TAMPA — There are two games left in the season. Maybe only two games left in his career with the Bucs. But one of the fastest players in the NFL is tired of standing still.
DeSean Jackson will try to play Sunday for the Bucs at Dallas and battle through a left thumb injury that caused him to miss the last three games.
The Bucs have been eliminated from playoff contention. None of Jackson's $10-million salary for 2019 is guaranteed, making it less likely he will return to Tampa Bay.
But at 32, around the NFL and in his own locker room, Jackson commands respect as one of the most explosive receivers in NFL history.
"He's just a great player,'' Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "We've gone against him for years, whether with Philadelphia or Washington, and he's such an impactful guy, his ability to make plays down the field and also the run after catch. He's such a dangerous guy. I have the utmost respect for him.''
Coaching Jackson, however, is sometimes as difficult as coaching against him.
His first season in Tampa Bay, which ended with the Bucs going 5-11 and Jackson catching 50 passes for 668 yards and three touchdowns, did not go smoothly.
Jackson said he struggled with an offense that ran through Mike Evans. Jameis Winston struggled throwing deep to Jackson. He became more frustrated as the 2017 season wore on.
Interviews with coaches and players confirm that Jackson was fined extensively for being late to meetings and sometimes fell asleep in them. He rarely took notes.
It got worse in the final months. Jackson refused to play catch with one of his coaches one day before practice and was told to sit out.
Just before Christmas last year, he played cards in the locker room with his former Washington teammate, defensive tackle Chris Baker, and was late to a meeting. When told he would be fined again, Jackson erupted and kicked over a display Bucs receivers were using for a secret Santa gift exchange. He then became involved in a physical altercation with one of his coaches and had to be restrained by a teammate.
Before this season, Jackson declined to address some of those problems when approached by the Times. But things were different when training camp began.
Bucs coach Dirk Koetter raved about Jackson as a leader and teammate. And when Winston's three-game suspension pushed Ryan Fitzpatrick into the starting role, he had chemistry instantly with Jackson.
On the fourth play of the season, Fitzpatrick lofted a perfect 58-yard touchdown pass to Jackson, igniting a 48-40 win at New Orleans. They were just getting started.
Jackson caught all five targets for 148 yards, including another touchdown strike of 36 yards.
The next week against his former team, Jackson scored on a 75-yard reception on the game's first play. He finished with four catches for 129 yards as the Bucs stunned the defending Super Bowl champions, 27-21.
After the game, Fitzpatrick arrived to his press conference in Jackson's unbuttoned shirt and diamond necklaces.
The Bucs were 2-0, Fitzpatrick was a two-time NFC Offensive Player of the Week and Jackson led the NFL in receiving yards.
‘You can’t take the hot man out’
With Winston set to return from his suspension following the Bucs' 30-27 loss to the Steelers on Monday Night Football, Jackson lobbied for Fitzpatrick to remain as the starter.
"He's been on fire right now,'' Jackson told the NFL Network. "With the way the team is rallying behind him and just playing lights-out football, you have to kind of honor it. You can't take the hot man out.''
Jackson got his wish, but Fitzpatrick was done after the first half at Chicago and the Bears destroyed Tampa Bay, 48-10.
Jackson had some success with Winston under center, even catching a 60-yard bomb in a four-interception performance at Cincinnati.
But prior to that game, a report surfaced that Jackson had asked to be traded. Nobody denied the story, but the NFL trade deadline passed with Jackson still in Tampa.
"I'll say this: DeSean Jackson and I have a great relationship," general manager Jason Licht said prior to the Bucs-Panthers game the next Sunday. "He's one of my favorite people on the team, and Dirk has a great relationship with him and he's obviously a terrific player for us.''
Jackson said he injured his thumb in a loss against the Giants at MetLife Stadium but played the next week against the 49ers. Winston targeted him eight times, connecting on only three passes for 19 yards.
Koetter said he watched cutups of the game with Jackson and Winston the next week. He determined Jackson won his routes but the Bucs quarterback simply missed him.
Even though he did not re-injure his thumb against the 49ers, Jackson hasn't played since.
Without Jackson, the Bucs have seen a precipitous drop off in explosive plays. The Bucs led New Orleans 14-3 but were shut out in the second half of a 28-14 home loss. They had only four possessions and managed a field goal in the second half of a 20-12 loss at Baltimore last week.
In the past two games, Jackson's replacement, Chris Godwin, has been targeted 13 times but produced one catch for 13 yards.
Could Jackson bring explosive plays back to the Bucs' offense?
"Well, he's one of the most explosive players in the league, so you would think so,'' Koetter said. "We just have to see how he progresses here.''
It's hard to get around the fact that Jackson doesn't have much faith in Winston. Last week he called his lack of a connection with Winston "growing pains.''
In fact, 561 of his 750 receiving yards and four of his five touchdowns have come from Fitzpatrick, who has connected with him on 71 percent of his targets. Winston has only completed 39.4 percent of his passes to Jackson.
"It's just part of the process,'' Jackson said. "Hopefully, it will work out. Like I say, if it's not this year, then next year."
Next year? On his podcast, Jackson has talked this season of bringing a championship to Tampa Bay. He's also two months removed from asking to be traded.
There's a lot of layers to Jackson. One of his coaches described him at this point in his career as a celebrity who plays football. It wasn't said with malice, just matter-of-factly. He is a movie producer and entrepreneur. He has varied interests and does a lot off the field to help underprivileged kids with his charitable contributions.
But next year? Referring to the possibility of finally making deep connections with Winston, Jackson said this week, "You never know how it plays out.''
Since the 49ers game, there have been legitimate questions of whether he would play again for the Bucs. But he is a potential free agent, and Dallas is Dallas — the hated rival of his two previous teams. Here's another chance for DeSean Jackson to explode.
Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected] Follow @NFLStroud