Second play from scrimmage Sunday for the Eagles' offense. DeSean Jackson takes off on his route, the Washington defensive backs pulling back, giving him space, fearful. Jackson cuts toward the center of the field. Carson Wentz ropes him a pass. Complete. Nineteen yards. Easy. Maybe this can happen all day.
It did not happen all day. The Eagles had 68 offensive snaps during that 27-17 loss, and Jackson – back in their lineup for the first time since Week 2 of last season, nearly a year ago – was on the field for just 38 of them, sometimes sitting out a play here or there, sometimes sitting out entire series. Wentz targeted him seven times for two catches and 46 yards. The Fox cameras kept finding him on the sideline during the telecast, helmet in hand or hands on hips.
After the game, as a 21st-century athlete is wont to do, Jackson took to Twitter to dispel any thought or suggestion that he had injured himself: “For the record I wasn’t hurt or didn’t get hurt. I’m good.” So why didn’t he play more? Funny enough where Jackson is concerned, there was no grand conspiracy at work. The answer was pretty obvious. He missed 13 games last year because of a core-muscle tear that eventually required surgery. He turns 34 in December. The Eagles would like him to be available for more than three games this season.
“Obviously, he’s a big part of the offense,” coach Doug Pederson said Monday. “At the same time, we want to make sure he’s a guy who’s healthy and fresh for us down the long haul here. I think each week, I would anticipate his rep count to increase as we go. We’re going to be smart with him, but we also know he’s an explosive receiver for us, and we want to get him on the field as much as possible moving forward.”
There are certain realities that the Eagles created for themselves this season and that Pederson will have to deal with at the same time, and Jackson’s lengthy injury history – he hasn’t appeared in all 16 games of a regular season since 2013 – is just one. By limiting Jackson’s reps as much as they did, Pederson and his staff opened up more playing time for two rookie receivers: first-round pick Jalen Reagor, who played 40 snaps, the most of any wideout, and John Hightower, who played 27.
Reagor caught one pass, a 55-yard deep ball from Wentz that led to a field goal, and was open again downfield late in the first half, only to have Wentz overthrow him. He also could have fought for the football better on Wentz’s first interception, a poor throw that was still a 50-50 ball between Reagor and Washington cornerback Fabian Moreau. Hightower caught one pass, too – a screen that lost two yards – and in the second quarter dropped what could have been an easy completion.
“Both of them were just OK,” Pederson said. "You can see the explosiveness, the speed, with Jalen, being able to get behind the secondary. We just missed on the one shot. Carson overthrew him on the one post route. They were able to connect on another deep throw.
“Listen, it’s something that we’ve got to continue to practice. We’ve got to spend time with these guys. Again, it goes back to possibly missing preseason time, preseason games with these guys. There’s a game speed, and there’s a practice speed. So we’ve got to continue to coach our young players up on game speed and what it’s like. They’re going to look at this game film, and they’re going to make the necessary corrections. It was good for them, obviously, for them to play so they can get better.”
That’s one of the other realities here: After spending big the previous few years, including on Jackson and another injury-prone/riddled receiver, Alshon Jeffery, the Eagles didn’t have the salary-cap room to buy out Jackson and/or Jeffery, eat the dead money, and revamp their receiving corps. So they are attempting a kind of soft rebuild.
They used draft capital on Reagor and Hightower, and they – and when we say “they” here, we’re looking at you, Howie Roseman – will hope that Pederson can balance easing those two rookies into the NFL and coaxing as many games as possible out of Jackson and Jeffery. If, to achieve that balance, Pederson can’t be quite as aggressive in his play-calling, or Wentz has to be more cautious in his decision-making, or Jackson has to reassure his Twitter followers that he’s healthy, the Eagles will have to learn to live with it. So will everyone else.