YES, THIS IS yet another column about the Eagles' release of DeSean Jackson, an event now some 21 months in the rearview mirror.
I am the ghost of Chip Kelly decisions past. Look upon me!
The past doesn't change, but the prism through which it is viewed certainly can shift, as the figures atop monuments to the Confederacy would probably tell us if they could, while being moved or dismantled.
There was a time when many observers thought Kelly was right to rid himself of Jackson and his moodiness, his off-the-field adventures, his dodgy friends from LA. The assumption was that Kelly, who was right about so much in his first year coaching the Eagles, must be right about this, too, must know he could replace Jackson's production without having to endure the accompanying drama.
Maybe that NJ.com report about gang affiliations, which surfaced less than an hour before Jackson's March 28, 2014, release, was the first shoe to drop in some sort of suspension or arrest scenario. Maybe Jackson's lifestyle or just his lack of size would seriously short-circuit his career. Maybe we had seen the best of him, and the Eagles knew that.
Well, here we are, nearly two full NFL seasons later. There has been no Jackson suspension, no arrest. DeSean missed six games with injury this season, but he seems fine now, is averaging a potent 18.8 yards per catch. He caught six passes for 153 yards and a touchdown in helping Washington top Buffalo on Sunday. It seems likely there is a guy in just about every NFL locker room who grew up around gang members. And for the second year in a row, Jackson will help the Redskins try to end the Eagles' playoff hopes.
As the 2015 Eagles stagger toward the finish line, well short of expectations, it seems clear now that releasing their then-27-year-old, three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver, not caring that they were handing him to a division rival while getting absolutely nothing in return, was the start of a trend that has helped put the Kelly era on a downward slope.
Jackson is scheduled to participate in a conference call with Philadelphia-area reporters Wednesday; no doubt he is eager to delve into the struggles of the weaponless wideout corps and torpid, struggling offense Kelly has engineered through his personnel decisions. DeSean also might have a few thoughts about the way Kelly handles talented players.
For a while, Kelly's success on the field blinded many fans to the reality of what he did in shedding Jackson, what he continued to do in the cases of LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin and, to a lesser extent, Evan Mathis. That is, divest himself of Pro Bowl-level players because of some issue he didn't want to deal with, without taking enough care to ensure he could adequately replace them; the Eagles' record under Kelly in the draft and in obtaining talent through free agency is middling to poor.
What do the Eagles have to show for those four top talents? One thing: Kiko Alonso, a linebacker whose defensive coordinator, Bill Davis, acknowledged Tuesday looks completely lost at least a few plays a game. A linebacker who would have a hard time getting on the field for any playoff-caliber defense in the NFL, at his current level of play.
One of the most impressive things about Kelly's 10-6 first season was the way he took players drafted to play in Andy Reid's offense and defense and found ways to make them successful in his system. The best year of Jackson's career was 2013. Ditto McCoy, who led the league in rushing. They might never hit those numbers again.
This is a mark of good coaching, in any sport, adapting to the talent at hand. Yet this is the very thing Kelly has tried his hardest to eliminate, finding excuses - often blaming the salary cap, which somehow has room for $40 million worth of DeMarco Murray - for jettisoning players who don't fit exactly what he wants, on or off the field. The most recent offseason seemed mostly about constructing a team of guys who would play and practice the way Kelly wanted. You see the result.
Let's pan back a bit. When the first rumors about the Eagles moving on from Jackson surfaced, a month or so before it happened, I discounted them. Jackson (82 catches for 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns in 2013) was a huge part of the first-year success of Kelly's offense, which needed to build on its weapons, not subtract from them.
Despite some early bumps in the road, such as when DeSean was demoted during OTAs for not learning the routes from all three wideout positions, Kelly and Jackson were great together. Jackson caught 25 passes that went for 20-plus yards, something he hasn't done since, and the Eagles haven't had anyone do since he left. Jackson played in all 16 games for the first time since his rookie year. (Something else that hasn't happened again.)
I thought the people touting the notion that the Eagles would just release Jackson if they couldn't find a trading partner willing to deal with his desire for a new contract were silly, that they just didn't understand the NFL. You find a way to make it work, you don't give away difference-making talent, in its prime. Then Kelly did just that, and his 2014 team got out of the gate 9-3. I figured I was the silly one. Obviously, Chip knew what he was doing.
That was about 13 months ago, when McCoy, Maclin and Mathis were still here and the Eagles were winning. Since that 9-3 start to 2014, the Birds are 7-11. If they lose this weekend, they miss the playoffs for the second year in a row.
McCoy was traded last March after what seemed to have been an afternoon's worth of phone calls. Kelly has said that when the Bills said they'd give him Alonso, his former Oregon star, he accepted, without asking for anything else. Stories out of Buffalo marveled at the speed with which such an asset was acquired.
I talked to Maclin at an appearance a week or so before free agency. He was expecting to re-sign with the Eagles. Yes, the Chiefs then totally changed the Maclin market when they offered $11 million a year. No, he was not determined to return "home." Maclin is from a suburb of St. Louis. He signed with Kansas City. He went "home" as you would if you were originally from Philly and ended up in Pittsburgh.
The Kansas City Star published a story in which Maclin said that the money difference ultimately wasn't that big, that what mattered to him more was the way Reid and wide receivers coach David Culley, formerly of the Eagles, kept calling and selling him on their vision of him with the Chiefs. Kelly, Maclin said, didn't check in much. Having to court a guy you're trying to overpay is a hassle, one assumes, and, hey, the draft and Nelson Agholor were just around the corner.
Maclin's signing with KC, and Frank Gore's detour to Indianapolis left the Eagles with more cap money than they'd expected and short a running back, so, on the spur of the moment, they signed Murray. You sign big-money free agents after weeks or months of research on how they mesh with what you do. When you don't do that, you have a guy making $8 million a year carrying the ball twice in Game 14, then standing in your locker room with reporters all around him, as Murray did Tuesday, saying, "I've never dealt with anything like this in my life."
Mathis was delusional about his value, was turning 34 during the 2015 season, and was not going to get a revised contract. But releasing him in June, when you haven't drafted any offensive linemen in two years or signed any significant o-line free agents? Mathis did play in the Pro Bowl last February. And the guys playing guard for the Eagles right now are just not NFL starters.
Kelly didn't want to bother with trying to figure out whether Mathis would show for training camp. He figured he'd be fine with Allen Barbre at left guard, the way he figured he'd be fine duct-taping a used-up Miles Austin to an inexperienced, less-than-speedy receiving corps, the way he figured he'd be fine with Murray, Ryan Mathews and Sproles running the ball instead of McCoy and Sproles.
He is not fine. People who get rid of talent without getting talent back rarely are, in the NFL.
On Twitter: @LesBowen