Conventional wisdom dictates that a Philadelphia Eagles team whose offense earned the second-highest total yards would likely stay the course with its current personnel. Anyone who made that assumption ignored the fact that Chip Kelly does not care about conventional wisdom. The release of DeSean Jackson, the Eagles’ most dangerous receiver, this past March was a defining moment for Kelly.
The angle to this story which generated headlines was the insinuation that Jackson had ties to gangs. Oregon fans know this angle is problematic because Kelly did not avoid recruiting players who were surrounded by gangs in their youth. De’Anthony Thomas went to Crenshaw High School where he witnessed gang activity frequently and he played on Snoop Dogg‘s Pop Warner football team.
Another problem with this explanation for the release is that the Eagles’ front office not only knew about these ties in 2011, but actually signed Jackson to a five-year, $48.5 million extension in the following off-season. Kelly was likely informed about these ties last year when he was hired to be the Eagles head coach, so it makes little sense now for him to be suddenly bothered by these rumors.
On the other hand, there are rumors that Jackson’s attitude bothered Kelly and other Eagles players. “You see little kids and how they cry and whine when they don’t get their way, that was D-Jax,” a source told CBS Philly sports blogger Joseph Santoliquito. “I don’t think [Jackson] gave [Kelly] the respect he deserved. Kelly tried to reach [Jackson] plenty of times and [Jackson] tuned him out. Then you look at team functions, when everyone is out together at charity things or social stuff. He was the one missing. It was like he was in ‘D-Jax world’ and we just happened to be there.”
Although it is difficult to accept everything an anonymous source says at face value, this explanation is consistent with the way Kelly handled troubled players while he was the head coach at Oregon. Kelly gave Oregon players such as LeGarrette Blount, Cliff Harris, Jeremiah Masoli, LaMichael James, Colt Lyerla and Kiko Alonso several chances to get their acts together when they got in trouble on the field or with the law. He tried to help them, but did not let them off the hook with a slap on the wrist. He got through to some of these players, but those who failed to change their ways were dismissed from the team.
It is possible that the anonymous sources who criticized Jackson represents a minority among the organization which does not include Kelly. He publicly denied any suggestion that he did not get along with Jackson. “We just wanted to go in a different direction. It had nothing to do with any article. Purely football,” Kelly said, according to the New York Post’s Bart Hubbuch.
It is reasonable to be skeptical of this denial, as Kelly did not divulge Oregon players’ personal problems to the media. Moreover, it seems ludicrous to think that releasing a receiver who had the ninth-highest total of receiving yards in the NFL last season could improve the team. Yet, there are some legitimate reasons why Kelly might believe his team will be more productive on the field without Jackson.
The Eagles signed four skill players who are, in a sense, replacements for Jackson and veteran Jason Avant who was also released this off-season. Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin agreed to a new one-year, $5.5 million contract ($3.5 million guaranteed). The team acquired former New Orleans Saints running back Darren Sproles in a trade (one year and $2 million remaining on his current contract) and agreed to a two-year, $7 million extension ($5.5 million guaranteed). Rookie receivers Jordan Matthews (four years, $4.9 million total, $2.9 million guaranteed) and Josh Huff (four years, $2.8 million total, $0.5 million guaranteed) were selected in the second and third rounds of the 2014 NFL Draft.
These four players combined will make less money (maximum $8.7 million) than Jackson alone would have made for the Eagles this season ($10.25 million). None of them might ever be better than Jackson alone, but they don’t have to be. They just have to combine to make up Jackson’s productivity.
Kelly and General Manager Howie Roseman did not make these acquisitions in a vacuum. Jackson publicly stated at the beginning of the off-season that he wanted a new contract. “I definitely feel it’s something deserving,” Jackson said at his locker in the NovaCare Complex on locker cleanout day, according to CSNPhilly.com’s Reuben Frank. “We’ll see how that plays out, and hopefully we can work things out smoothly and not have to worry about anything out of the ordinary.”
Eagles fans can recall with disgust the last time Jackson wanted a new contract. In 2011, Jackson held out of training camp and then played with questionable effort in regular season games. Releasing Jackson spares the team from reliving that experience. The team has to pay Jackson $6.25 million in dead money this season, but has him off the books after that.
The team has young, emerging players such as quarterback Nick Foles, defensive lineman Fletcher Cox, linebacker Mychal Kendricks and cornerback Brandon Boykin who will be eligible for new contracts next year. Getting Jackson’s contract off the books will help the team afford to keep these players.
The Eagles lost one big-name player at the top of their depth chart, but they should now have a deeper pool of talent because of their new skill players.
The risk is that the skill players the Eagles signed this off-season will not combine to match Jackson’s productivity. They are unlikely, at least, to match his explosiveness. Jackson was second in the NFL in receptions of 20 or more yards.
Other statistics show that Jackson might not have been worth his contract. Four games last season (the Vikings, Chargers, Raiders, and first Giants games) encompassed half of his season production. In the other 12, he averaged just 55 yards.
His production tailed off at the end of the season, when defenses increasingly used press-man coverage. In the last six games of the season, including the wildcard loss to the Saints, he had just one game where he earned more than 60 receiving yards.
Still, if the Eagles fall short of fulfilling their Super Bowl aspirations and Jackson puts up big numbers for the Redskins, many fans will be asking how much better the team would be if Jackson was never released.
Kelly is gambling on his own ability to get the most out of a team made in his vision. His track record at Oregon and immediate success in Philadelphia suggest this was a gamble worth making.
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