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Do the Eagles Really Miss DeSean Jackson's Big Plays?

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It's natural to conclude that the Eagle's offensive woes are the result of waiving their best wide receiver. But the evidence just isn't there yet.

DeSean Agonistes
DeSean Agonistes
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

BGN's most successful graduate, Jimmy Kempski, riled up the Eagles fanbase today with an article forcefully arguing that the Birds miss DeSean, specifically for his explosion plays.

That makes a lot of sense.  It's hard to think of a faster deep threat in the NFL today, or one with better hands. But I don't think there's enough evidence yet to make that conclusion.

Kempski makes it clear that he's not arguing that Philadelphia should have kept DeSean, or disputing their better record and culture.  And his position is not really a surprise.  Last April, before there were any post-DeSean games to evaluate, Kempski wrote that "Replacing DeSean Jackson's Explosive Play Will Be Nearly Impossible for the 2014 Eagles." In fact most of the statistics in today's article were also in last April's, including the chart of DeSean's long plays last year.

That chart includes an impressive number of touchdowns (17) and points (141) from Jackson's catches. Except that he didn't score those points. The statistic is a bit of a stretch, calculating all the points that resulted from any drive during which he caught a long pass, which is a great way of masking the fact that DeSean is essentially worthless in the red zone.

In fact, Jackson had only 9 TDs on 82 receptions last year, while the much-maligned Riley Cooper had 8 TDs on only 47 receptions. Cooper also had more yards per reception (17.8) than Jackson (16.2). If anything, the Eagles miss Riley Cooper's big plays this year; he has been a huge disappointment. (More on that in a second.)

Let's take the simplest comparison -- DeSean versus his replacement, Jeremy Maclin. Djax has 7 completions of 20 yards or more this year, and 3 TDs.  Maclin has 7 completions of 20 yards or more, and 4 TDs. Zach Ertz has 7 completions of 20 or more yards (best among NFL tight ends, and 4th among all NFL receivers), with 2 TDs. Jordan Matthews only has 2 catches of 20+, but he has 2 TDs. The problem does not seem to be a lack of long passes, or passing TDs.

Statistics can bend or shade reality, so let's take a step back and look at some realities of this situation.

  • Deep passing requires good pass protection.  The Eagles' offensive line has been missing 4 of its best 7 players for much of the year.
  • DeSean got a lot of his production during the few games when Mike Vick was still quarterback last year, including 3 of his 8 40+ yard passes. Foles can throw long, but Mike Vick's great arm was a big part of DeSean's success during his years in Philadelphia.
  • Kirk Cousins has a big arm (he threw some beautiful long passes against the Eagles) and a reckless streak, which is a great combination for DeSean's statistics, but caused Cousins to lose his starting position to Colt Friggin' McCoy.
  • Nick Foles has been shaky at best this year.  Some of it is the OL, but he has missed a lot of wide open receivers too.  In particular, he is only 27/59 to Maclin, usually going deep, and according to Pro Football Focus Maclin has NO drops. If DeSean was still in Philadelphia, Foles would probably be missing him too.
  • New receivers Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff are more of slot receivers, which may be shifting the Eagles' passing game to shorter passes.  And/or Foles might have needed to dump the ball quickly to avoid getting sacked.
Clearly, DeSean has great speed and even better hands.  That does not mean the Eagles miss him, though. In fact, the Eagles are averaging slightly more passing yards per game so far this year -- 262.3 vs. 260.3 in the first 7 games of 2013.

The best argument in DJax's favor is that Riley Cooper has suffered from not having DeSean to draw away defenders. If Maclin weren't wide open for so many missed passes, and Cooper hadn't dropped two touchdowns, I would probably be convinced of that. But it's just as likely that Cooper also needs lengthy pass protection to get open deep.

As it stands, I don't think we know yet whether DeSean is missed.  Foles has been terrible behind a porous front line, but then again, the team is still scoring (up from 26.1 points a game at this point last year to 30.5, even with a much diminished rushing attack.) It's still doing well on explosive plays, too -- 6th in the league with 37 (over 9% of all of Philadelphia's offensive plays).

Last year at this point, despite a completely healthy front line, the team was in turmoil with a 3-4 record, coming off the first Dallas game where Nick Foles looked horrible. They are far better this year, even with all these troubles, and the OL should be back to normal in 3 games.

Once that happens, we can start to look at how this offense is clicking, and whether the team has trouble generating explosion plays.  Until then, it's too early to say whether they miss DeSean or not.

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