LANDOVER — The play came at DeSean Jackson so fast, just like it always does, but he never really worried. He had wormed his way out of situations like this before, relying on his raw speed to squeeze through openings that never quite seemed to be there until after he had found his way through them.
This time, the Dallas Cowboys’ punt coverage was closing in fast and Jackson was running out of room. He fielded the ball at the 16-yard line and reversed course at the 22 until he was dangerously close to his own end zone. Once Jackson decided to go forward, he fumbled, and the Cowboys recovered the ball at the 15-yard line. Two plays later, Darren McFadden plowed into the end zone, giving the Cowboys the lead with 1:14 remaining.
Four plays later, there was Jackson, wide open in the end zone to haul in a 28-yard touchdown pass from Kirk Cousins with 44 seconds left, the score tied again.
Jackson’s gut-lurching roller coaster ride of emotions finally came to a nauseating stop when Dan Bailey kicked a 54-yard field goal to give the Cowboys a 19-16 win over the Redskins on Monday night at FedEx Field.
The touchdown did little to mitigate the sickening feeling Jackson felt in the pit of his stomach. The Redskins failed to capitalize on an opportunity to tighten their grasp on their NFC East lead, and Jackson felt like he was responsible.
“One of those games, a rivalry game, trying to do anything and everything to pull out a victory and just fell on the short end of the stick,” Jackson said. “I’m very frustrated. A lot rode on this game and we knew what was at stake. Personally, I’m frustrated. I take that one on my chin. As a veteran of this league, I know to protect the ball and it just got away from me. Regardless of me [scoring], we still lost the game. It’s still a bad feeling inside.”
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After the game, coach Jay Gruden stopped by Jackson’s locker to offer the eight-year veteran words of encouragement. Faced with the same situation, Gruden said, he would call on Jackson again.
Jackson began returning punts again last week in the Redskins’ 20-14 win against the New York Giants. It was situational, but Gruden wanted to give Jackson a chance to spark a big return, just like he had done so many times during six seasons in Philadelphia when he averaged 9.8 yards per return.
“It didn’t end up, obviously, the way we wanted to,” Gruden said. “It’s DeSean, and he’s had a history of making big plays in key situations. I don’t regret that decision one bit. I’ll count on DeSean to make another big play. He ended up getting a touchdown to get us back in the game and tie it. I can live with that, he’s just got to protect the ball, obviously.”
Jackson was hard on himself after botching the return, but his teammates weren’t. Cornerback Will Blackmon was playing for the Giants in 2010 when Jackson did what seemed improbable. He returned a punt 65 yards for a touchdown with no time remaining, giving the Eagles a 38-31 win in Week 15 that ultimately sent them to the playoffs at the expense of the Giants.
On that return, Jackson muffed the return and backtracked five yards before turning it into magic. He didn’t do that on Monday, but whenever he is back there, Jackson’s teammates believe he can.
“I mean, he’s capable of doing that,” Blackmon said. “His whole thing is he just wants to win, you know? He wasn’t going out there to make it all about himself. He has plenty of money. He has all the accolades. We’re tied for first place, so hey, this is his chance to get us back in the playoffs, and that’s why he went back there. We saw him back there and we were excited, you know? He’s fast enough where he can reverse field and do all those kinds of things to make it happen.”
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Jackson acknowledged a need to move past it quickly. Monday’s loss left the Redskins (5-7) in a three-way tie with the Giants and Philadelphia Eagles, and the Cowboys aren’t far behind at 4-8. There are four games remaining in the season — including rematches against Philadelphia and Dallas — and Jackson knows his number will be called again.
“I’ve been in this division for a long time and played some great games,” Jackson said. “We’re just trying to change the air around here. [The Redskins] went to the playoffs in 2012, but since then it’s kind of been a lot of struggles. I’m just doing the best I can to spark this team and give them a little leadership by my play on the field.”