DeSean Jackson had the jitters. For a wide receiver who carries himself with the utmost confidence – which is essential to play in the NFL at barely 160 pounds – it was a telling admission of how he felt upon his first game back with the Eagles.
“I was overexcited like a kid before Christmas,” Jackson said. “I know the reunion of me coming back, and what I mean to this city, and what the city means to me.”
But Jackson said those anxieties had lessened by Sunday’s opener against the Redskins and were exterminated when he took an early personal foul.
“I had the penalty and I got that out of the way and I was good,” Jackson said. “My teammates said, ‘Chill out,’ but, no, I just had to get that out.”
The penalty, in which Jackson mixed it up with Redskins corner Quinton Dunbar, would be the lone misstep in his homecoming at Lincoln Financial Field. He dazzled fans, who earlier gave him the loudest ovation during introductions, with two 50-plus-yard touchdowns and finished with eight catches for 154 yards in the Eagles’ 32-27 comeback win over Washington.
His first score came in the second quarter after the defense spotted the Redskins 17 points, and the second gave the Eagles the lead, 21-20. They never trailed again.
For months, Jackson and Carson Wentz worked on their chemistry. They had their bumps, and because the quarterback was held out of the preseason, never had the opportunity to compete together against live competition.
“I love his emotion. I love his attitude,” Wentz said. “Obviously, that penalty’s something that we would all say you can’t do that. But just his attitude and what he brings to the table, mentally, he’s a fighter and he wanted to show it today.”
The sight of Jackson burning secondaries brought back memories of his first stay in Philadelphia. So, too, did the untimely penalty. But his emotion, however misguided at times, is part of the package.
If that’s what Jackson, listed generously at 5-foot-10, 175, needs for fuel, then coach Doug Pederson might be inclined to overlook a few transgressions. Chip Kelly wasn’t willing and hastened Jackson’s exit to Washington more than five years ago.
But the Eagles lost that deep spark, and while they won a Super Bowl in the interim, they were never able to replace Jackson’s ability to take the top off defenses and track high-arching passes.
“We haven’t had a guy like that since he left,” tight end Zach Ertz said. “To know that each and every time you line up as an offense the next play could be a touchdown, it’s huge.”
The first touchdown came almost out of nowhere. The Eagles had failed to drive into Redskins territory on their first three possessions and faced third-and-10 on their fourth. Pederson dialed up a play in which Alshon Jeffery was the primary receiver on a deep crossing route.
“The way [the Redskins] played their coverage was like in and out,” Jackson said. “Josh Norman was outside and I was inside the slot and he was supposed to be guarding Alshon, but when I went, he took me. The safety cut down on the route and he threw the ball and I just ran at it.”
As the ball sailed through the air and Jackson ran by Norman, thousands of fans stood on their feet awaiting the moment many had expected when the Eagles traded for the 32-year-old receiver in March.
“When I saw that ball go up in the air, I knew it was [a touchdown],” Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham said. “I didn’t even have to look.”
The Eagles, though, couldn’t capitalize on the momentum shift and went into the break trailing 20-7.
“I kept stressing to the boys when we came in the locker room that I have been over there before in that locker room,” Jackson said of the Redskins, “and I know how they are. … They probably thought they had the game sealed and won.”
A 12-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 5-yard Wentz-to-Jeffery touchdown trimmed the lead to six points on the opening series of third quarter. And after the defense forced a three-and-out, the Eagles needed only three plays before Jackson hit pay dirt again.
Jeffery, Jackson, and slot receiver Nelson Agholor were again lined up to Wentz’s right. But this time Agholor ran a deep cross, and when the safety followed him and no one covered the streaking Jackson, Wentz let it fly.
“We knew all week, once they get into this coverage and we see them giving their signal, Carson had the opportunity to check me a couple times on a certain route,” Jackson said.
Said Ertz: “I knew the check on the second [touchdown]. I started wondering, ‘Man, should I even run my route on this one?’”
Redskins coach Jay Gruden had seen this show before. Jackson killed the Eagles after he went to Washington and subsequently the Buccaneers. In eight games against former teams, he now has 37 catches for 790 yards and five touchdowns.
“You never blow a coverage when [Jackson] is on the field on the other team,” Gruden said.
Jackson also has a record of fast starts. His six 100-yard receiving games in openers is tied with Michael Irvin for the most in NFL history. The first came all the way back in 2008 after the Eagles drafted the California product in the second round.
Some predicted back then that Jackson wouldn’t survive the NFL pounding. He’s had his share of injuries, and games when defenses have neutralized his deep-ball threat. But there might not be anyone ever as good at delivering home runs. Only Jerry Rice, with 36, has more 50-plus-yard touchdowns than Jackson’s 31.
“I am here for the long haul,” Jackson, emblazoned in his trademark gold necklaces, said at the Linc podium. “A lot of people sleep on me regardless of what the case may be, even the respect that I deserve. I just keep that on my shoulder every time I go out on the field and play.”