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SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. Should The Bucs Let DJax Stay Or Go?
What should the Bucs do with wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who stands to make $10 million in the final year of his Tampa Bay contract?
Should he stay or should he go?
NFL Network reporter Ian Rapoport reported that Bucs head coach Bruce Arians is keen on the idea of talking Jackson into sticking around, as Jackson, who averaged 18.9 yards per catch last year, is one of the NFL’s all-time best deep threats, and Arians loves his quarterback taking deep shots early and often in games.
But isn’t Jackson a disgruntled malcontent?
That’s the picture that was painted by long-time Bucs beat writer Rick Stroud in the Tampa Bay Times right before Christmas when he documented some of Jackson’s alleged misdeeds during a tumultuous 2017 season – Jackson’s first in red and pewter.
“Jackson refused to play catch with one of his coaches one day before practice and was told to sit out. … Just before Christmas last year, he played cards in the locker room with his former Washington teammate, defensive tackle Chris Baker, and was late to a meeting. When told he would be fined again, Jackson erupted and kicked over a display Bucs receivers were using for a secret Santa gift exchange. He then became involved in a physical altercation with one of his coaches and had to be restrained by a teammate.”
The Big Takeaway
I caught up with former Bucs wide receivers coach Skyler Fulton this week and asked him about Jackson’s behavior behind the scenes at One Buccaneer Place. There are usually two sides to every story, and Fulton painted a much different picture of Jackson in speaking to PewterReport.com.
“Everybody loves DeSean,” Fulton said. “DeSean is a great teammate in terms of being in the meeting room helping mentor the young guys, talking to them about things he’s seen in his 11 years from a coverage standpoint or a release standpoint. Being out on the practice field, coaching guys up when they’re doing certain things.
“Like there are so many things that DeSean does behind the scenes that people don’t recognize or get to see because they’re not around and DeSean’s not the kind of guy that’s really going to go out and talk people into thinking he’s a really good guy or a really good teammate. He’s just going to come and do what he needs to do every day and he’ll let people say what they’re going to say.”
I will say this. Not everyone agrees with Fulton’s opinion. I think I know I who Stroud spoke with at One Buccaneer Place, and in no way is this column meant to refute what he reported in the Tampa Bay Times. I spoke with another former Bucs coach in Mobile, Ala. who grew tired of Jackson demonstratively pouting on the sidelines about not getting the ball and essentially agreed with the Tampa Bay Times report.
Yet, the reality is that all of Tampa Bay’s assistants under Dirk Koetter have been fired and won’t be back in 2019. Arians has said that every player will begin with a fresh slate under him, and he’s willing to talk to Jackson about remaining a Buccaneer.
I wanted to find out why that might be the case and found a different perspective on Jackson when talking to Fulton, who was willing to go on the record and present that viewpoint to PewterReport.com readers.
Fulton was Jackson’s position coach for one year, but was Todd Monken’s assistant receivers coach in 2017 when Monken ran the room before becoming the Bucs’ play-caller last year. Fulton addressed Jackson’s lack of note-taking in my conversation with him Wednesday night.
“Listen, DeSean could go to Cancun on Monday, be there all week, fly back on Saturday night and I promise you he’ll be open all day on Sunday,” Fulton said. “DeSean has seen every coverage you could see over the last 11 years. He knows exactly what defenses are trying to do to him. Week in and week out he knew exactly what the game plan was, how they were going to try and stop us and what he needed to do from the standpoint of running routes from every spot on the field. It’s football – it’s not rocket science.
“One thing you’ll find out is that playing in the league for 11 years, there is a lot of repetitive stuff and DeSean understands all of that. So DeSean took notes, but from a standpoint of whether that’s relevant or not, I think it’s relevant, but it gets overblown. I think at the end of the day, when you can show up to your job and do your job at the highest level consistently, that’s what it really comes down to on game day. Now from Monday through Saturday it’s about being a good teammate, being a pro, being on time to meetings, knowing what you’re supposed to do, not being a distraction and those types of things and DeSean did what he was supposed to do.”
I asked Fulton about Jackson reportedly being late to team meetings in 2017.
“What I can tell you is, not one time did I ever fine DeSean for being late to anything,” Fulton said. “I can’t speak for anyone else because it’s not like when people get fined they send everyone in the building a notice, but what I do know is that zero times was DeSean ever fined by me for anything. Not just being late to meetings, but for anything at all.”
As the Tampa Bay Times alluded to in it’s December 21 article, Jackson’s behavior was better in 2018, largely due to his hot start in which he had nine catches for 275 and three touchdowns in the first two games of the season in helping Tampa Bay start the season 2-0 with wins at New Orleans and against Philadelphia in Bucs’ home opener. But things appeared to go south when Jameis Winston replaced Ryan Fitzpatrick as the starting quarterback following the Chicago game.
It’s no secret that Winston struggled to connect with Jackson during the deep ball over the last two seasons. In games that Fitzpatrick started, Jackson caught 28 passes for 561 yards three touchdowns. In games that Winston started, he only caught 13 passes for 213 yards and one touchdown.
Jackson injured his thumb against San Francisco and missed four of the last five games of the season – all of which Winston started, which diminished his productivity with Winston at the helm. There were games, such as the Bucs’ 27-9 win against the 49ers, where Jackson was frustrated by his failure to connect with Winston. In that game he was targeted eight times, but caught just three passes for 19 yards. In his final game of the season, a 27-20 loss at Dallas, Jackson was targeted four times, but only caught one pass for 24 yards.
“I’m saying that I understand DJax’ frustration,” Fulton said. “I think, any time you’re on a team that isn’t winning as many games as everybody hopes they do, if you’re a really good player, you look to yourself to figure out what you can do to help the team win. And if you’re a guy like DJax who thinks he can get the ball more and if you’re getting open and you’re not getting the ball – it’s frustrating. Now, there are a lot of things that go into that in terms of protection, and reads, and play calls and all that that are out of a lot of people’s control.
“But I think ultimately, what people don’t understand is that, DJax is just a super competitive professional that’s at the very top of his profession. He’s been at the top for a long time, and when you’re 11 years in, you don’t necessarily have a lot of time to burn. So the sense of urgency of making plays and taking advantage of every opportunity is at an all-time high, as it should be, for a guy that’s played as long as he has. And when you don’t have success and you’re doing what you should be doing, it’s a frustrating situation. But football is a game where there are so many variables and guys depend on everybody else, that just goes along with the job.”
So the biggest issue is Winston’s inability to consistently connect with Jackson on deep throws. The two only connected on two deep passes last year – a 54-yard bomb at Tennessee during the preseason, and a 60-yard touchdown strike at Cincinnati that gave Jackson the record for most TD catches of 60 yards or more in NFL history with 24, surpassing Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice.
On NFL Network, Jackson openly campaigned for Fitzpatrick to remain the starter after the Bucs’ 2-0 start when Winston was set to return after his three-game suspension to start the season.
“He’s playing on fire right now,” Jackson said of Fitzpatrick on NFL Network. “With the way the team is rallying behind him and just playing lights-out football, you have to kind of honor it. You can’t take the hot man out. You got the hot fire right now. It’s like NBA Jam. We used to play NBA Jam — whoever got that hot fire shot, you got to keep shooting, man. It’s not my decision but I’m sure Dirk and Coach Monken and the guys that make those calls, they’ll make sure they stay on fire until that fire is out. We’re going to stay on fire. That’s our job, to stay on fire and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Jackson also requested to be traded in October once Winston returned as a starter, but was turned down by general manager Jason Licht, who believed that having Jackson on the roster gave the team the best chance for winning. After Winston was benched for Fitzpatrick following a four-interception outing against Cincinnati on October 28, Jackson changed his tune about staying in Tampa Bay on his podcast, which was recorded on Halloween.
“I love it here in Tampa,” Jackson said. “You know, I’m raising my family. My family loves it down here. I love the weather. I love the beaches. There’s a lot to do, but it’s still a low-key, quiet place, as well, too. The city is embracing me, man. And I appreciate the fan support and all the love. Hopefully, man, I can end my career here – retire as a Buc, man. That’s what I look forward to. And hopefully bringing a Super Bowl to Tampa Bay.”
Once Winston returned to the lineup as the permanent starter down the stretch and the losses continued to mount, Jackson began to switch gears, telling ESPN’s Josina Anderson in December that he wanted out of Tampa.
Fulton said that there is nothing personal between Jackson and Winston – only that the two have yet to gain the necessary chemistry to be consistently successful at doing what Jackson does best, which is catch the deep ball. Fulton believes that can still happen entering Year 3 of the relationship between Winston and Jackson.
“No question,” Fulton said. “I mean they’re both professionals. I think that they’re both committed to making it work in terms of having success together. There’s not an issue there, to me, other than these guys getting on the same page. And when they do, it’ll be a deadly thing. There’s no question. I mean it’s just the consistency of it and they’re both capable of making it happen.”
“Of course, of course,” Evans said. “He’s an extraordinary player with an extraordinary talent that you can’t find just anywhere. We went fishing. I hope he comes back. If not, it’s his decision and the team’s decision.”
Fulton was on that fishing trip with the Bucs wide receivers and said that while Jackson did sell his home in Tampa, Fulton said that Jackson bought another home in the Tampa Bay area closer to the water because he likes to fish.
Fulton can understand why Arians wants him to remain a Buccaneer.
“I mean DeSean hasn’t played in the league for 11 years because he isn’t super talented,” Fulton said. “I mean there’s one DeSean Jackson, and then there are a lot of guys that people compare to DeSean and there are a lot of guys that people project that hopefully will be DeSean. But at the end of the day there’s one DeSean Jackson. There’s one guy that has the record for 60-yard touchdowns in the NFL. I mean he has more 60-yard touchdowns than Jerry Rice.
“When you really think about some of the things that he’s accomplished and at his age the level that he’s still playing at. When you look at the tape, like I said, go look at the tape and DeSean is open. Every game he’s playing he’s out there running on air, so it doesn’t surprise me at all because there are not guys like DeSean around. There are guys that can run fast and some guys that understand it but guys that have been around and have the experience that he has and understand what guys are trying to do to him, there’s just nobody else like that.”
The FABulous Ending
Fulton didn’t mention Monken by name in my interview, but I believe there were issues between Monken and Jackson because Monken is a no-nonsense coach that probably didn’t tolerate Jackson’s attitude when it went south. Remember, it was Monken that caused some waves when he publicly stated that Jackson came to Tampa Bay because of the money and needed to earn it in 2017. Of course there wasn’t anything factually wrong with Monken saying that, and Monken was known to speak his mind in a blunt way and not give a damn. That coaching style might have caused some friction between Monken and Jackson.
Arians is a strong-willed coach and believes he can handle Jackson, yet he inserted himself into the fray in Pittsburgh by saying that his former player, Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, was “too much of a diva” and saying that “A-holes usually run in the receivers room” when discussing the dysfunction in Pittsburgh between Brown, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and head coach Mike Tomlin. So is Arians playing with fire by having to deal with Jackson’s potential volatile nature in Tampa Bay?
Arians surely believes he can develop Winston as a deep-ball passer to create more connections between Jackson and the Bucs quarterback, and that would solve the problem. But if Winston can’t consistently hit Jackson on the deep balls, which are a big part of Arians’ offense, then Jackson’s sour attitude will likely re-emerge once again during the season. Arians has to know this going in, and there is a risk in keeping Jackson around for one more year.
Yet, Arians is Mr. No Risk It, No Biscuit, and believes in second chances.
I’ve publicly stated that the Bucs shouldn’t have to talk anyone in to staying that doesn’t want to be here. Licht and Koetter shouldn’t have talked aging cornerback Brent Grimes into playing one more year in Tampa Bay. Grimes played poorly, had a bad attitude and that negatively affected the team.
Apparently, Jackson’s teammates don’t have a problem with him, but if he doesn’t want to be a Buccaneer, he should hit the road. If Jackson wants to stay in Tampa Bay and Arians and the Bucs coaches want him, then he needs to be all-in and not pout when he doesn’t get the ball.
Yet ultimately, Licht may decide Jackson’s fate because for the first time in a long time, the Bucs are cap-strapped in 2019 after being flush with cap space over the last several years. But big-money contract extensions to Evans, guard Ali Marpet, tight end Cam Brate and Winston’s $20.92 million cap value this year leave the Bucs with just over $12 million in cap room entering 2019.
There will have to be some salary cap casualties, and paying $10 million to a player that was the fourth receiver on the Bucs last year in terms of production behind Evans, Adam Humphries and Chris Godwin, catching 41 passes for 774 yards and four touchdowns, might be too rich for Tampa Bay in 2019. Especially with several important players slated to become free agents in March, including left tackle Donovan Smith, middle linebacker Kwon Alexander and Humphries, who was second on the team in catches with 76 receptions for 816 yards and five touchdowns.
Whether Jackson stays in Tampa Bay might end up being more about economics than it is about desire.