Vincent Jackson just had the greatest game ever by a Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver in the month of February. That made the Buccaneers' big decision last March look even better.
Jackson, of course, was on the short list of Pro Bowl MVP candidates this past Sunday when he scored two touchdowns in the NFC's 62-35 obliteration of the AFC. That was quite a showing for the first receiver since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to play in back-to-back Pro Bowls for two different conferences, and it capped a memorable debut season in Tampa. All Jackson did to justify his landmark $55.5 million free agency contract was lead the NFL in yards per catch (19.2), put up the second highest receiving yardage total in franchise history (1,384) and help lead the Buccaneers to their most prolific offensive season ever.
In retrospect, Jackson's incredible numbers may have seemed like a foregone conclusion; after all, the Bucs didn't hand out that enormous contract for no reason. But as Buccaneers General Manager Mark Dominik points out, free agency is never a completely sure deal. It's safe to say, for instance, that the Nnamdi Asomugha signing in Philadelphia, thought to be a can't-miss addition, hasn't gone exactly as expected.
The Bucs were motivated to take the chance on Jackson, however, because of an evaluation that went beyond the great numbers he had put up during seven years in San Diego.
"A lot of people could say, 'Well, how hard could it be to [decide to] sign Vincent Jackson?'" said Dominik after the end of the 2012 season. "You can go back and look and see that there are a lot of free agent busts. It's just not a slam dunk. But Vincent was a guy that we felt really confident in and someone we really thought this football team needed.
"It's the kind of stories you've heard about the Jerry Rices of the world and how they practiced and how that made them so great. I was fortunate to be around some really great players even before I got to Tampa in Kansas City, watching how Marcus Allen took care of his body. That's how he played so long. And Joe Montana, guys that really played long careers, it was how they practiced and the tempo they went at. Vincent came and brought that mentality, that attitude to our football team. A lot of players picked up on it, gravitated towards it."
The Bucs would have to wait another six months to see Jackson's impact on game day, but they saw evidence of his work ethic long before the first kickoff. Dominik recalls watching the players run through the team's required conditioning test before training camp and being impressed by Jackson's leadership even in such a mundane situation. Jackson finished (and passed, of course) his own series of 110-yard sprints and was then free to head inside to rest, cool down and get a drink. Instead, he continued to stand on the sideline in the heat, urging on the team's "big guys" – the offensive and defensive linemen – as they tried to pass the test, too.
"He did it through all 16 110s," said Dominik. "We already knew [what he was like], but at that moment it was like, 'This guy's a home run and I'm so glad he's part of this football team.'"
Jackson did indeed become a leader in the locker, by both example and voice, and Dominik gave him particular credit for helping to develop the games of quarterback Josh Freeman and fellow starting receiver Mike Williams. Those three plus rookie running back Doug Martin were the key cogs in an offense that set franchise records for points (389) and yards (5,820) in a season. Now that the Bucs know exactly what to expect from Jackson in terms of his daily preparation, they can comfortably believe they'll get even more out of him in the years to come.
"He stepped up and became not only a great leader but an ultra-productive football player," said Dominik of Jackson. "He basically caught the ball and every time he did he got 20 yards, almost. That's an incredible stat, just an incredible stat, and that's what he's done his entire career. That's why we went out there and ownership agreed to make the financial commitment to get a player of his stature on this football team. Knowing the way he conditions himself, the way he keeps himself in shape, I'm really excited about him."