Inside Slant: DeSean Jackson and new NFL

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
4:00
PM ET

Two competing thoughts emerged in the moments after the Philadelphia Eagles released receiver DeSean Jackson:
  1. Is this the new NFL, one so chastened by last summer's situation with New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez that its teams can't stomach the mere perception that trouble could be brewing?
  2. Or is Jackson simply a bad character, an outlier even in an industry that takes plenty of character-based risks when the potential reward could be so substantial?

We are unlikely to receive a full accounting of the Eagles' motives, but make no mistake: Their decision Friday was extraordinary in the context of player valuation and projection. This is an elite 27-year-old playmaker, one who just finished the best season of his career, was locked into his contract for three more years and seemed a perfect fit for coach Chip Kelly's scheme. And yet the Eagles' desire to part ways with him was so obvious in recent weeks that they couldn't find a trade partner, leaving them with no compensation for one of the league's most dangerous receivers. (Remember, just a year ago, the Minnesota Vikings acquired three draft choices in exchange for another presumed malcontent, Percy Harvin.)

So what happened between Jackson and the Eagles? You might feel compelled to blame Kelly for arrogance bordering on hubris. You might think he is so enamored of his system that he doesn't think he needs a DeSean Jackson to make it work. That's a tough sell for me.

Kelly's offense worked at Oregon largely because his players, some of whom had poor character backgrounds as well, were faster than everyone else. If he truly believes that scheme is the key to winning in the NFL -- and not the talent of his players -- then he won't be with the Eagles much longer.

And while there is no doubt that it takes work and substantial patience to nurture a player like Jackson, there really isn't enough public evidence to suggest he is beyond the stratosphere of similarly high-maintenance stars in the NFL.

A NJ.com story posted Friday indicated the Eagles were concerned that he kept company with gang members and had flashed gang symbols during games, bringing a connection to the backstory discovered after Hernandez's arrest last summer on a murder charge. Jackson denied in a statement that he is a gang member, and I'm guessing no one keeps paperwork records of such things. Regardless, let's put it this way: If an association with suspected shady characters were universal grounds for firing a player, well, many more professional athletes would be out of a job today.

To me, the big question is whether Jackson would still be with the Eagles if Hernandez had not been arrested last summer.

Like Jackson, Hernandez entered the NFL amid character questions but joined a rock-solid organization that promised to nurture him into a productive player and member of the community. Within the NFL, the most unnerving part of the Hernandez arrest was that the alleged activity took place under the nose of the Patriots' presumably watchful eye. You can bet the other 31 teams took notice and redoubled their efforts to know and understand what their players were up to when away from the practice facility.

In short, no one wants to be the next team caught off guard by serious criminal activities of a prominent player. To be clear, there have been no reports suggesting Jackson has done anything illegal -- aside from a 2009 arrest that was plea bargained to disturbing the peace -- but the mere perception of gang association brought a level of gravitas that the Eagles decided they could not ignore. If reporters learned of Jackson's connections, you can bet the Eagles were aware of them as well.

Remember, this is a league whose greatest minds gathered last week to determine that there is no place in their game for dunking over the crossbar after touchdowns. Sportsmanship, respect and the perception regarding both are all key buzzwords in 2014. Initial reports suggested interest from six teams shortly after Jackson's release, and there is no doubt he will play somewhere this season. There are varying degrees of tolerance in any industry, and we can only conclude the Eagles didn't have much in the case of one of their best players.

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