More than eight months ago, DeSean Jackson paused to pose for a photo with a Redskins hat on his head and a Redskins helmet at his side.
As the three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver signed his three-year contract with the Redskins, the offensive possibilities in Washington seemed endless. Jackson had for many years been one of the most explosive deep threats in the NFL. The receiver who would start opposite him, Pierre Garçon, had caught 113 passes the season before. Together, they were expected to give quarterback Robert Griffin III one of the best receiving combos in the league.
But now, as their first season together slowly winds to an end, it’s become clear that all has not gone according to plan. The Redskins have cycled through quarterbacks over the first 14 games of the season, making it difficult for Jackson and Garçon to maintain chemistry with whomever is under center. And all three quarterbacks have struggled at one point or another, only making matters worse.
The result: subpar seasons, and mounting frustration, for the two star wideouts.
“They’re frustrated. I think deservedly so,” slot receiver Andre Roberts said. “Pierre caught 113 last year, and DeSean was the No. 1 guy in Philly. So not having that kind of production and not having the things that they’re used to, I can understand why they’d be frustrated.”
Through the first 14 games of the season, Garçon ranks tied for 41st in the league in targets (95) and tied for 32nd in catches (62). Jackson, who has missed parts of three games because of injury, is tied for 52nd in targets (86) and tied for 63rd in catches (50). Jackson leads the team with 957 receiving yards and five touchdowns, while Garcon has 638 receiving yards and three scores.
Together, they have been targeted just 181 times, which ranks 22nd among starting wide receiver pairs in the NFL, just ahead of Jacksonville (180) and just behind Baltimore (183).
“They’re great competitors. They want to help this football team in the worst way,” coach Jay Gruden said. “When they don’t feel like their number’s called, obviously they feel like they’re underutilized. Both of them are great players. We want to try and get them the ball as much as possible.”
Jackson and Garçon have each caught fewer passes per game this season than their career averages, but the drop in targets has been significantly stark — especially for Garçon. Last season, one of the two was targeted at least 10 times in 18 of 32 combined games. This season, that has been the case only five times in a combined 27 games.
Though both players have shown signs of frustration in recent weeks, either on or off the field, they demurred when asked about their respective levels of involvement in the offense this season.
“Really you just got to make the most out of your opportunities,” Jackson said. “When the ball comes your way and you get an opportunity to make a play on a ball, that’s what you need to do. That’s what we’re paid for. That’s what we’re professionals for. So as far as the opportunities coming, when they present themselves, you just make the most of them.”
Gruden has repeatedly fielded questions about the wide receiver duo over the course of the season, particularly as targets have dwindled late in the season. And he has repeatedly said the Redskins would like to get the pair more involved in the passing game, when possible.
“Sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way based on pressure, coverage or what have you,” Gruden said. “We’re going to continue to call the game that we think is the best for everybody involved and hopefully they’ll all get involved. Running game, you want to get involved, you want to get the tight ends involved, you want to get the backs involved in the passing game, and obviously you want to try to get your best players the ball and they are two of our best. So, we’ve got to do a good job in trying to get them more balls.”
Washington’s constant change at quarterback has also played a role. Though Griffin began the season as the starter, he dislocated his ankle in Week 2 and was replaced by Kirk Cousins. Cousins struggled and was benched in favor of Colt McCoy in Week 7. Griffin returned in Week 9 and was benched in Week 13. McCoy started two games before sustaining a neck injury, spinning the quarterback carousel back to Griffin for Saturday’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Veteran wide receiver Santana Moss, who said he has played with 14 different quarterbacks in his 14-year career, said stability at the position makes a difference.
“It hurts when you don’t have a solid guy there,” Moss said. “I’ve been through that all my career. I’ve never had a solid guy that I can really grow with, and have the numbers that other guys that I feel like I’m on their level, you know what I mean? So that hurts a receiver, that hurts a team.”
“It gets tough with the timing,” added Roberts, who has 34 catches on 68 targets for 432 yards and two touchdowns this year. “We work in practice, but there’s a reason why there’s training camp and the longer periods of time where you try to get the timing down on routes.”
As the offense has sputtered in the second half of the season, the Redskins have explored other ways to get their star wide receivers involved. Jackson has had two carries in the past four weeks, including a nine-yard run in Sunday’s loss to the New York Giants. Garçon was even asked to throw a pass in San Francisco, which fell incomplete. “This is where we’ve come?” he asked after the game.
Garçon is on pace to finish with 72 fewer targets, 42 fewer catches and barely half as many receiving yards as he had last season. But he maintains that he is not upset.
“Not frustrated at all. That’s part of sports,” he said as he walked away, abruptly ending an interview after one question and strolling out of the Redskins locker room.