When the NFL lockout finally ended last summer and practices began, DeSean Jackson stayed away.
Stuck in a contract dispute with the Eagles, Jackson skipped the first 11 days of training camp, setting in motion a season that would quickly turn sour for the receiver and his team. This year, though, Jackson is already looking forward to the full-team practices that begin Tuesday, sounding reenergized by finally putting his contract saga behind him.
"The [off] time's been long enough already," Jackson said Saturday. "It's very close to being time to get it on."
For the first time in a long while, Jackson seemed relaxed and at ease. Jackson signed a five-year deal in March with $15 million guaranteed, and if he has truly put the distractions of the last two seasons behind him and can return to his Pro Bowl form, he could ignite the Eagles offense.
"Mentally, he's in a good place," coach Andy Reid said. "These are young guys, and so you have that stress of the second [NFL] contract. There's so much emphasis put on that, and so that part has been relieved from his mind. Now he can just concentrate on football and doing that to the best of his abilities."
What a difference a few months and a settled contract make.
For the last two years, contract concerns hovered over Jackson like storm clouds. He clashed with the team and often shunned the media, knowing that any interview would eventually turn to the business questions for which he had no firm answers. The star who so clearly loves to entertain on the field was wary and at times surly as pressure and scrutiny mounted. The fun seemed drained from his game.
Jackson was markedly more comfortable, though, at a news conference last week promoting a health fair he sponsored. He smiled, granted an insightful interview, and advised teammate LeSean McCoy to learn from his missteps and not hold out as the running back enters the final year of his rookie contract. Jackson even hugged a reporter.
Having a new deal, he said, felt like "100 pounds of stress relieved off my shoulders."
"It was a tough year for myself, had a lot of struggles, had a lot of things that just took me off of my game and my focus," Jackson said. "This year, a lot of that has just been removed, and I'm able to focus and be comfortable and be confident that I'm at a place where I'm wanted. I just really want to be able to bring a championship to the city."
Jackson wore a shirt with "DJ" embroidered on his cuff and a watch whose gems threw off dazzling pink light.
He is a dynamic, two-time Pro Bowler and a marquee name, but as frustration with his rookie second-round contract mounted and the Eagles spent lavishly elsewhere, Jackson's play dipped in 2010 and dove in 2011. He had just four touchdowns last year, the same number he scored his first season. He was benched for a game against Arizona after missing a team meeting and sat down during a loss to the Patriots for a lack of effort.
Every move, every statement, every example of body language was scrutinized. Jackson struggled under that weight.
Now, questions about his future are gone and Jackson said he has already been in Philadelphia working with quarterback Michael Vick, and has learned from his down 2011.
"You have to struggle before you have any progress," Jackson said.
"This year's a very important year for us. I think we have to start off on the right track," he added, lamenting last season's 1-4 start.
Having Jackson happy and back to his high-octane ways would be a huge help.