DeSean Jackson has battled through a frustrating 2015 season, missing large chunks of time with injuries. But since his return, no nick or bruise will keep him off the field for a late-season playoff push.
Back in May, as the Redskins were just beginning to put in the work to prepare for the 2015 season, DeSean Jackson made a declaration.
"In my eyes, I already think we're going to surprise a lot of people this year," Jackson said in an interview with ESPN980. "I'll say once again, I'm excited about the new additions that [have] come in. Really, we just have to kind of build a camaraderie. So once the season starts and we're ahead full speed, I think we're gonna surprise a lot of people, and a lot of people are really gonna be saying, 'Wow, those guys are pretty good.'"
Seven months later, Jackson and the Redskins are sitting atop the NFC East with three games left to play.
And as Washington gets set to play host to the Buffalo Bills Sunday at FedExField, they'll do so knowing that Jackson, who has gone through a frustrating, injury-plagued season, will do everything he can to make plays for his team so it can earn a second divisional title in four seasons.
Most recently, Jackson suffered a left patella contusion late in last Sunday's 24-21 victory over the Chicago Bears.
He came up limping after the play, but instead of heading to the sideline, he went straight back to the huddle, knowing how big his presence, let alone his playmaking ability, is to the Redskins' offensive attack.
It's that kind of effort that Jackson's fellow team leaders know is needed in a tight playoff chase.
"He had every opportunity and every right to say, 'Let me go get my knee checked out,' " left tackle Trent Williams said. "He hopped up, jogged it off and got right back in the huddle. The team feeds off that."
'It's very frustrating'After years spent terrorizing Washington fans season after season with the Philadelphia Eagles, Jackson signed with the division rival Redskins in March 2014.
He continued to establish himself as the league's top deep threat last season in his first year wearing burgundy and gold, averaging a league-best 20.9 yards per reception on 56 catches, becoming the first member of the Redskins to finish a season as the NFL leader in yards per reception since Henry Ellard in 1996.
In all, Jackson played in 15 games with 13 starts, leading Washington with 1,169 receiving yards on 56 receptions and a team-best six receiving touchdowns.
The three-time Pro Bowler's respect across the league was represented in June, when Jackson moved up 13 spots from the previous year to rank No. 50 in the NFL Network's "NFL Top 100" list.
"I think what we've seen is what we've gotten – a dynamic playmaker," Redskins head coach Jay Gruden said of Jackson last season. "He's been outstanding. He runs his routes excellent and the quarterbacks all like him, the players seem to like him. I don't have any issues with him. But he's been the player we thought he would be."
The Redskins knew they'd need Jackson's playmaking abilities to be a cornerstone of their offense heading into this season as they tried to improve upon a four-win season in Gruden's first year.
But halfway through training camp practices at the Bon Secours Washington Redskins Training Center in Richmond, Va., Jackson suffered an AC sprain in his right shoulder that, as a precaution, kept him mostly limited in practices and out of all four preseason games.
"I think I'll be ready to go," Jackson said in late August of his chances to play in the 2015 opener against the Miami Dolphins. "You won't have to worry about me at all. I'll be the same person I've always been, making plays and being the guy that brings the energy to this team. I think Coach (Jay) Gruden understands that, and that's why he's able to let me get my rest and do the things I need to do to get right. I think we're all on the same page."
Jackson, indeed, was ready to go for that Week 1 matchup against the Dolphins at FedExField. But early in the game, as he was running a deep route for quarterback Kirk Cousins, Jackson came up limping, holding his left leg.
The diagnosis: strained hamstring. Jackson would miss the next six games, and the Redskins' offense would have to make do without him.
Watching from the sidelines, Jackson remained a vocal supporter for his fellow wide receivers, often being the first to approach them with a big smile and a pat on the helmet after a big play.
But, in the background, Jackson continued to work hard to recover from a hamstring injury that was taking its time to heal.
"It's very frustrating dealing with injuries," Jackson said in October. "I want to do whatever I can to get my body healthy. Anything I can do to better myself and get back out there. You got to do what you can to be able to get your work in."
The return"He can open up everything because I think he gives you the ability to run underneath, intermediate and some things down the field where he's able to stretch coverage. Any time you're able to get a player like him back … it opens up some options because he can do a little bit of everything."
That was Redskins' offensive coordinator Sean McVay in early November, when Jackson was preparing to make his return Week 9 against the New England Patriots, after Washington's bye week.
Jackson didn't make an immediate splash in his return this season, catching three passes for 15 yards in the Redskins' 27-10 loss to the Patriots. But, mind you, this was a guy who had missed the entire preseason and only was able to get a few plays in Week 1 before going down with a hamstring injury.
Slowly but surely, however, Jackson has gotten back to the swing of things. In Week 10 vs. the New Orleans Saints, he caught two passes for 44 yards, including a key 42-yard reception early in the game. The next week against the Carolina Panthers? Even more progress: five receptions, 87 yards and a 56-yard touchdown. Against the New York Giants the next week: two catches, 66 yards, and a 63-yard touchdown.
The old DeSean is officially back.
"You know, it's been hard because at the beginning of the season I suffered a tough injury and I just did my best to fight and get back and be a factor for my team," Jackson said after the Giants game. "Anytime you're missing time in the NFL that's hard to make up. But I'm doing the best I can week-by-week to improve and be where I need to be, so Kirk [Cousins] comes out to throw the ball, he's ready to hit me."
A roller coasterWith the Dallas Cowboys in town Dec. 7 for a big Monday Night Football matchup, Jackson certainly wanted to showcase how he was back in a big way in front of an audience watching across the world.
ExtremeSkins.com gives you another look at the Redskins' Week 13 matchup against the Dallas Cowboys on December 7, 2015 at FedExField.
But the game would turn out to be frustrating across the board for the entire Redskins' offense, which saw drive after drive stall out without a sniff of the end zone.
As things picked up late in the fourth quarter, however, Gruden sent out Jackson in a rare role as a punt returner to try to make a big play with less than two minutes left in a 9-9 game.
Jackson fielded the 41-yard punt cleanly, but then the worst-possible outcome happened as he tried to find any sort of opening pinned deep in Washington territory: he fumbled. The Cowboys recovered and would notch a go-ahead score shortly thereafter.
"Just one of those things I kind of felt like I had some open space," Jackson said. "And you can always say 'I should've done this,' or 'I should've done that,' but just one of those things where the game's played and the speed of the game is so fast out there. … I probably should've ran out of bounds or something like that, but just being a play maker and trying to make plays for my team didn't come up my way."
But Jackson's night was far from over.
For almost the entire game, whether it was untimely penalties or drives just simply stalling out, the Redskins couldn't put together a complete drive against an aggressive defense, settling for three field goal makes along with a miss through the first 58 minutes.
After the Cowboys found the end zone with 1:14 left in the contest following Jackson's mishap, the Redskins would capitalize on good field position following a 41-yard Rashad Ross kick return with an additional 15 yards tacked on due to a facemask penalty.
On the Redskins' fourth play of the drive, on 1st and 10, Kirk Cousins would find Jackson over the top for a 28-yard touchdown to tie the game.
"I pride myself in making big plays in this league and doing what I need to do to be at the condition I need to be at when my number's called and the play is called to go my way," Jackson said. "Definitely [a] frustrating thing, but I did what I needed to do to kind of get it out of my head and just come back and make a play for my team."
The Cowboys had just enough time to attempt, and hit, a game-winning field goal, however.
But Gruden ensured Jackson after the game that he'd do it all over again if and when he has the chance.
"He just said that I'm one of his guys that he trusts," Jackson said. "If he had the chance again to play it back, he would do the same thing. I'm glad he has the trust in me and I had that trust in myself. Like I said, that's the lack of flavors, you know, I laid an egg, I messed up. Had the chance to come back in the game, make a play. I made a play for my team and unfortunately it came down to us losing by a field goal. We give credit when credit is due. They played us a great game. Regardless of the records, regardless of our division, they played hats off football and beat us here at home."
Then came last week's game against the Bears, in which Jackson would make two huge catches and play through a banged-up knee in order to help his team secure a huge 24-21 victory, its first road win of the season.
With three games left, Jackson knows how important he is to the Redskins' chances of breaking free of their tie with the Eagles and Giants to win the NFC East and earn a home playoff game.
"I do what I do good but there are several players on this team too that could do some great things as well too," Jackson said. "Whatever opportunity I get, every change I get the opportunity to make a play, I'm going to make the most out of my skills to score touchdowns, have energy to light my team up, to get everybody riled up to continue to go out on the field and just play at a high level. I just try to set the tempo by playing at a high level and then everybody else can kind of follow."