whipping his ass, just like they’re whipping mine,” right tackle Lane Johnson said. “That’s what’s happening with DeSean.”
Jackson is still uniquely himself. When the rest of the team is warming up for practice, he usually stands off to the side and chats up a staffer. During special-teams drills at training camp, it wasn’t uncommon for a few members of his circle to be called onto the field to hang out and talk. The first time around, when he was less understood and carried himself with more of an edge, that might have been interpreted as a player who wasn’t falling in line.
But Pederson has a good feel for Jackson and has watched as he has taken on a leadership role. Rookie receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside says Jackson checks in on him every day and stays after practice with him for 20 minutes or so to give him extra work or offer tips. “Anything I need, he’s there for,” he said. Veteran teammates have found Jackson to be fully engaged and easy to work with.
“He’s an awesome guy, and just him coming in here, he’s had a great attitude with learning and picked up on things really quickly,” quarterback Carson Wentz said. “And then off the field, obviously, we might have different hobbies and interests and those types of things — he’s not coming into the woods to hunt with me or anything like that — but we can just talk life. He’s got a couple kids and everything, and we can talk about real life and everything and him as a dad. So it’s been cool to get to know him on a deeper level, more than just football.”
Wentz and Jackson have been working on their chemistry all summer. The deep ball is starting to click. With Jackson ready to rip the top off opposing defenses, this talent-laden offensive unit has a chance to be scary good.
That’s especially true given the circumstances. Now that he’s back home in Philly, Jackson has some wrongs to right, a few demons to exorcise and lots of anticipation to release. It’s all five years in the making. Pederson plans to harness that energy on Sunday against Jackson’s other former team.
“I try to let him just feel it, feel the emotion of the game,” Pederson said. “It’s going to be a great welcome back for him when he makes that first catch or hopefully a touchdown.
“I think guys who have been here before and have felt opening day and have moved on and come back, I think they miss that just a little bit. So for him, I know he’s going to be excited.”