HOUSTON — The final preseason game usually holds little value, but this was worth it.
The cost of the charter plane, the hotel rooms, watching 22 starters stand like mannequins on the sideline — everything.
The payoff came early in the second quarter when rookie Dexter Jackson gathered a punt at his 17. The Bucs love Jackson for the same reason Carolina loves the Wright brothers — because he can fly.
But the second-round pick had not made a big play all preseason until returning the punt 83 yards for a touchdown in the Bucs' 16-6 win over the Texans on Thursday.
The 5-foot-9, 182-pounder sidestepped Derrick Roberson then used his explosive speed to outrace everyone to the end zone.
"That was real big for me," said Jackson, who entered Thursday averaging 12.3 yards on three punt returns and 17.7 on three kickoff returns. "I was telling some guys, going into the season, it'll be a big confidence-builder for me to … show what I'm here for.
"It silences the critics a little bit and shows my teammates that I'm here for a reason and why the coaches took me high."
It wasn't the only play Jackson made Thursday. He took a first-quarter end-around 13 yards for a first down. Jackson also drew a pass interference penalty to help set up a field goal and caught two passes for 17 yards.
"It's bigger than big when you think about what's happened here in the last couple of years," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "Ike Hilliard has been a clutch receiver, and he had to do the punt return duties as well. That's a lot of responsibility as you go to sleep the night before the game. Hopefully, Dexter can continue to get better and better and allow some of our other players to do what they do."
Jackson's biggest contribution this season will come on special teams. He never caught more than 33 passes in his career at Appalachian State. But the Bucs have returned only nine punts for touchdowns in their history, so they invested a high draft pick in a player who can change field position.
"We hope he turns into a weapon," special teams coach Rich Bisaccia said. "We're excited about the play he made. But in our experience, being on the other end of it, any time there's a guy back there that you're worried about, it creates different situations for the punter. Where he is on the field, do you direction kick it or kick it out of bounds? Any time somebody is back there that you feel like can score, it makes you think twice as a punt team."
Receiver Micheal Spurlock became the first Buc to return a kickoff for a touchdown last season. However, he didn't help his cause Thursday when he fumbled the punt after Jackson's touchdown. (The Bucs recovered.)
All 22 Bucs starters sat, and the Texans used only one starter, guard Mike Brisiel. In fact, several injured Bucs, including fullback B.J. Askew, defensive lineman Jovan Haye and receiver Antonio Bryant, didn't even make the trip.
So special teams became the focus of Thursday's game, and even beyond Spurlock's fumble, not everything went as well as Jackson's punt return.
Matt Bryant continued his preseason of wayward field goals, missing from 54 and 36 yards. He redeemed himself by making three in the fourth quarter (40, 29 and 31). For the preseason, Bryant went 7-of-12.
It's not that Jackson's punt return was dazzling in its execution. Frankly, the Texans lost contain on the sideline and took some bad angles.
"I don't know how fast he was running, but it looked like Forrest Gump to me," Gruden said. "He was fast.
"We're real excited about him. He's got a long way to go to figure everything out; the big picture. But he does have tremendous speed, a lot of talent. He's very confident in what he's doing. That (return) was huge. Huge. And that's why we took him."
Eventually, the Bucs hope Jackson will develop into a receiver. Joey Galloway, who did not play in the preseason, will turn 37 this season. Thursday, Jackson lobbied to get more time as a receiver, and the Bucs obliged.
"Just getting in there and playing was big," Jackson said. "I told (receivers coach Richard Mann) that I'd just like to get a feel for the game. Instead of just saying I can't be out there, I wanted to get a feel for the game and show the other receivers I can help them if something did happen to them."
After Thursday, Jackson's pro career is off and running.
Rick Stroud can be reached at stroud @sptimes.com.