Like a lot of people, I wondered if the Philadelphia Eagles would use star receiver DeSean Jackson as their punt returner again this season. Thought maybe he'd become too valuable a weapon for them in the passing game to risk wearing him down or getting him injured fielding punts. I also wondered if Jackson himself might decide he didn't want to return punts anymore and beg off -- or at least cut back on -- that duty in the final year of his contract.
But the Eagles made it clear Thursday that Jackson will be the primary punt returner again this season. In fact, special teams coach Bobby April said he thought the team had fewer options there than in the past and Jackson might have to do even more. It puts Jackson in a tough spot. He wants a contract extension and has made that clear to the Eagles. Playing (and returning punts) this season with free agency only a year away is a major risk. If he gets injured and the new deal has not yet been negotiated, he kisses his big payday good-bye, and he knows it.
There are two ways to handle this. The first is to hold out and/or cause trouble. To publicly refuse to do what the team wants. Former Eagle Terrell Owens recently recommended this, saying if he were Jackson he wouldn't show up Sunday without a new deal in hand. Jackson could do that. He could make a bunch of noise about not wanting to return punts while he's being underpaid and guaranteed nothing beyond 2011.
But fortunately for the Eagles, Jackson has chosen the opposite way of handling it. After a brief holdout at the start of training camp, Jackson showed up and said he was ready to "be a man" about things and trust that they would work out in his favor. So he'll play without his new deal, and he'll return punts without his new deal, and to this point he hasn't caused the Eagles any headaches about it. He has both feet firmly on the high road.
The potential benefit is that, if he stays healthy and plays brilliantly, he can deprive the Eagles of a couple of their negotiating arguments. They won't be able to say, "He doesn't do enough," or "He's not a complete player" or "He's a diva who cares only about himself" without him being able to say something like, "Hey! I returned punts in my walk year for $600,00." The Eagles seem leery about committing long-term to Jackson due to concerns over durability and personality. If he plays every game, returns every punt and doesn't complain about anything, he goes a long way toward answering those concerns.
Meanwhile, he takes a major chance, trusting in the belief that an NFL team will automatically reward him for doing his job where others before him have not. Teams act in their own best interests, and with quarterback Michael Vick locked up long-term, the Eagles now can use the franchise-player designation on Jackson next year. That would make his 2012 salary very high but deny him (a) the long-term deal he wants and (b) the chance to maximize his value on the open market. And that's if he stays healthy. If he gets injured, the best-case scenario makes him next year's Steve Smith.
Eagles fans likely don't care much as long as Jackson's on the field doing his electrifying thing for them. But if Jackson were holding out or bellyaching this week, people would be ripping him. I thought the fact that he isn't deserved some positive-light attention. Especially given the risk he's taking up there on the high road.