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Monday, July 29, 2013
Heat is on Philly's DeSean Jackson

By Ashley Fox
ESPN.com

The Jeremy Maclin news could not be worse for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Not only was Maclin the most talented, versatile wide receiver on the roster -- and highly motivated entering a contract year -- he also was the most even-keeled and reliable. Maclin isn't your prototypical diva receiver. He has never been a distraction, isn't a me-first kind of guy. During his four seasons in Philly, Maclin has been steady and solid, catching more passes than any receiver in his first four seasons in franchise history.

Losing Maclin for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee hurts badly, because now the Eagles must rely even more on their most volatile player: DeSean Jackson. That is a dangerous way for Chip Kelly to enter his first season in the National Football League.

Jeremy Maclin
Jeremy Maclin is stuck watching Eagles camp from the sideline on crutches after he tore an ACL.

Jackson is an elite talent. He has game-breaking speed. He is the ultimate deep threat. But during his five seasons with the Eagles, he has had a tendency to pout. He has been a distraction. Two years ago, he let his uncertain contract situation eat at him. As Philadelphia's season went south, Jackson quit on the team. He was late for at least one meeting, prompting then coach Andy Reid to suspend Jackson for a game. Two weeks later, Reid benched Jackson after he dropped two passes that hit him in the hands in the end zone.

When things were going badly for the Eagles, Jackson wasn't part of the solution. He was part of the problem. That doesn't bode well for Kelly.

Kelly faces many challenges in his first season coaching in the NFL. He spent the offseason implementing his program, convincing the players that the up-tempo offense he ran at Oregon will translate to the NFL. Kelly had to get the players to buy into his philosophies on nutrition, conditioning, practice and sleep.

It was an adjustment, to say the least.

It is easy to get professional athletes to buy into new concepts and demands when their record is undefeated. It is much harder when the inevitable adversity of a season hits.

What happens if the Eagles start slowly out of the gate? They open at Washington against the reigning division champs and then play San Diego at home and Kansas City in Week 3 on a Thursday night in Reid's return to Philadelphia. That is followed by three consecutive road games at Denver, the New York Giants and Tampa Bay.

Kelly is implementing a new offense with an as-yet decided starter at quarterback and is transitioning to a 3-4 defense with a secondary made up of average players, at best. It is going to take time, and patience. If the Eagles start, say, 2-4, it is going to be harder for Kelly to get his message across. It will be harder to motivate the players to sprint back after every play and to convince them that a college system will work for highly paid professionals.

Jackson will be an integral part of the Eagles' success, both on and off the field. I spoke with Jackson at length following Philadelphia's final minicamp practice in June, and while he applauded Kelly as "a good guy … very smart, intelligent," he also said that "it's going to be an interesting year for us." Twice he referred to the unsettled quarterback competition between Michael Vick and Nick Foles as "tough." Jackson noted that Kelly was making every player accountable.

DeSean Jackson
DeSean Jackson lost his running mate and still doesn't know who his starting quarterback will be.

"At the beginning, everybody had to believe him," Jackson said. "But now, I think we're at the point where we're past that, and we've built a relationship. His success from college is a big help, too, because he did some great things at Oregon. We just hope it translates over to the NFL."

With Maclin out, Jackson is going to have to be something he never has been before: a leader. He is an emotional player who in the past has not shown a willingness to fight through adversity. He tuned Reid out. Vick often had to act as a buffer to try to keep Jackson's head in the game, but now it is not even a lock that Vick will be the starting quarterback.

Jackson is going to have to mature in a hurry. His job on the football field just got tougher. Maclin was poised for his first 1,000-yard receiving season. Defenses would have had to account for him.

At this point, the Eagles don't have a viable replacement for Maclin. Fourth-year receiver Riley Cooper has size and is a good blocker, but he isn't the pass-catcher that Maclin is. Jason Avant is suitable in the slot, but he's not an outside receiver. Philadelphia has a host of other receivers on the roster, but none are proven.

Defenses are going to be able to key on Jackson. They certainly will try to take Jackson out of the game. It will be frustrating for him, and he will have to channel that frustration in a positive way, which has not been his strong suit.

The Eagles could ill afford to lose Maclin because of his production and because of his even-keeled demeanor. Now, the focus will be even more on Jackson, and that isn't necessarily a good thing.