AUBURN, Ala. — There was once a time in the NFL when the only thing teams cared about was production.
That time has long since passed.
There is no greater example of this than Philadelphia’s decision to release DeSean Jackson. At the peak of his powers, the Eagles decided the Pro Bowl wide receiver was no longer worth the trouble. Though the team didn’t explain its reasoning for cutting its top pass-catcher, others have been more than happy to speculate. Some say it was because he had a bad attitude. Others cited a work ethic that wasn’t up to snuff. According to reports, he missed team meetings and wasn’t exactly buddy-buddy with Eagles coach Chip Kelly, either.
But the tipping point — whether Philadelphia would admit it or not — came after an article by NJ.com last week that reportedly tied Jackson with members of the notorious Crips gang in Los Angeles. Since December 2010, associates of Jackson who are believed to be part of the gang have been questioned in a pair of Los Angeles-area murders. Jackson wasn’t considered a suspect in either crime. Still, having their star receiver’s name come up in both cases had to be troubling to the Eagles.
That’s why he’s now with their NFC East rival, the Washington Redskins.
Had this taken place in 2004 instead of 2014, Philadelphia probably wouldn’t have given it much thought. No, it doesn’t sound good to hear that one of your best players is hanging around unsavory characters. But his production has been such that an Eagles organization, circa 2004, likely would have done little.
Perhaps they would have expressed their concern to him and recommended that he try to find a new circle of friends.
But to outright release him? No chance.
This is the same team that put up with the Terrell Owens' circus, after all. For all the distractions Owens caused, no one could argue with his numbers. And lest it be forgotten, he helped the Eagles reach the Super Bowl in 2004 in his first season with the team.
Much the same, Jackson has been a difference maker when he’s on the field. In six years with the Eagles, he’s been to three Pro Bowls. He’s coming off a fantastic season in which he had 82 catches for a career-high 1,333 yards. In addition, he led the team in touchdown receptions with nine.
All of that wasn’t enough for Philadelphia to overlook other reservations it had about him, though.
For this, Roger Goodell should be given some credit. No, he hasn't done a perfect job since taking over as the league’s commissioner in 2006. What no one would argue is his stance on player conduct. From his first day on the job, he made cleaning up player misbehavior a priority. He saw it come to fruition in April 2007, when the NFL instituted its new conduct policy.
Since then, he’s handed down lengthy suspensions, most notably to Adam Jones — better known as “Pacman” — who missed the entire 2007 season and six more games in 2008. Chris Henry and Tank Johnson had eight-game bans of their own in 2007, while Donte Stallworth sat out the entire 2009 campaign after he pleaded guilty to DUI manslaughter charges.
If for some reason teams still hadn’t got the message, Aaron Hernandez took care of that.
Formerly an ultra-talented tight end for the New England Patriots, he now sits in jail on first-degree murder charges. If that wasn’t enough, he’s also being investigated as a suspect in a drive-by shooting in Boston that occurred prior to him signing a five-year, $40 million contract with the Patriots in August 2012.
It’s not as if red flags didn’t exist around Hernandez before he joined the team. The reason he dropped to the fourth round of the 2010 NFL draft in the first place was because he admitted to failing multiple drug tests in his college career. After two solid seasons of work — and not aware of any off-field indiscretions — New England saw fit to give him a contract becoming of a player his caliber.
Then came his arrest last June, leaving the Patriots to answer questions about his past. Did they not see this coming? Did something in his background not give them pause?
Philadelphia came to that conclusion with Jackson last week.
Don't get it twisted, though: Talent is still a highly-valued commodity in today’s NFL.
It just no longer trumps everything else.