This has happened before. Way back when, in the midst of a down period in Eagles history, Bobby Hoying had a couple of good games at quarterback and was suddenly thrust into the limelight. "Hoy To The World," read the headline in the back of one Philadelphia newspaper.
Oh boy, was more like it after Hoying struggled a season later, in 1998, and was out of an Eagles uniform the next season.
It was a case of premature hype, and it was a lesson to everyone in and around the game of football. Things are never as good as they seem, the saying goes, and things are never as bad as they seem.
Fast forward to now. The Eagles are enjoying a strong preseason, one that brings about a lot of optimism in the ranks. Donovan McNabb looks great, the offensive line has been outstanding and the offense in general looks very good, for the most part. The defense, with the exception of the opening drive in Pittsburgh, has played shut-down football.
The rookie class has been productive as a whole than any rookie class in recent memory, and there is good reason to be excited about the prospects taken in late April.
One of the draft picks, wide receiver/punt returner DeSean Jackson, has been particularly spectacular. He has 16 receptions -- tied for most in the NFL with Washington's Billy McMullen (remember him?), who has played one more game -- and is fourth in the league with 189 receiving yards. Jackson is averaging 12.5 yards on 10 punt returns, with a 44-yarder wiped out by penalty Friday night in New England.
He is, by every account, off to a terrific start. Jackson is clearly very talented and seems to have the kind of football intelligence and top-level ability who deserves the praise he has received from the coaching staff and his teammates to date.
But there is a wind blowing here that makes me uneasy. It started as a breeze after the win in New England, a game in which Jackson had a 76-yard punt return for a touchdown to go along with four receptions and the kind of moves in the not-so-open field that makes your jaw go slack in awe. On Sunday, that breeze picked up some intensity.
Jackson Mania is upon us. I feel it. And I don't embrace it.
Let me explain: I love Jackson, I think the world of him and I see the talent he has and the drive he owns and the charisma he brings to the offense. I get it. I'm all about Jackson. I can't wait to see him develop into what I think he could become.
But we're about to enter a world of extremes here. Reporters swarmed Jackson on Sunday when they weren't peppering Donovan McNabb (three of the 14 questions McNabb was asked dealt with Jackson), Brian Westbrook (three of 11 questions were about Jackson) and even Brian Dawkins (one question about Jackson).
If you have visited this space regularly since the draft, you are well aware of the feeling here for Jackson. From the moment the Eagles took Jackson, I understood they were getting themselves a talented, play-making young man. He has been a star at every level from the very beginning of his career in high school and in college. Seeing Jackson do what he has done is, frankly, expected. He has caught up to the tempo of the preseason very quickly and has a good feel for the scheme and can thus go out and do what he does very well -- play football.
But I'm in no rush to pin every Eagles hope on Jackson, nor am I ready to pronounce that he has arrived. I know I'm on the edge of my seat when he has the ball in his hands, but that's as far as I'm going right now. I want to see Jackson earn it. I want to see him continue to work. I want to see Jackson push his body and his mind to new heights and see just how good a football player he can be.
Jackson is handling the pressure very well. He has been humble and respectful and when he addressed reporters after Sunday's practice, he said all the right things.
"I'm doing everything I can to make this football team. With that being said, I'm trying to take every opportunity to do great things," said Jackson. "It's still early on in preseason and I have a lot of work to do. It's a long season. I want to do great things in the regular season," said Jackson. "I've been studying, sticking my nose in that playbook in training camp and giving it my full effort. There's a lot that goes into that playbook. It's been tough on me, but I kept grinding on it and working at it."
Jackson appears on track to be a rare Eagles rookie wide receiver who has a chance to be on the field a lot, and the worst thing that can happen is he begins to believe the hype. This is an interesting one, a good story, a rare time, indeed: The Eagles are trying to tone down the Jackson hype just a bit, insisting that the preseason is the preseason and that the regular season is another beast entirely. If Jackson thinks he has trumped the NFL because he has been outstanding in three preseason games and because a city is about to go overboard with its expectations of him, well, he is in for a rude awakening.
There is no evidence to suggest, by the way, that Jackson is paying much mind to the mania, anyway. This is only my perspective, my concern. Jackson is, very obviously, a confident kid. He knows how good he is, and how good he can be. But he also understands that people look at him differently, and have been doing so his entire football career. He carries a reputation as a diva, and it is a stigma that probably contributed to his second-round draft status despite his clear first-round ability.
I've gotten to know Jackson pretty well early on. He is a nice young man who has a lot of personality and confidence. He has worked hard, through his association with The DeBartolo Sports And Entertainment Group, which turned him on to a friendship and a mentorship with Jerry Rice, on knitting together a start-over reputation in the NFL. Jackson has done all the right things and has said all the right things as an Eagle. He has been a refreshing player on the field, an energizer for the offense and the special teams. Great things could very well be ahead for him.
But the time is not right to call Jackson anything other than what he is: A rookie off to a terrific start and a player who has an exciting upside. Jackson has responded to the tough-love approach by the Eagles coaching staff and to the veteran leadership inside the Eagles locker room. I would hate to see that dissolve by believing what is about to happen: A storm of he's-great stories in the newspapers, a national stream of attention and the kind of spotlight that doesn't come along very often for young Eagles players.
Don't believe the hype, DeSean. Instead, keep on doing what you're doing and work to get better every day. If you take the latter approach, you will end up with the kind of reputation on and off the field that you deserve.
Greatness comes at its own tempo. This game gives and takes at its own pace, and no player is above the game. It is a lesson many have learned through the years. Jackson has the makings of something special. Let's enjoy watching him make progress, one day at a time.