DeSean Jackson was bouncing with the music.
Practice was in the bubble Wednesday and the giant speakers were pumping in some sort of bad remix as the players shuffled to their appropriate spots for the next period. Jackson lightly made his way through the crowd, talking as he moved. He came across Roc Carmichael, and the two did one of those involved, synchronized hand slaps. A word, and then Jackson bounced on.
It’s little things like that.
He used to brood quite a bit. The mercurial receiver often took a knee away from the rest of the pack during practice. The look, intentional or otherwise, seemed to read: “No Visitors Welcome.” That was definitely the vibe at his locker stall as well. Jackson would have his back turned, hood up and scowl on when the media was nearby. Requests for a word would at times be met with a mumble and a dart towards the nearest exit.
The guard is down now, at least for the most part. The furrowed brow has receded, replaced by a more peaceful look. The bubble that kept him at a distance – from reporters and management and even his own teammates to a degree – has popped.
“He’s definitely -- on and off the field -- been a better teammate this year,” said Jason Kelce. “Just the way he carries himself. Much more involved with the entire offense, much more a part of the entire team.”
Jackson is engaged and, not coincidentally, on pace to crush his personal bests in every major statistical category. Scheme is definitely part of it. Chip Kelly has done a fine job of moving Jackson around to create confusion and mismatches. He’s dialing up short and intermediate routes; not falling into the trap of sending the speedster long on every play. Simply put, he is finding ways to get the ball in his playmaker’s hands.
Jackson (903) is currently the third-leading receiver in football behind A.J. Green (1,013) and Calvin Johnson (904). He has seven touchdowns on the season, needing just three more to establish a new high. He needs just 254 yards for a personal best in that department.
A lot of it is the way he is being deployed, yes, but there’s more to it than that.
“Honestly, man, I’ve just bought in. I just really bought in all across the board. Never really had done that in the past, maybe sometimes fighting the system,” Jackson acknowledged in a one-on-one with Birds 24/7. “So just trying new things that I think have really been paying off for me. Staying focused and doing all the extra little things , being a teammate, being a leader. Staying after practice later, working hard, little things that being young, never took the importance of doing that. It’s kind of been my focus.”
DeSean and his older brother, Byron, have a talk before every season to establish principles for the upcoming year. This year the focus was attitude.
“That regardless of what situation came up, he was going to have a great attitude about it,” Byron said.
That was tested almost immediately. There was a period during the offseason workouts when Kelly had Jackson running with the second and third teams. Frustrated, Jackson went into Kelly’s office looking for answers.
“When I went in there, he said he expects everybody to buy into the system and do everything the right way,” said Jackson. ”And if there is any little thing a player doesn’t want to do, that’s his way of reacting to it. The best thing I did was go talk to him instead of just sitting back and being mad.”
It was a bold move for the rookie head coach to essentially demote the two-time Pro Bowler, but it worked. Jackson learned the entire offense (as opposed to just his own responsibilities) as Kelly asked. He attended 30 of 32 voluntary workouts. He became invested.
“His energy and enthusiasm in terms of coming back and working hard, getting us back on the right track, was really unbelievable,” said general manager Howie Roseman.
“His willingness to do whatever it takes, whether that was to help recruit free agents when free agency opened or talk to some of our younger players…He would do anything to help make this football team better.”
Added Kelly: “Since I've been here he's been an extremely hard worker. He's been out there almost every single day practicing, barring one or two, and has put in his time, whether it's in the weight room, whether it's in the classroom or whether it's on the practice field. So he's been fantastic since we've been here. What's happening on the field in terms of on Sunday is a byproduct of what he's doing since I've been here off the field and I think he's doing a great job.”
Jackson, by the numbers (courtesy of the Eagles)
- 17 of the team’s 50 passing plays of 20+ yards have been to Jackson
- 5 of the team’s 13 passing TDs of 20+ yards have been to Jackson
- Average distance of Jackson’s 39 career TDs is 43.5 yards
- Since entering the league in 2008, his 12 TD catches of 50+ yards are the most in the NFL
- The Eagles are 24-5 when Jackson catches a TD
- Jackson needs 97 yards to tie for the franchise record (currently held by Harold Carmichael and Mike Quick) with his third 1,000+ yard receiving season
Jacksons’ best year to date was 2009, when he caught 62 balls for 1,156 yards and nine scores. This season he is on pace for 86 catches for 1,445 yards and 11 touchdowns. That’s quite a jump.
There's not one reason why, but rather a confluence of circumstances that has led to this kind of elevation. Part of it is related to his head coach, who found the proper way to motivate the receiver and the proper way to utilize him. Some of it is probably contract-related: Jackson can make nearly $30 million over the final three years of his deal, but none of it is guaranteed. If he wants to keep the monster checks rolling in, he has to ball. And some of it simply comes down to maturity. This is his sixth year in the league now. Natural instincts kick in to shepherd the younger players (He recently stated that if the home fans are going to boo to boo him, not the young guys) and to maximize the remaining time you have in the game. Jackson has put much of the Jaccpot ventures on the back burner, and is trying to just focus in on football.
“New coach, new system. Sixth year in the league, I’ve learned a lot," said Jackson, when asked why he is truly buying in for the first time. "Just felt the timing was perfect, so why not?”
His brother Byron is a video editor for Fox Sports. Part of his job is to cut up NFL sound bytes so even though he is on the left coast, he gets to see and hear his brother regularly. It's the way Byron is used to viewing his younger brother in a sense. Ever since DeSean was little Byron had a video camera on him, capturing his rise from a 12-year-old dynamo to an NFL Pro Bowler. (He recently released a documentary titled, “DeSean Jackson, The Making Of A Father’s Dream”). He continues to watch DeSean's development with great interest.
"I was cutting some sound bytes during training camp of him, and it's crazy watching it: my young little brother is a man," said Byron. "As I'm cutting it I'm like, 'Wow, I'm watching him mature right in front of my eyes.' "