Whenever you hear the initials "JJ" referenced in association with the Philadelphia Eagles, you probably think of the late defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. This is only natural, since Johnson was a great defensive mind that was loved and respected by many Eagles fans. His death was tragic and he is missed very much, but he will never be forgotten for the great things he did for the Eagles.
However, there is another "JJ" associated with the Eagles that seems to have been forgotten, and unrightfully so. The man I speak of is none other than Eagles center #67 Jamaal Jackson. He is also currently the Eagles longest tenured player on the roster.
Jackson attended Delaware State, where he never missed a game and set a Delaware State record by starting 45 consecutive games. He was signed as an undrafted rookie free agent by the Eagles in 2003. After not seeing any significant playing time for two seasons, Jackson finally got the chance he had been waiting for. Eagles starting center Hank Fraley had suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against the Redskins, which gave Jackson a chance to start the remaining eight games of the season.
Jackson’s first start came against the hated rival Dallas Cowboys. Jackson remembers his first NFL snap well:
"…my most memorable moment had to be my first NFL snap. Ironically enough, it happened in a penalty, my first snap under center, I got a false start. It was a Monday night game against the Dallas Cowboys, and my first start. We were walking up to the line, and then, I false start. (laughs). That’s probably one of the only things that I remember. It always pops out when people ask that question in what is your most memorable, you always remember your first play."
In those final eight games of the 2005 season, Jackson played well enough to prove he was capable of being a starting center. The Eagles decided to reward Jackson’s play with a seven-year extension that would keep him under contract as an Eagle until the 2013 season. Jackson then beat out Fraley for the starting center job in the 2006 season, which led to Fraley being traded to the Browns. Jackson was later named to Peter King’s Sports Illustrated’s All-Pro team following the 2006 season opener against Green Bay.
Jackson also proved to be a very durable starter: starting every game in 2006 until week 16 in the 2009 season, where he tore his ACL in a game against the Denver Broncos. I remember being very worried when this injury happened. Late-season ACL injuries are terrible because not only do they end the player’s current season, but they can also obviously linger into the next season. It also worried me because I thought it would have a negative effect on both the Eagles offensive line and offense altogether. This seemed to be true when the Eagles struggled mightily in their final two games against the Dallas Cowboys. Jackson’s replacement, Nick Cole, was hardly an adequate replacement. I think this proved Jackson’s worth to the team’s success. Not only was he an underrated blocker on the offensive line, but due to Juan Castillo’s offensive line scheme he was also the one responsible for blitz recognition and such. (This seems to differ from Howard Mudd’s scheme, where the blitz recognition isn’t so much the center’s responsibility as it is the quarterback’s job.)
As the disappointing 2009 season ended, it seemed questionable as whether Jackson would be able to return in time for the 2010 season. When the 2010 season arrived, however, it appeared as Jackson would be back in time. Sure enough, Jackson got the start on the opening day of the 2010 season against the Green Bay Packers. In all honesty, I was concerned that Jackson was rushing himself back a little too soon. I was also worried that his backup, Mike McGlynn, wasn’t a real good option at starting center either, should Jackson get re-injured. I was sad to see that Jackson left the game due to a torn triceps injury, and was ruled out for the rest of the 2010 season when he was placed on Injured Reserve. After working so hard to get healthy for the season, Jackson was forced to sit on the sideline again.
As the Eagles headed into the off-season after their playoff loss to the Packers, there was no question in my mind Jackson would be the opening day center for the 2011 season, barring yet another injury. I’m sure Jackson was thinking the same thing. Things changed quickly, however, when Juan Castillo was named the defensive coordinator, and the Eagles hired legendary Howard Mudd to be the new offensive line coach. After reading about Mudd’s scheme, which seemed to focus on athleticism more than size (which Castillo’s scheme more reliant on), it seemed like Jackson wasn’t going to fit in this new scheme. Jackson had great size at 6’4’’, 330lbs, but he didn’t seem athletic enough for Mudd’s liking. This suspicion was confirmed when Eagles drafted Jason Kelce in the 6th round of the 2011 NFL Draft. After the lockout ended, and training camp began, it was clear there was a position battle at center. Although Jackson seemed to get a majority of the starting center reps, Kelce was being worked in the mix as well. Eventually, Kelce took over as the starting center in the 3rd preseason game, and seemed to be Mudd’s favorite for the starting center job. As the season began, Kelce was officially named the starter for the 2011 season.
A lot of fans seemed to be concerned about starting a rookie center, especially next to his fellow rookie right guard Danny Watkins. Although Kelce got pushed around at times due to his smaller size (relative to an offensive lineman), he displayed great athleticism which Mudd wanted in his scheme. As the 2011 season continued, Kelce proved that he was a good starting center.
Meanwhile, Jamaal Jackson sat on the bench and watched. I felt really bad for Jackson this year. He was finally healthy, and proved he was capable of playing at a good level, as he proved in the first couple of preseason games. I understood why he wasn’t playing, and I don’t disagree with the decision to play Kelce, but it still disappointed me. I found it really awkward whenever the camera showed Jackson on the sidelines, just standing there, looking like he really wanted to get out there and play.
Jamaal Jackson seems like a really good guy. He spent this whole season as a backup when he really could have been starting elsewhere, and did it without complaining to the media or coming off as a diva. That’s the kind of team-first player I like to see on the Eagles roster. Also, as you might remember, he, along with DeSean and Todd Herremans, surprised bully victim Nadin Khoury by meeting him on an episode of The View.
On a more personal note, my fondest memory of Jamaal is when I was watching Action News one night a couple years ago where they showed a reporter asking Eagles players some questions. One of the questions was to DeSean Jackson, and the reporter asked who the Eagles 3rd QB would be should both of the QB’s (McNabb + Kolb, I think, I can’t remember exactly since I’m basing this off of memory) get knocked out of the game. I remember DeSean said, with a serious face, "Jamaal Jackson". Action News then cut to a clip of the reporter interviewing Jamaal, asking him if he was the 3rd QB in case there was an injury. Befuddled, Jackson exclaimed "No! Who told you that?!" This showed me that Jamaal was definitely a well-liked guy in the locker room.
I felt compelled to write this post since I felt this was an issue that wasn’t covered all that well this year. The least we can do for Jamaal is show him some respect by paying a little tribute to him. It’s a shame that such a good guy like Jamaal had to go through this, but that’s the rough business side of the NFL. I also feel it’s important to draw attention to the unsung heroes, since the more popular guys already get the attention they deserve. Although his contract isn’t up, Jamaal isn’t likely to be back next year, and nor should he. I would love to have Jamaal back, but since Howard Mudd is returning, it’s not likely he gets any playing time (barring injury) next season. With all respect to Jamaal, I’d rather have the Eagles acquire a more athletic backup center that Mudd likes. The Eagles need to do the right thing this off-season, which is to release him so he can go sign with a team where he’ll have a chance to play. According to Jamaal’s agent, JR Rickert, Jamaal is going to be asked to be released this off-season. I hope the Eagles grant him this request. I’m going to be rooting for Jamaal wherever he goes, and I hope you do too.
Here’s to you, Jamaal.