The release sent out by the Eagles landed in reporters’ inboxes at 12:40 p.m. Friday and contained 25 words:
“After careful consideration over this offseason, the Philadelphia Eagles have decided to part ways with DeSean Jackson. The team informed him of his release today.”
So far, that is the only on-the-record explanation the team has provided for letting go of a 27-year-old wide receiver who caught 82 balls for 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns in 2013.
The decision to part ways with Jackson came 35 minutes after NJ.com published a report about the wide receiver's connection to Los Angeles-area gang members. The timing on the Eagles' part was calculated. They became aware of the report two days earlier. They also knew that announcing Jackson's release shortly after the report was published would soften the public backlash of getting rid of one of the team's most productive offensive players.
But the truth is the team decided Jackson was more trouble than he was worth long before the NJ.com report was published. The Eagles had been shopping him in hopes of getting something back. The problem? They didn't field any attractive offers because of a number of factors working against them.
Word spread that the Eagles might cut Jackson, making teams reluctant to offer up any significant compensation. Throw in his salary, and even if teams were interested in the wide receiver's talent, they were more likely to take their chances that he'd be available on the open market than give up draft picks.
After the owners' meetings in Orlando last week, the Eagles appeared to be hitting the reset button on Jackson. Chip Kelly called the wide receiver to let him know where he stood. And the head coach spoke positively about Jackson's work ethic and production in 2013. The plan seemed to be to create the impression that maybe the Eagles would hold on to Jackson. That would provide a six-week window before the draft in which they could field trade offers.
But knowing all along that releasing Jackson was a possibility, the NJ.com report provided the team with an opportunity to get rid of him and have a built-in explanation publicly. The report would also make it even more difficult to convince teams to trade for him.
The question of why though is still addressed in vague terms. Kelly, Howie Roseman and Jeffrey Lurie have decided not to address the situation at all. Behind the scenes, we hear explanations that Jackson was a bad fit in the locker room and didn't fit the culture the team is trying to establish. Yet he was not disciplined for any missteps last year and played all 16 games for Kelly. Meanwhile, the team handed out a sizable contract to Riley Cooper, whose fit in the locker room could reasonably be questioned.
Then there's the NJ.com report, but it's important to consider the timeline and the bigger picture. The LAPD detective interviewed in the article said he called Jackson about investigations in 2011 and 2012. In other words, if this was a major concern, the Eagles would have let him go prior to Friday. They would have let him go prior to last season. Jackson was never a suspect in the investigations, and police told the reporters that they had no hard evidence Jackson was a member of a gang.
No one is out to make the wide receiver a saint. But in the NFL, it comes down to weighing the negatives with the positives, the risk vs. reward. And in the end, that comes down to the head coach. When the Eagles hired Kelly, they handed him the keys. He has final say on the 53-man roster, and when it comes to significant decisions on who is going be in his locker room, nothing gets done without Kelly's stamp of approval.
Kelly has stressed all along that it's a personnel-based league. Yet there is a feeling among players that his system can compensate for shortcomings.
"I don’t think there’s one person that’s irreplaceable," said veteran guard Todd Herremans earlier this week. "...The fact is what they’re trying to do here is create a system to where you don’t have to rely on just the players and who they are. You can just plug guys into the system and have success from there for many years to come.
"I think for people to actually get that, we would have to lose one of those special players and then still have success. I don’t think people would really understand that until it happens. But I know that as a coach that’s kind of the system that you want. That’s the equation that you want. You want to be able to just plug guys into your system and not worry about your players wanting to stay, wanting to leave, wanting more money or anything like that. That gives you a little bit of flexibility if your system is the reason for winning."
With Jeremy Maclin coming off ACL surgery and Cooper facing more attention from defenses, it's a dangerous gamble to take. But it's Kelly's gamble. If Eagles wide receivers can't get open downfield next year and the big-play passing attack that was so integral to the team's success in 2013 is absent, his decision on Jackson will be criticized. And rightfully so. If he finds ways to compensate for Jackson's loss and has success in his second year, Kelly will be praised.
Chemistry is important, but so is talent.
Looking ahead, the market for Jackson's services will tell us a lot about the Eagles' decision. Interested organizations will do their homework into everything: the NJ.com report, Jackson's demeanor in the locker room, etc. They'll decide whether his on-the-field production is worth the headaches.
Chances are another head coach will decide he can work with Jackson. Kelly made the determination that he could not.
In the end, he'll be the one accepting the praise or dealing with the consequences.