ATLANTA -- The jump shot to Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver DeSean Jackson from teammate Mike Evans slipped right through Jackson's hands and out of bounds. Had he caught it at the 6-yard line, he might have faced only one defender -- Damontae Kazee -- before reaching the end zone in the fourth quarter.
It was that kind of day for the Bucs' deep threat. And can you blame Jackson for ripping off his helmet in disgust, kicking his foot into the pylon and shouting when that desperation play came up short? Especially after the way he started the season?
"On my end, I try to put everything I have into preparing, coming out on Sundays or whenever it is we play, to just be successful and win games," Jackson said. "It's just frustrating. You can't do that.”
One month ago, Jackson was the hottest thing in the NFL next to Ryan "Fitzmagic" Fitzpatrick. He led the NFL with 275 receiving yards and three touchdowns through the first two weeks. But now Jackson has to make things work with Jameis Winston, whom he struggled to connect with last season and again in a 34-29 road loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
In the second quarter and already down 21-6, Winston overthrew Jackson on a deep pass that landed in the hands of Kazee.
"Unfortunately, the safety was back there," Jackson said. "When you turn the ball over it's hard to win. That's Jameis trying to make a play. Things happen. It's a team sport. ... Our job is to go out there and make plays and try to win games. Collectively, we've gotta figure it out. It's not good enough."
The Bucs signed Jackson before the 2017 season to a three-year deal worth $33.5 million and $20 million guaranteed in the first two years. His job was to take the top off of defenses. Winston has a big arm and isn't afraid to take chances downfield and Jackson has "game-wrecker" speed, as coach Dirk Koetter calls it. So on paper, Winston and Jackson looked like an excellent pairing.
But last season, Jackson had 668 receiving yards -- one of his lowest producing seasons since becoming a pro in 2008. Jackson had 56 career catches on plays with 30 or more air yards and couldn't muster one in 2017 after having six the previous year.
To make matters worse, Winston was hampered most of last season by a shoulder injury on his throwing arm and it affected both his velocity and accuracy downfield. The most electrifying part of Jackson's game was taken away -- not a good sign with one season left of guaranteed money, plus a young, promising receiver in Chris Godwin appearing poised to take his spot when the 2018 season began.
So when Fitzpatrick started against the New Orleans Saints and hit Jackson for a 58-yard touchdown on the opening drive, Jackson was elated. On the first play the following week against the Philadelphia Eagles, Jackson caught a 75-yard touchdown, tying Jerry Rice's record of 23 touchdowns on catches of 60 or more yards.
That elation became subdued, though.
When he was asked after Sunday's loss to the Falcons if the chemistry with Winston was starting to happen, Jackson said, "Eh, I don't know. I would like to say so, but today, we went 0-for-3 on deep balls thrown downfield, getting intercepted inside the 5-yard line towards the end of the second quarter. ... We've gotta get that accomplished. We've gotta get that down. That's a huge part of our offense."
Doing so could mean the difference between returning next season or being a free agent this spring -- not ideal for a receiver whose trademark is speed and who will be 32 entering the 2019 season. Teams are reluctant to spend that kind of money at that point, even though Jackson doesn't appear to have lost a step. Sometimes speed goes quickly or the injuries start to pile up.
Also, Godwin has come on strong lately, catching 6-of-9 targets on Sunday for 56 yards and a touchdown. And with Ali Marpet's new contract and Kwon Alexander wanting a new deal, too, Evans' and Cameron Brate's deals from this past summer and Winston's $20.9 million cap hit next year, can the Buccaneers really afford to keep Jackson around anyway?
It would be a shame if they couldn't. The Bucs haven't had a player with that caliber of speed since Joey Galloway.
But first, Jackson and Winston need to work on that connection in Week 7 and beyond.