In the last few weeks, the NFL shield has taken a couple of hits. One individual was arrested for driving under the influence, possession of drugs and nearly $30,000 in cash (I know he’s a multi-billionaire, but what is anyone doing driving around with 30k in cash? No way he was buying anything that would render a receipt). A second individual was indicted on charges of third-degree aggravated assault for knocking his then-fiancée out in a casino elevator. A third individual was accused by a newspaper of having gang ties.
Guess who lost his job?
Colts owner Jim Irsay has since checked into a rehab center and is getting necessary counseling; it seems increasingly unlikely he will suffer any serious type of league discipline (other than maybe a bruised ego). I wonder if a player would get off so easily. It seems shameful that a 20-year-old athlete is held to a higher standard than a 54-year-old owner, but that’s NFL justice for you. Ray Rice, in a bizarre twist, married his fiancée the day after assault charges were filled against him. I guess you can’t discount crazy. DeSean Jackson, however, lost his job 35 minutes after a report linking him to gangs surfaced online.
The report has been rebuffed (Jackson has repeatedly flashed gang signs during games) in the days since its release and the Eagles have said it wasn’t the reason for his release. Obviously the Eagles were aware this report was coming (maybe they planted it) and would only diminish Jackson’s already eroding trade value. So they cut their Pro Bowl receiver, making it crystal clear, after weeks of unconfirmed reports, that the Eagles just didn’t want to deal with Jackson, his contract and diva antics any longer.
This is part of a larger trend NFL executives have been drifting towards - teams don’t seem interested in dedicating a significant amount of cap space to wide receivers anymore. For decades the WR has been a star position in the NFL, dominated by larger-than-life stars like Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Chad Johnson and more recently AJ Green and Calvin Johnson. The thing is, NFL GMs are starting to realize that, in a salary cap sport, paying big-time cash to a receiver doesn’t translate to rings, division titles or even wins. Other than Jerry Rice, who is the best receiver to win a Super Bowl? The answer doesn’t come as quickly as you'd expect.
It’s becoming more and more frequent to see teams let their franchise WRs just walk away and develop more cap-friendly talent. The Packers let Greg Jennings go, the Ravens let Anquan Bolden go, the Patriots let Welker go, the Steelers let Mike Wallace go.
I’m not saying receivers don’t matter. What I’m saying is they’re easier to replace than players at some other positions. Baseball has the WAR (Wins Above Replacement) stat which measures the number of additional (or fewer) wins a team could expect if that player was substituted for a replacement level player. We’ve seen Green Bay, New Orleans, New England and Peyton Manning’s teams do this for years - insert WR next to Pro Bowl QB and watch him become a star; when they leave their star quarterback, their numbers drop. The key being concept here is 'replacement level'. Anyone who watched Andrew Luck try and throw to Darrius Heyward-Bay knows how frustrating it can be to watch a below-average receiver try to keep up with an elite QB.
To a degree this has been a spinoff as rules have become increasingly offense-friendly - the skill set required to get open in the NFL has become watered down. Coaches haven’t done receivers any favors by transforming the tight end position into a passing weapon. The effect this has on the defense is split. As their position has suffered because of rule changes, the demand for above-average positional talent has skyrocketed. Look at the amount of money thrown at cornerbacks and safeties in free agency this year - they all got paid.
It’s a number game. The NFL has a salary cap, and dedicating $10-12 million per year to a receiver is tough to justify when you can find someone to replace 70-80% of their production at 20% the cost and use that savings on defenders and lineman.
When it comes down to it, whether it was money, gang ties or Jackson’s well-documented 'me first' attitude the Eagles, didn’t want him on their roster. Chip Kelly is a former college coach, used to replacing playmakers, and likely won't have too much difficulty replacing Jackson’s game-day production. Jackson is a freakish talent, but has always made things difficult on himself. The Eagles decided he wasn’t worth the headaches.
The thing is, Philadelphia drafted Jackson and were well aware of his hijinks when they signed him to a five-year extension. It seems ridiculous that the NFL has one owner being investigated by the FBI for fraud, another owner in rehab after being caught with pills and $30K in cash, a player caught on tape knocking his fiancée unconscious (each of which could be an episode of Law & Order), yet it's the diva receiver who gets fired - if only temporarily.