Character Counts: On DeSean Jackson, Tyrann Mathieu and Dismissing Players

Kevin C. Cox

Both DeSean Jackson and Tyrann Mathieu were shockingly dismissed from their respective teams. Paul talks about the what and why of these decisions, suggesting both point to character calls.

Two years ago, just a month before the season, Les Miles made the difficult decision to dismiss superstar player and Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu. At the the time, the decision was seen as curious, at best. Sure, Mathieu had served a suspension during the 2011 season for violating the team's substance abuse policy, but other than that? No known indiscretions. A month prior to his dismissal, I wrote a much maligned post about him being difficult to like, which I attempted to make clear was entirely personal opinion:

I do not like Tyrann Mathieu. There, I said it.

I find him hard to root for. That doesn't stop me from rooting for him; I just find it hard to do.

I won't make the mistake of telling anyone how to feel. But for me, I just don't like him. Beside the fact that he's a brilliant football player, why would I?

It had nothing to do with his previous drug-related suspension. I had absolutely zero knowledge of any additional or potential issues. A month later Mathieu was dismissed. Two months after that, he was arrested with three other former LSU players on drug-related charges.

In hindsight, there was a lesson for all of us in this. The fact is, there was more to the story than we realized. The information wasn't publicly available at the time. We were left to wonder what exactly Mathieu did to get booted, when other players, lesser players even, were extended seemingly longer leashes?

The Eagles released star wide receiver DeSean Jackson. Shortly before the release of the news, NJ.com published a story detailing some of the Eagles concerns:

Rather, sources close to Jackson and within the Eagles' organization say, it originally was Jackson's off-field behavior that concerned the front office. A bad attitude, an inconsistent work ethic, missed meetings and a lack of chemistry with head coach Chip Kelly were the original reasons for his fall from grace, sources told NJ.com.

And when the Eagles looked more deeply into why Jackson was missing meetings, they found that his friends were becoming a more powerful -- and negative -- influence in his life.

Jackson promptly and defensively responded, claiming the report to be reckless and irresponsible. It's an interesting saga... to say the least.

During his time in Philadelphia, criticism seemed to follow DeSean, most of which was largely unwarranted. He's a bright, brash and outspoken young man, known for his celebration antics on the field (Note: I was sitting in the very corner of the EZ where he attempted the flip during the HS Army All-American game). Opposing fans grew to despise him, mostly because of the style with which he played. After a couple of solid seasons, he began to publicly express his desire to be adequately compensated for his contributions. He held out for a bit.

After a year of some public bickering, the Eagles paid up, giving him $51 million dollars over five years, nearly two years ago to today. He, and the entire 2012 Eagles, struggled. Fans railed against the contract. Andy Reid was fired. Chip Kelly was hired. Everything seemed righted. There were some murmurings, from the get go, that DeSean may not be "one of Chip's guys." Others fantasized about the possibilities that an offensive guru could do with a player as dynamic and explosive as Jackson. He would go on to deliver the most productive year of his career, nabbing 82 catches for 1,300+ yards and 9 TDs, earning him a Pro Bowl berth. All seemed well.

Except, the murmurings continued to grow. Beat writers speculated of a possible trade of Jackson. Fans backlashed, acting as if such talk was offseason slow news day fodder. Still the rumors persisted. Those with sources insisted it had at least been discussed in the halls of Eagles headquarters.

A few days ago, DeSean himself stated on Twitter he had talked with Chip Kelly and all was well. A day later Chip Kelly fulfilled a required media obligation and most of his answers on the situation could be described as evasive, at best. Today, DeSean's gone.

The similarities between DeSean's situation and Tyrann's are eerily similar. DeSean has never been arrested (not even suspended), and by all accounts he's a pretty good guy, doing tons of charity work, like this and this. In fact, his experience with Nadin Khoury (watch that 2nd video, seriously), prompted DeSean to start his own efforts to prevent bullying. Knowing this, it's hard to be convinced he's an awful guy.

Why then would the Eagles be in such a hurry to get rid of a young, productive, talented player in the middle of his prime years and also seemingly few character issues? Change that from Eagles to LSU and you have the same question we asked about Tyrann Mathieu just two years ago. The reality is likely hidden behind walls that won't be torn down.

Yet, I think we can piece some things together. Chip Kelly has some very specific ideas about how to accomplish what he would like to accomplish. Upon arriving in Philadelphia, he overhauled everything, from the practices to the dining options to the amount of sleep he demands his players to have. His demands for excellence are high, but they are also well established. There are no secrets here. "These are the things we expect of you, if you don't comply we are happy to move on to someone else."

He also shares a unique view on leadership, believing you need both "vertical leadership," from the top down, and "horizontal leadership," established locker room leaders that echo the principles that are established vertically. The end goal is that everyone is on the same page.

I don't know DeSean Jackson. But I like DeSean Jackson. I'm an Eagles fan, and he's been my favorite player on the team since the Eagles drafted him. I've always felt he received undue treatment from many quick to label him a "thug" or other such thinly veiled racist terms. That said, I can't help but believe there's more to this story.

I don't know if DeSean has gang ties or associations that could be detrimental to his present and future. We've all recently watched the ramifications of this play out in a very real way with Aaron Hernandez. From an outside perspective, we have only very few reasons to criticize DeSean's actual character, none of which can be related to "gang associations." The Eagles, or at least reportedly, seem to think so. DeSean says no sir, despite having pictures on his Instagram with known gang members. This is not to say DeSean is a gangster, nor that he shouldn't be able to keep company with those people. Former NFL RB Derrick Ward took to DeSean's defense, detailing his family members still associated with gang activities. Those are blurry, personal lines, the ones of which we can't, and shouldn't, judge.

So too, at the time of Mathieu's dismissal, did we have little reason to question his character. Sure, one drug-related suspension, but otherwise? We knew nothing. There were rumors, but little else. If anything, we were proud of Mathieu, who overcame a troubled childhood and past to become one of the most talented and remarkable football players on the planet. He was a darling child.

But I think both instances speak to a few larger points.

1) There's always more to the story

Mathieu's subsequent arrest and the following stories of his drug addiction and personal trials helped color in what was previously unknown. Mathieu, thankfully, took his personal failures, matured, got clean and focused and went on to have an impressive rookie season. Let's hope he stays this way.

We've yet to see the full DeSean story, and we may never. In 1990 the Eagles made a similarly shocking decision, cutting a young WR who hauled in 11 TDs his rookie season. The decision left much of the football world puzzled. Later it was revealed that player was mired into deep substance abuse problems. His name: Cris Carter. To this date, Carter will claim that decision saved not only his football career, but his life.

The Eagles have had six seasons to see DeSean, and they are almost certainly aware of his character strengths and flaws. Perhaps two, three, hell even a year ago, they believed he could be "reclaimed" from whatever issues they believe plagued him. The fact that they would walk away from him, receiving nothing in return, speaks to the fact that they believe there's significant trouble here.

2) Follow the Leader

I get the impression that Miles, like Kelly, maintains a high level of expectation, particularly from a character perspective. "Playing the game the right way" is a cliché, one often misused to criticize players whose attitudes we find to be pompous. On a deeper level, I think it rings of a truth they both believe in: doing things the right way. There's no perfect comparison to collegiate and professional sports, and the punishments for professional athletes can actually hit them financially, not just on their reputations. Yet the demands, the expectations, are clear. Don't miss meetings. Take care of yourself. Don't miss practice. Don't miss weight training. And so on and so forth.

Is it possible that Kelly and DeSean's personalities simply didn't mesh, which ultimately lead to his dismissal? Well, maybe. Could it be possible that Miles and Mathieu were the same? I'm skeptical of this opinion. Coaches can be hard-headed, but at the heart they are teachers and mentors, not the type of people quick to dismiss others simply because they don't see eye to eye, particularly when their success is heavily tied to these players.

The reality is, and this ties back to point one, it's highly likely DeSean Jackson wasn't fulfilling the expectations Chip Kelly demanded. So too was Tyrann Mathieu failing to hold up his end of the bargain. Jackson is entering his seventh year in the NFL, a clear leader on the Eagles team. Mathieu was the unquestioned leader of the LSU football team. Toxic is a strong word, but it seems evident to me that both coaches were clearly worried about the potential affects of having established leaders that failed to follow their own commands. It sets a principle that ushers down to the rest of the team. If the coach doesn't demand the highest from the appointed leaders, how can he then of everyone else?

To me, this more than anything is why Tyrann Mathieu was dismissed and DeSean Jackson was given his walking papers. It's not that either young man is a bad person, but character counts. And while definitions of character will vary between the eye of the beholder, in this case, the one judging the character was also the one who held the player's immediate future's at hand.

What both coaches prove true is that value of a player's talents are less influential upon the team than the value of their character and leadership.

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