Jackson makes life easier
The Philadelphia Soul might owe their successful season to wide receiver Chris Jackson.
In 2007, the Georgia Force finished with a 14-2 regular-season record. In 2008, they might not even make the playoffs.
In 2007, the Philadelphia Soul won just eight games. In 2008, they already have won nine.
In 2007, wide receiver Chris Jackson caught 145 passes and scored 51 touchdowns for the high-flying Force offense. In 2008, Jackson has caught 33 scores in just nine games for the simmering Soul.
Is it really that simple, that Jackson -- or the lack thereof -- has been the big difference for each team this season?
"I think that's a very relevant argument you could make," Georgia coach Doug Plank said. "That's the difference between Philadelphia this year and Georgia last year. The addition of Chris Jackson has given [the Soul] the ability to keep drives alive and score touchdowns."
"I depended on Chris a lot last year," Georgia quarterback Chris Greisen said. "When it came down to crunch time, I knew what he was going to do and he knew where I was going to throw the ball. Chris was so darn consistent and smart."
The explosive Jackson returns to Atlanta on Monday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2), but this time he'll be wearing the black and baby blue of the Philadelphia Soul, not the black and deep blue of the Georgia Force. While Jackson's current team is on top of the AFL standings, his former team is struggling with a 4-5 record.
Last year, Greisen exploded onto the scene, tossing an AFL-record 117 touchdowns. Sixty-seven of those scores went to either Jackson or fellow WR Derek Lee. Those three, along with WR Troy Bergeron, lit up scoreboards from coast to coast. But once the 2007 season finished, Plank knew those times were about to come to an end.
"We knew we were going to lose Derek and Chris [Jackson]," he said. "Between free agency and trying to fit those guys under the cap, and with those guys getting significant pay increases from where they were before, we knew it was going to be tough to keep them."
Sure enough, Lee joined former Force QB Matt Nagy in Columbus, and Jackson found a new home in Philadelphia.
"He went to a great organization that has had success," Plank said of Jackson. "And obviously, if you're a talented wide receiver, you want to go someplace where you know the quarterback can get you the ball. Tony Graziani and Matt D'Orazio have done a great job this year of getting him the ball in a timely manner."
While his new quarterbacks have helped him look good this year, Jackson has made a career of putting his quarterbacks in excellent positions to succeed. Greisen appreciates this, explaining, "He's a good route-runner, but his intelligence makes him even more special. He thinks like a quarterback, and that's why we had such a good year together. I think we miss that intelligence."
Plank also appreciates what Jackson brings on the field. "He's the difference in games when it comes to third and fourth downs. Like he was with us and when he was with Los Angeles, he's a guy you can count on to make those plays."
The losses of Jackson and Lee were big setbacks. But losing most of their current receivers to various injuries throughout the season has made life even more difficult for the Force. Greisen said, "We've had six different receivers in eight games, so the cohesiveness hasn't been there."
Added Plank: "Troy Bergeron is our lone remaining receiver from last year, and he's been injured more than he's been healthy this year. Troy is able to get open and make big plays for us."
Bergeron has been hobbled with a thigh injury for much of the season, but he returned last week when Georgia squared off against New Orleans and its ball-hawking secondary. The result: nine catches for 137 yards, four scores and an eye-opening 66-39 win for the Force.
Bergeron had help from fellow receivers Carl Morris (five catches for 69 yards) and Tiger Jones (seven catches for 72 yards and a score), two players Greisen speaks very highly of. "Carl is solid. He's the guy that does the dirty work. He's gonna block his tail off for you. He's gonna go high up in the air and make catches. He's gonna be physical. He's gonna run slant routes. After the catch, he always seems to get 10 or 15 yards every time. He's always getting those extra yards. Tiger is sneaky explosive. That guy is fast and physical, and each week you can see him gaining confidence in the offense. We're slowly gaining back what we've lost with Chris Jackson.
"I think we started to feel more like a team last week. On the offensive side, we felt like everyone understood what their job was. For us this year, that's been rare. Hopefully these three guys can stay healthy the rest of the way. With the way my offensive line is blocking, hopefully we can use that New Orleans game as a springboard."
The Force liked what they saw when they watched the tape of their win last week. And they weren't surprised when they saw Jackson snag three touchdown passes against Cleveland the same weekend. But the Force didn't make much of Philadelphia's first loss of the season.
"Every team has its highs and lows, and it's hard to maintain a high level of performance on a weekly basis," Plank said. "Cleveland played extremely well, and Philadelphia didn't play their best game."
Plank also pointed out that playing two football games in five days didn't help Philadelphia's cause against Cleveland, and that an unforgiving schedule is a way of life for the Soul.
"They're a marquee team, and the league is always trying to give them exposure," he said. "But what happens is that they're faced with short weeks [after playing Monday night]. I would not welcome their schedule. I think it's got to be difficult, because in order to play on national television, they have to work through some very peculiar work weeks. Football people are all creatures of habit. We like to have a routine for every day of the week, and Philly hasn't been able to have that. They've always had long weeks and short weeks."
But if there are rumblings that the Soul have been spending their long week wallowing after their first loss of the year, Greisen isn't buying them. "If we think they're going to play the same type of game they played against Cleveland, we're kidding ourselves. They're going to come out on Monday ready to go.
"It's kind of a rivalry. We've beaten them two times in a row, last year on Monday Night Football and also in the playoffs. There are some guys over there who want to beat us bad. We're not going out thinking, 'We can get Philly because they're dinged up and they lost a game.' This is going to be a hard-fought game, and we're going to have to play awfully good football to win."
They'll also have to win with Jackson on the other sideline. And judging from the roads Georgia and Philadelphia have taken the past two seasons, winning with Jackson seems much easier than winning without him.
Troy Clardy hosts Inside the AFL, ESPN's Arena Football League podcast, posted Thursdays on ESPN's PodCenter. You can drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.