That is the question.
At Oregon, Chip Kelly made it clear that he does not consider team stars untouchable if they don’t fit within the culture. He dismissed Jeremiah Masoli (his starting quarterback) and Cliff Harris (All-American cornerback and returner) from the team outright, and suspended running backs LeGarrette Blount and LaMichael James, each of whom was the team’s biggest star at the time.
Can and will he take the same approach in the NFL? He has less control, given league rules, a union, legal contracts with players, as well as an owner (Jeffrey Lurie) and General Manager (Howie Roseman) he must work with on personnel issues.
DeSean Jackson was an immediate challenge for Kelly, and Chip moved quickly last summer to establish his authority. Jackson has a problematic history, including showboat behavior, a questionable work ethic, split focus between football and extracurriculars (like his highly uneven career as a rapper) and a reluctance to learn new assignments as a wide receiver.
In 2011, he refused to show up for the first 11 days of training camp, appearing right before the deadline for losing a year of free agency credit. Back then, he was in the last year of his rookie contract at $565,000 a season, and had just had a great year: 47 receptions for 1,056 yards and 6 TDs, plus an average of 11.6 yards per punt return. Most importantly, he had pulled off one of the greatest plays in NFL history: a punt return with no time remaining, that he took to the house to win the “Miracle at the New Meadowlands” game over the Giants and advance to the playoffs. A year ago, fans voted his return the greatest NFL play ever.
That history explains two important facts: why fans love DeSean so much, and why the team and its new coach were leery of DeSean’s “me first” attitude. His production dropped in 2011 and 2012, he was suspended for a game (by Andy Reid) for skipping a special teams meeting and his punt returns dropped off so much that the team stopped using him there. Despite all that, he got paid handsomely with a 5-year, $51 million contract when his rookie contract expired in 2012.
That’s the background. In training camp last year, Chip immediately demoted DeSean to the 2nd and 3rd teams in practice. Jackson sat down with the coach for a face to face to discuss it. Here’s what DeSean said about that demotion:
“When I went in there, he said he expects everybody to buy into the system and do everything the right way. 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.”
The message seemed to have been delivered. Jackson learned a lot of new routes and moves, not just going deep but using the threat of that to open up shorter routes. He ran a lot of screens and even a reverse for a touchdown (though it was called back by Nick Foles’ illegal blocking penalty). And Jackson had a career year, with 1,332 yards and 9 TDs on 82 receptions.
So fans were stunned when rumors broke out (in print) that the Eagles might be looking to trade Jackson for as little as a 3rd-round pick. The rumors kept getting worse: the Birds might not even get a 3rd. They get nothing and have to release him outright. Chip hadn’t talked to DeSean all summer. Or, as another report said, he had talked to him. The Jets released Mark Sanchez and signed free agent Michael Vick, a QB with whom Jackson had a special bond, and the Jets owner even stated publicly that they were interested in DJax.
Fans howled and protested. Their love of DeSean is deep and strong. He just had a career year and, at 27, is at his peak. How could the team even consider trading him?
Good question. The counter arguments are: 1) the best time to trade is after a peak year (sell high) — his value will only decline; 2) his gaudy stats have a lot to do with Chip’s offense, which will help other WRs just as much; 3) he may fade faster than other WRs because he is undersized, not good on jump balls or yards after catch, vulnerable to press coverage and a mediocre run blocker at best.
Worst of all, his disruptive attitude has continued. He shouted down his position coach (WR coach Bob Bicknell) on national TV during the Vikings game, and shoved a member of the Eagles’ staff — it looks like former Seahawks Pro Bowl WR Koren Robinson — who tried to restrain him. Two days after the season ended, he said in an interview that he wanted the Eagles to pay him more money, a worrisome statement after his earlier holdout.
There are concerns about his on-field production, too. Most of DeSean’s stats last year came in the first part of the season when Mike Vick was still the starting QB. After Nick Foles took over that job, Riley Cooper gained more yards than DeSean in 8 out of 11 games (H/T to Brandon Gowton). Jackson disappeared in the crucial last three games of the season, against Chicago, Dallas and (in the playoffs) New Orleans, with barely 100 yards combined in all three games. He was, by all accounts, shut down (on an island!) by New Orleans CB Keenan Lewis, a possible indication that his tremendous speed may be tapering off a bit. If nothing else, Lewis’ physical defense on DeSean is a template that other DBs will use to disrupt him going forward.
OK, after all this talk, what do we really know about DeSean and the Eagles’ trade plans? Very little. The team has been very cagey, revealing as little as possible in interviews and deflecting questions with jokes and platitudes.
Some responses seem a little unenthusiastic — at the NFL annual meeting, Chip said, “I like DeSean. DeSean did a really nice job for us. But we’re always going to do what’s best for the organization. … It’s never been about just one guy.”
Asked about Jackson’s work ethic, he added, “He played 16 games for us, he practiced every day. I had no issues with him.” Not the most intense compliment you could ask for.
Jackson told reporters that Chip called him Monday and reassured him about his place on the team. According to reporter Les Bowen, “[A] source in DeSean’s camp says Chip told him to not worry about anything, keep working, and be ready for camp.” To my ear that sounds more like “be professional” than “I promise we’re bringing you back,” but it reassured Jackson, who suddenly seemed to want to return (after posting photos suggesting other teams he might play for on his Instagram account).
Ultimately, there is no hard news. There’s a lot of evidence that the Eagles are, at the very least, entertaining offers for DeSean, given the deep draft with lots of gifted WRs who might fit better into Chip’s offense due to height, youth and attitude. Trades aren’t easy to pull off in the NFL. We should know by the end of the draft, if the team wanted to move their difficult No. 1 WR, and if anyone wanted to take him on.
Chip has received a lot of love from Eagles’ fans, and why not given his results. This is the first serious challenge to that connection, and the coach has a lot riding on a successful outcome, here.
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