In a couple of weeks, it will have been five years since the Chip Kelly-era Eagles not only closed the book on DeSean Jackson but fired up a blowtorch and watched that book turn to ash.
Releasing a superstar, three-time-Pro Bowl wide receiver at age 27, 40 minutes after a story appeared online that alleged he had significant gang ties? Refusing to clarify anything, as speculation grew that some huge league and/or legal reckoning was about to take place, something ugly enough to justify such a move? And then watching him fall into the lap of division-rival Washington, as it became clear that no such reckoning was coming?
Remember Jackson answering “I hope not” on ESPN, as interviewer Stephen A. Smith pressed him on whether Jackson believed the Eagles planted the gang story to ease public outrage over his release?
Thursday, Jackson acknowledged that the terms of his exit made playing the Eagles “kind of personal” for him, and he played that way, going 5-1 and surpassing 100 yards receiving four times, despite usually playing on inferior teams. He told of how, during an injury break in the Eagles’ loss at Tampa last season, Eagles coach Doug Pederson “walked over to the sideline, said, ‘Why you so mad at me?’ I’m like, ‘It’s not you, man.’ ”
This all seemed so very long ago and far away by Thursday morning, when Jackson stepped to the NovaCare lectern, wearing a silky olive-green shirt he’d clearly just unwrapped, and called it “a blessing and a great opportunity to be reunited with the Philadelphia Eagles,” thanking Howie Roseman, Jeffrey Lurie, and Pederson, who he called “my guy.”
This version of Jackson is still lithe and slender at 32. The scraggly goatee has become a fairly lush beard. He said everything you wanted to hear about how he intends to comport himself in Carson Wentz’s locker room. He talked about being a family man and building a legacy, as he prepares for his 12th NFL season. The man who once rapped about diamonds on his neck declared that “I want to be able to put some jewelry on my finger.”
It was fascinating to listen to, because if you knew the entire backstory, there were reasons the Eagles got tired of dealing with Jackson, reasons that teammates were less outraged than fans when he was released in the wake of the best season of his then-six-year career, with 82 catches for 1,332 yards, even if the “gang” business was not that big a deal. He alluded to all that Thursday.
Jackson spoke of instant stardom as a second-round rookie on an Eagles team that almost made the Super Bowl in 2008, of how he didn’t handle it well.
“It was kind of hard to get a hold of that at a young age. You have to go through things in life in order to mature,” he said. “I just feel like now, I have a family, I have kids. I do everything for them. I just think about what’s the legacy I want to leave when I’m gone, what do I want people to say about me? The best thing I can say is that I put it all on the line for my teammates, my family, and my coaches. Just being accountable, coming to work every day and putting your best foot forward.”
Those were not traits of, say, the 2011 DeSean Jackson, who admitted after the season that he moped through a subpar year because then-team president Joe Banner wouldn’t reopen his contract.
Jackson made it clear Thursday that his journey has been more tortuous than he would have liked, from the Eagles through Washington and then to turbulent Tampa Bay for two years, before this week’s trade back to where he started.
“There’s no hard feelings. I understand this is a business. Things happen in this business," he said. "As a young kid, coming from Los Angeles, California, honestly, if I can sit here and tell you I was going to write out this story for it to be this way, I probably wouldn’t have told you that. The best I can say is that you move forward in your life. After every step you take, you can’t go backward.”
The Eagles clearly don’t feel that reacquiring Jackson, along with a seventh-round pick next year, for a sixth-rounder this year, is going backward. This is the guy with the second-most 50-yard catches in NFL history, the player whose 6,117 receiving yards was the highest total compiled through six seasons of any Eagle, ever. But will he adjust to not being No. 1 anymore? The 2019 Eagles have Zach Ertz, Alshon Jeffery, Dallas Goedert and Nelson Agholor, before you even get to Mack Hollins -- the guy who is giving his No. 10 jersey back to Jackson.
“I’m here to help and do what I can,” Jackson said. “There might be games where I don’t get any catches. There might be games where I get a lot of catches.
“My approach, honestly, is just to come in and show the work. … As long as you can come and put in the work, guys see that you’re not taking a shortcut out, you’re working as hard as them or even harder, that’s where you earn your respect in this business and this game.”
The player who wouldn’t buy into Kelly’s early-to-bed, exercise-science-based training regimen said he has had to change his ways.
“At a young age, you don’t have to look at how I’m taking care of my body, how I’m resting, how much am I partying? How much am I doing all the wrong things?” he said. “As you get older, you mature, you wake up, and you say, ‘Oh, my body’s hurting a little more, maybe I gotta go sit in the hot tub a little more, maybe I need to get to work earlier, get on the field and go stretch out’ ... . I always used to say, ‘Cheetahs don’t stretch.’ … Now, I’m a little older, and these joints, they hurt a little more.”
One of the last questions Jackson was asked Thursday had to do with the New York Giants’ trade of Odell Beckham, Jr. to the Browns. Jackson’s answer could just as easily have applied to himself.
“This business is a crazy business, man," he said. "You never know what your destiny is going to lead out to.”