Brian Westbrook has fractured ribs. Reggie Brown has a groin injury. Kevin Curtis is still working with the scout team in practice. The Eagles need to establish a go-to player on offense, for this week and beyond, and while Westbrook is the undisputed man here, he needs somebody to ride shotgun. He needs a Tonto. DeSean Jackson is that player.
The rookie from Cal leads the Eagles with 23 receptions, second-most among NFL rookies, and his 323 receiving yards ranks first on the team and among the league's rookies. But Jackson had only one catch in last week's loss, had only a few throws come his way and seemed to get lost in the spread-the-ball-around approach. The offense struggled after the first couple of series, and nobody stepped forward to bail it out.
So even though this goes against the mindset here, and fully understanding that Jackson is just a baby in this league, he is the one who needs to be featured. He is the one who needs to have the ball in his hands.
He has to be the go-to player in this passing game.
And for the rest of the season.
Jackson estimates he played in about 30 to 35 of the offense's 47 snaps against Washington. I understand the need to rest Jackson occasionally after he returns a punt and needs a breather. I understand that he is 175 pounds and going to hit a rookie wall at some point this season, if he hasn't already. The NFL is a long grind, both mentally and physically. Jackson is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and he has handled eight games -- three in the preseason, five in the regular season -- with the kind of alacrity that has earned the trust of the coaching staff.
It was very obvious from the beginning of the spring camps that Jackson's skills were a notch above, and he has only accelerated his progress since the games began. Jackson makes plays, and the Eagles need more plays, so it seems a simple equation.
Give Jackson the ball.
"If they want to do that, it's fine with me," said Jackson. "Everybody wants the ball, and we have a lot of great players. I think every person in this locker room wants the same thing, and that is to win. It doesn't matter how it happens. We have to win, and I will do whatever the coaches want if it helps us win."
As far as I know, the Eagles haven't gone to Jackson and tapped his shoulder and told him he is the guy. The Eagles trust their players,which is why Andy Reid's approach this week has been positive and urgent. Chairs aren't being tossed. The roster wasn't overturned. I'm sure there are going to be some tweaks and twists in the game plan and in personnel Sunday in San Francisco, but the message has been, largely, to stay the course.
Still, it makes sense to find a way to put the ball into the breadbasket of Jackson and let him do his thing. If Westbrook, Brown and Curtis don't play on Sunday, who is stretching the field? Where is the speed on this offense? Can't you just see the 49ers creeping eight and nine defenders toward the line of scrimmage and coming after quarterback Donovan McNabb?
Well, Jackson can make plays down the field. He runs a legitimate 4.3 40 and plays just as fast, and he needs to take this 49ers defense and turn it this way and that way. He needs to be the player to hurt the 49ers on short catch-and-run plays and in opportunities when he can tear off down the field and catch a McNabb throw behind the defense.
Jackson was the go-to receiver at Cal. Says he caught a career-high of 11 passes in one game, and that he leaned that when you are the featured receiver, you need to be physically up to the challenge.
The physical approach is one of the reasons Jackson has been so good so early in his career. Jackson did all the extra work necessary in the summer to get in tip-top shape and it has paid off.
"I feel great. The coaches have been pushing me, staying on me and it makes a difference," he said. "You learn up here that you can't take a day off. You have to go all out on every play, and to do that you have to be at your best. I liked the role I played in college and I like the role I play here.
"I'm on the field a lot and I'm ready to do my part, whatever that is. I love it here. I love the way things are going, other than being 2-3. We need to win."
And to win, the Eagles need to get Jackson more involved. Let him return punts. Let him get a handoff once in a while, as he has done the last couple of games. And let him be the primary target in the passing game. Spreading it around has worked for the Eagles in the past, but there is some kind of disconnect going on these last couple of weeks.
It is time to go back to what worked in Weeks 1 and 2, when Jackson went for 100-plus yards in each game. He was dynamic, an energizer to an offense that played at the high tempo the Eagles loved. It was a great-looking offense, with Jackson in the lead role.
He needs to be the man once again. Jackson is a difference maker who needs to step up at a time when the Eagles are desperate for a victory.
HERE AND THERE AND THIS AND THAT
- One of the disappointments of this early season is the lack of playing time for defensive end Chris Clemons, who has hardly stepped on the field other than on special teams. I looked forward to having four defensive ends up front in nickel situations, but for whatever reasons Clemons just has not earned the confidence of the coaches. Victor Abiamiri should be a few snaps at tackle in the nickel, and it's going to be interesting to see how the second-year lineman does. The 49ers, by the way, rank last in the league in sacks per pass play allowed.
- Good test for the kickoff coverage teams on Sunday. San Francisco's Allen Rossum leads the league in kickoff returns.
- Fullback has not gone the way the Eagles hoped. Dan Klecko is now the man with the plan there, although it remains to be seen how, exactly, the coaches plan to use him at the position. Tony Hunt? He isn't out of the picture, of course, but he is not finding a comfort level. I thought it would relatively easy to replace Thomas Tapeh after last year, but it doesn't look like the Eagles have done that.
- Watch out for San Francisco quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan's mobility on Sunday. He breaks the pocket and runs around like crazy. Think Jeff Garcia without the poise in the pocket.
- It will be good seeing both Michael Lewis and Takeo Spikes. Both men are class acts who, no matter what they say, are going to be extra fired up for this game. Lewis has an elbow injury, but he insists that he is going to play in this game.
- Think about this: If -- and I'm guessing here -- Westbrook, Brown and Curtis don't play, along with Shawn Andrews, the Eagles will have four starters out for a game that only means everything to keep this season on any kind of positive train going into the bye week. We talked a lot in the summer about how the Eagles loved their depth. Here is another great chance to prove it.