By Jonathan Tamari
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- This should be fascinating. Every step, every play, every moment watching DeSean Jackson is.
The surly wide receiver who in a given game might sulk under a self-imposed cloud or light up the night with an electrifying display is about to join forces in Washington with a similarly stunning talent at quarterback, but also a star-coddling owner who has managed to make Congress look like only the second most dysfunctional institution here.
What could possibly go wrong?
We know Jackson struggles when things don't go his way. The last time I covered him in a game, it was in the final week of a season of pouting, in which he admitted he let a contract dispute hamper his play. He held out of training camp, got benched after missing a meeting, short-armed passes and ducked contact, contributing a scowl to a miserable 2011 Eagles season. His contract was up, his future uncertain.
After the last game -- in which Jackson reminded us of his promise with a 62-yard touchdown that torched, yes, the Redskins -- I asked him about the score. Did he think it might be his last as an Eagle?
He glared at me as he stalked away into an uncertain offseason. "Why you always asking the controversial question?"
A few months later, in a mental fog after covering the NFL combine, I had my head down at Philly's airport when I heard a voice call out. (To this day, I'm not sure what it said, but my best guess is "hey bobo!") There was Jackson, jauntily waving my way. I wished him a relaxing offseason. He offered the same back as he rolled his heavily-branded suitcase behind him.
Surprisingly, Jackson would soon have a five-year deal to keep him in Philly. It wasn't top dollar, but he said it was enough. And he was unusually open about his mistakes when I met with him at a North Philly church, where he was promoting a health fair as part of the charitable work he dedicates to his father, William, taken from him by pancreatic cancer. Jackson advised his teammate LeSean McCoy not to follow his path. He was so relaxed in his monogrammed shirt and ripped jeans, the media-shy star hugged me after we spoke.
I wrote about these contrasting interactions with Jackson that offseason. Then, as now, everything with him happens in extremes. Boom and bust.
It's what made him a fan favorite who loved to entertain -- Mike Vick once told me he called him "Hollywood" -- but avoided news cameras. A phenomenon who could take four passes for 210 yards one week (in Dallas in 2010) and then struggle to catch two for 32 yards two weeks later. Who might haul in a 50-yard bomb and then give it all back by taking a penalty for tossing the ball at an opposing coach (against the Giants in 2011).
Who used a homophobic slur on the radio, but made national headlines by befriending a bullied teen from the Philadelphia area, not only surprising him in a heartwarming appearance on The View, but launching a sustained anti-bullying campaign.
"The past two or three years I've matured to the utmost," Jackson told ESPN's Stephen A. Smith last week after another tumultuous career turn. "Having lost my father at an early age, my first year in the NFL, that was a very tough situation. My dad was my backbone."
But as Jackson headed to the Redskins, some Eagles painted him as a selfish star who kept to himself, "never grew up," challenged coach Chip Kelly's authority and was happy -- win or lose -- as long as he got his numbers, according to a report from CBS' Philadelphia affiliate, anonymously quoting ex-teammates.
It can't be a coincidence that Jackson's departure comes one year after the firing of Andy Reid, the coach who drafted, tolerated and supported him.
Jackson could show up to practice with his gloves and helmet unstrapped, his equipment hanging loose as if he couldn't even be bothered to finish suiting up, and still Reid would gloss over the downsides. Never mind that the coach was usually such a stickler at practice that he forbade anyone, media included, from leaning on any support or even taking a knee to tie your shoe.
"Andy Reid was a father figure in my life," Jackson told ESPN. "He came in and stepped up and drafted me when I felt I slipped in the draft … he embraced me as like almost a son."
In those early days, Jackson could get away with being a young, immature firecracker on a team laden with veteran leadership. But by 2013 he was a sixth-year player on a team trying to rebuild, and still a damn headache.
A conveniently-timed report from NJ.com added a wisp of gang connections (though not membership) to the mix -- and made for nice bit of cover when the Eagles abruptly cut one of their most popular players. But it had become clear long before then that Kelly just didn't think Jackson was worth the trouble.
Fortunately for the receiver, "not worth the trouble" is a phrase that has apparently never been uttered in Dan Snyder's world.
There is no talent whose baggage is too heavy. And if Snyder can offer a special parking space in the guts of the stadium (as he reportedly did with Robert Griffin III) or force a coach to start a favored recruit (as he did with Bruce Smith), no problem!
Yes,the 27-year-old Jackson is still in his prime. He has three Pro Bowl nods and just produced his best season: 1,332 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. D-Jax and RGIII form a tantalizing pair.
But ask yourself: who was the last NFL star to arrive in Washington and leave better off for it?
Before you answer, make sure you check in with Smith, Albert Haynesworth, Mike Shanahan and Donovan McNabb.
Then again, Jackson has specialized in doing the seemingly impossible (and almost nothing else). He creates moments that you can't forget -- and then dances at the end.
He started one Monday night game with an 88-yard touchdown catch on the first play, sparking an epic beatdown of the Redskins as he high-stepped backwards the final few strides. He turned a routine pass in Dallas into a 91-yard sprint, punctuating his score with a pause, turn and backwards splashdown into the end zone (drawing a taunting penalty). And he ended a stunning comeback against the Giants with a punt return for a touchdown as time expired, the diminutive number 10 prancing along the goal line before crossing it to finish one of the most incredible endings you'll ever see. And that was just in the two years I covered the Eagles.
For all the on-field explosions, though, there was always a sideline implosion looming. The Jackson "I've learned my lesson and matured" damage-control interview was a recurring staple of Eagles coverage.
As he headed to another offseason this past January -- this one full of promise after his best year and a rebound season for the Eagles -- Jackson said he deserved a new contract. It was less than two years after signing the deal that made him so purportedly content at that Philly church in 2012. He wouldn't get his wish, at least not in Philadelphia.
In Washington, Jackson recently told Redskins writers, "People will understand and see the real DeSean Jackson and not see the painted picture that was put out of me before."
After six years in a spotlight, though, the only thing that's clear is that the real Jackson is as unpredictable as a harmless swing pass turned into a score, or an incompletion blown into a tantrum.
Either way, it's almost always spectacular. At any moment, Jackson may do something you'd never seen before, something you'll always remember. It's what makes him a rare athlete even among the elite: He's impossible not to watch.
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Jonathan Tamari covered the Eagles for The Philadelphia Inquirer from 2010 to 2012. He's now the Inquirer's Washington correspondent, where he imagines he'll see and hear much more about DeSean Jackson in 2014. He can be reached on Twitter @JonathanTamari.