DeSean Jackson was clearly a headache to the Eagles. We won’t speculate as to what exactly that headache was. Instead, let’s focus on how Jackson’s departure impacts the Eagles.
Philly’s offense is not exactly lacking for weapons without Jackson. Between LeSean McCoy, Riley Cooper, the return of Jeremy Maclin, the up-and-coming Zach Ertz, and the addition of Darren Sproles, the Eagles can still challenge defenses in many different ways. And talented personnel isn’t the only thing that makes this offense go.
Scheme plays a huge role in the team’s offensive success. Last season, Chip Kelly’s high-play-volume offense often resulted in tired defenders caught off guard. The Eagles also used a ton of play-action and misdirection. The play-action was most often based on outside runs, which forced the D-line to move laterally on a regular basis. This kept defenders from consistently getting to pin their ears back and rush the passer. The misdirection also kept 2nd level defenders honest in the run game. Even though the heavy-footed Nick Foles was the quarterback, zone-read options still held backside defenders because Foles would keep the ball enough to consistently get good yards on the ground. This created huge cutback lanes for the dangerous LeSean McCoy. Finally, the route concepts in the passing game stretched the field and consistently put defenders in conflict. All of these things worked together to create the NFL’s 4th highest scoring offense in 2013.
It’s not as if Jackson didn’t serve a purpose in the Eagles offense. He was a downfield threat who challenged defenses and helped Philly stretch the field. Unfortunately, Jackson isn’t very versatile as a receiver. He has almost no presence in the middle of the field, and he doesn’t have the physical ability to consistently make tough, contested catches. He’s very much a one-trick pony on offense.
Take the Eagles’ Week 13 game against the Cardinals last season. Patrick Peterson, one of the best corners in the NFL, was predominantly locked up on DeSean Jackson in man coverage. Most of the time, corners playing man coverage align on the receiver’s inside. Peterson, though, consistently played on Jackson’s outside shoulder. Why? Because Jackson does most of his damage with outside and vertical routes. Peterson wasn’t willing to give Jackson his outside routes so easily. If Jackson wanted to run to the outside, he didn’t have a ton of room to get by Peterson, now that the distance between Peterson and the sideline was shorter. This prevented Jackson from getting downfield and on top of Peterson using outside releases. Peterson was willing to give up the inside knowing the odds were that Jackson’s routes wouldn’t take him over the middle very often.
The only time Jackson was able to get open was when Chip Kelly lined him up in the backfield where Peterson couldn’t align on top of him and dictate his path. Even then, it still took great throws by Nick Foles to get completions to Jackson. It says something about a receiver when he can’t get open against a premiere corner without help from the scheme of the offense.
There have been plenty of players in NFL history who have had a significant impact on the game with just one exceptional skill. Randy Moss, for instance, rode his one trick to a hall-of-fame career. There is no doubt that DeSean Jackson is still one of the best downfield receiving threats in the game. He will absolutely help the Redskins stretch the field in the passing game in 2014, and that will, in turn, also help out Washington’s rushing attack. He also can contribute as a returner on special teams. However, it’s clear that to the Eagles, the benefits Jackson brought to the table no longer outweighed the headaches he caused (whatever those headaches were).