The Philadelphia Eagles officially slapped the franchise tag on DeSean Jackson Thursday afternoon, just as many had long speculated they would. While the move does bring Jackson one step closer to donning Eagles green in 2012, there are still no guarantees he will remain with the team through the offseason.
With 2012 shaping up to be one of the most pivotal years in franchise history, and given Jackson's publicly stated willingness to play under the one-year franchise tender if a long-term deal cannot be reached, the Eagles must now do what is best for the team this year and end any and all ongoing trade speculation involving Jackson by signaling their commitment to having the speedster in their starting lineup come Week 1.
Why Thursday's announcement is only a milestone, and not a finish line, in this melodrama is complicated.
The franchise tag is an interesting tool. Since its inception, it has been miscast as a guarantee that a particular would-be free agent will remain with his current team during the upcoming season, earning a salary that is equal to the average of the top-five highest paid players at his position. While that general conception does carry some truth, a player who signs his franchise tender is prevented from entering the free-agent market and he is compensated at a rate equal to the average of the top-five highest paid players at his position, the franchise tag alone does not guarantee that a particular would-be free agent will remain with his current team the following season.
Instead, the franchise tag essentially puts the team in control of that player's "free agency," protecting the team from losing a key contributor and getting nothing in return. While far more often than not during the franchise tag's relatively brief history, the franchised player has ended up remaining with his current team for that season with both sides working toward a long-term deal, the designation does leave room for some creativity on the team's part.
The team can choose to trade the franchised player, thereby receiving compensation for its loss, which would not have happened had the player been allowed to test the free-agent market in a normal capacity. It is this little, rarely used twist that has brought drama to an otherwise ho-hum situation between Jackson and the Eagles.
Usually, the drama surrounding a franchise tag is of the player's doing. Media coverage of a franchised player refusing to sign the franchise tender and holding out for either the security of a long-term deal—playing a full season under a franchise tender is a risky proposition in a sport as violent as football where serious injury and the prospect of losing millions is just one hit away—or for the team to rescind the designation so that he may become a free agent has become a sign of the time of year for NFL fans, just like the combine and the draft.
Jackson has made it clear he will not be bringing such baggage to the gate in his case, yet the level of expectations surrounding his future as an Eagle remain grounded. Why?
In today's 24/7 coverage of all things NFL, where there is smoke, there is at least a pile of smoldering ashes. Obviously, the Eagles aren't entirely sold on keeping Jackson around for 2012 as it stands today. By franchising their mercurial receiver and having the good fortune of news of the move finding Jackson happy, the Eagles have jockeyed themselves into a position where they can get what some believe they have wanted all along, to rid themselves of the star receiver's prima donna antics, only now they will be compensated rather nicely if Jackson winds up suiting up for another team in 2012. And, oh yeah, they even get to pick for which team that will be.
As impressive as the Eagles front office's legal wrestling moves are, the team would be foolish to part ways with Jackson on the precipice of what is, in team owner Jeffrey Lurie's paraphrased words, a make-or-break season for Andy Reid and his staff. Looking at the broad picture, if the Eagles underachieve yet again in 2012, the organizational changes in store for the offseason will go well beyond Reid and his staff, and with a team built so solidly in his image, they will reach deep into the roster.
With so much riding on the upcoming season, why bring about change on the one half of the team that really doesn't need change? The Eagles offense is extremely well built. Each component adds a different dimension that makes it all the more difficult to defend. Jackson's ability to stretch the field and the attention his speed commands from a defense opens up the intermediate passing game for Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant, the short passing game for LeSean McCoy. And when all else fails and the defense is totally committed to neutralizing every other weapon, Michael Vick—the fastest, most agile quarterback in the history of the game—can take off and really make a defense pay for spending too many bodies in coverage.
If the Eagles were to move Jackson, it would be almost impossible for the team to find a replacement that has the same effect on a defense as he does. Without the defense being stretched ultra-thin like a Gumby doll by his speed, would anyone else on the team be nearly as effective? From a performance perspective, it is fairly obvious the Eagles are better off keeping Jackson.
Granted, more goes into a personnel decision than just the performance perspective, especially in Philadelphia, where the Eagles place high value on the effect personnel decisions have from an organizational perspective as well. In this case, the benefits of keeping Jackson far outweigh the costs. Sure, Jackson's franchise salary of $9.4 million could be above his market value, but if the Eagles underachieve yet again in 2012, a period of rebuilding is surely on the horizon. Considering that the Eagles, through Jackson's four years in the league, have paid him, in total, less than a third of that $9.4 million, the costs average out enough to make this year's salary worth it to give your team, in its current incarnation, one final shot at getting the job done.
When it is all said and done, Jackson gives the Eagles the best shot at achieving in 2012 and possibly beyond, just as the Eagles give Jackson the best shot at attaining his goals—getting that money—in 2012 and beyond. He understands his performance last season, coupled with the combustion of the locker room in New York at the hands of Santonio Holmes (to whom Jackson has openly compared himself and seeks to be compensated on the same level as) could have cost him millions. His agent, Drew Rosenhaus, has seen what playing the tempestuous role in the locker room can do to a star receiver's career—ahem, TO—and, let's not forget, he wants his money, too, so you can be sure he'll keep his client on the straight and narrow.
DeSean Jackson is cocked, locked and loaded for a monster year. Let's just make sure it's in Philadelphia.
Now, Mr. Howie Roseman, will you please focus on getting this team some quality linebackers and safeties?