DeSean Jackson was sitting in the Eagles' locker room last Thursday, contemplating his province as a weapon and a showman. After the usual talk about how he respects many of his receiving peers, Jackson saved his most glowing kudos for one player in particular. "I don't think there's anybody who plays like me," he said.
Jackson counted the ways. "Not being 6'4", only being 5'10", 170, you probably wouldn't predict the way I play receiver," said the third-year wideout from Cal. "I was just destined. I feel like I was put in a position to be that face of a team. Some of the things I do are amazing to myself."
In the Eagles' 30--27 victory in Dallas on Sunday, Jackson awed more than himself. He vaporized the Cowboys' D with a career-high 210 receiving yards—including a 91-yard dash off a hitch route, complete with a backward bow into the end zone that earned him an excessive-celebration penalty—and bucked the conventional wisdom that the receiver position in today's NFL must be ruled by giants.
Along with New England's 5'9" Wes Welker, Jackson is at the forefront of a resurgence of smaller playmakers who are their teams' go-to targets—receivers like 5'11" Greg Jennings with Green Bay and the Jets' 5'11" Santonio Holmes. The top three players in receiving yards through Sunday (Roddy White of Atlanta, Reggie Wayne of Indianapolis and Brandon Lloyd of Denver) stand a pedestrian 6 feet. No team has thrived more on small ball this season than the Patriots, who traded away the 6'4" Randy Moss in October and, less than a week later, reacquired 5'9" Deion Branch. Size notwithstanding, Branch has been every bit the big-play threat Moss was supposed to be this fall, averaging 23.4 yards per catch over the last three games. In Sunday's win in Chicago, he had a career regular-season high 151 yards on eight catches, including a 59-yard TD pass at the close of the first half.
Throughout the NFL, teams are using jitterbugs both well-known and obscure. In Oakland it's 5'10" Jacoby Ford, a former Clemson standout. In Detroit it's 5'6" Stefan Logan, a onetime grocery bagger at Publix. Is going small becoming a trend? "We'll see," says Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. "Usually there are only four or five guys that size in the league who can play at a high level, but they all have special qualities."
When Mornhinweg was coordinator in San Francisco in the late '90s, his starting wideout trio—Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens and J.J. Stokes—went 6'2", 6'3" and 6'4", respectively. In Philly, Jackson is joined by 6-footers Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant. With the 49ers, Mornhinweg could take advantage of his receivers' stature, especially in crowded spaces. With smaller wideouts, he says, the goal is to "get them in the clear" and let them operate. "You've got to have some strength, natural instincts, great hands, great ball skills, great speed, great quickness and toughness," Mornhinweg says of the smaller set. "Not many have all that. DeSean, coming out of college, I thought he had it."
After Philadelphia's back-to-back losses to Dallas at the end of last season, including a 34--14 wild-card defeat, Mornhinweg bemoaned several missed opportunities on deep balls to Jackson. This season with Michael Vick at the helm, the Eagles are capitalizing. Jackson is averaging a league-leading 23.1 yards per catch, and on Sunday night, Vick unleashed a 60-yard bomb to a streaking Jackson on Philly's first play—shades of the epic Monday Night blowout of Washington that began with an 88-yard Vick-to-Jackson hookup. "Marty and Coach [Andy] Reid put me in positions to take advantage of a defense," says Jackson, who has bounced back from a brutal helmet-to-helmet hit on Oct. 17 to resume terrorizing NFL secondaries. "Size is not a factor at all if you have the heart."