TAMPA — This is not the way it's supposed to end. Vincent Jackson has meant too much to the Bucs to limp away from the season, and maybe the NFL. He is supposed to pour champagne with teammates after a championship, not draw the short straw.
But there it was, five years in a Bucs uniform perhaps reduced to five paragraphs in a release from the team Tuesday: "The team has placed wide receiver Vincent Jackson on Injured Reserve after an MRI revealed an injury to his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL)."
Jackson played the whole game Oct. 10 at Carolina and had three catches for 36 yards in a 17-14 win over the Panthers. But after the game, he complained about discomfort in his left knee. An MRI on Tuesday revealed the ACL injury.
"This is obviously very disappointing for me personally," Jackson said in a statement released by the team. "I had high hopes for this season because I know what we are capable of accomplishing as a team. My top priority going into every season is being out there with my teammates and helping my team any way possible.
"While I may not be on the field for the foreseeable future, I will be focused on beginning my rehab as soon as possible and finding ways to support my teammates in whatever way I can."
So what is Jackson's future?
Like so many passes thrown his direction this season, it's incomplete. There is a feeling the Bucs want Jackson to undergo further tests in the weeks to come. And Jackson is eligible to be the player on IR designed for return in eight weeks, meaning he could play the final three games.
But that's if they don't use that exemption on running back Charles Sims, who went on IR with a knee injury just before the Bucs played the Panthers.
Jackson was off to a slow start with 15 receptions for 173 yards and no touchdowns in five games. But he has been very productive since he joined the team in 2012. The three-time Pro Bowl selection has recorded 268 receptions for 4,326 yards (16.1 average) with 20 touchdowns for Tampa Bay. He's arguably the best free agent signing in club history.
Moreover, the Bucs came to rely on Jackson's leadership and immense intangibles as a team captain. He has mentored young receivers like Mike Evans. During his time with in Tampa Bay, he endured three coaching changes, from Greg Schiano to Lovie Smith to Dirk Koetter, and never experienced a winning season.
The Bucs believed enough in Jackson that they honored the final year of his contract which will pay him $9.77 million this season.
"Any time you lose a player and team leader of Vincent's caliber, it is a setback for your team," Koetter said in a statement. "Vincent is a very tough-minded player and a great competitor. Even though he doesn't recall when he injured his knee, he was still out there the entire game and made two crucial catches on our final drive to set up the game-winning field goal."
Let's be honest, this is likely Jackson's last season in the NFL. There's not a great need for 33-year-old receivers who will have missed at least 14 games over the past two seasons. Two knee injuries last year limited Jackson to 10 games, when he caught 33 passes for 543 yards and three touchdowns.
The Bucs did not make a corresponding move to fill Jackson's roster spot Tuesday. They have some guys to choose from. Louis Murphy practiced for the first time Monday since being placed on the physically-unable-to-perform list recovering from a torn ACL, but it could be another week or so before he's game ready. Cecil Shorts practiced for the first time in four weeks since suffering a hamstring injury. Donteea Dye and Freddie Martino were added to the practice squad.
Regardless of his football future, Jackson has vowed to make Tampa Bay his home. An Army brat, his Jackson In Action83 Foundation benefits the families of servicemen and servicewomen. He owns Cask Social, a popular restaurant in south Tampa. His mom and dad now live in the area.
Before last season, Jackson was asked how long he wanted to play. He was noncommittal before allowing that 12 years sounded about right.
But if it ends like this, it just feels wrong.