When Tampa Bay Buccaneers guard Carl Nicks played his former team, the New Orleans Saints, for the first time in October, he admitted that he was looking forward to battling linebacker Jonathan Vilma, a notorious practice-field trash-talker. Now Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson is about to play his former crew, the San Diego Chargers, but won't be seeking out any particular former teammates.
In fact, he's not even looking for the names on their jerseys.
"To me, it's numbers out there," said Jackson. "There's going to be 23, and number 20 and number 32 and all those guys, 41. That's who's out there on the field lining up and those are the guys that we're trying to attack and beat. There are not going to be any personal one-on-one matchups. Whoever lines up in front of me, that's who I have to beat, and that's going to be my mentality."
Jackson played seven very productive seasons in San Diego, racking up nearly 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns and earning a pair of Pro Bowl berths. He became an unrestricted free agent in March and signed very quickly with the Buccaneers, for whom he has instantly become a dangerous weapon. Jackson leads Tampa Bay through eight games in receptions (31), receiving yards (710) and TD catches (six) and is the NFL's leader in yards per catch (22.9). Jackson has also received widespread credit – and rightfully so – for helping the likes of Josh Freeman, Mike Williams and Doug Martin put up their own outstanding numbers. Over the last four weeks, Tampa Bay's offense has led the NFL with 1,907 yards and 144 points.
And so Jackson and company are on a roll heading into their Week 10 game against the visiting Chargers, and keeping that roll going is pretty much all Jackson has on his mind, despite the personal connection to the opponent. He admits that, in the spring, he thought there might be some added emotion attached to this game when he saw the schedule, but it hasn't turned out that way.
"I kind of was curious about how I was going to feel this week," said Jackson. "But, honestly, it really hasn't changed. I really feel I've approached this week the same way. Looking at them on film, I'm not really seeing faces as far as guys I used to play with. I really just see the Xs and Os and the numbers and I'm trying to break them down as far as what their defensive tendencies have done."
Of course, the arrival of game day usually ratchets up the intensity of any emotions that might be hanging around, but Jackson doesn't think his mental approach will change on Sunday, either.
"I don't believe it will," he said. "I honestly don't believe it will. The most important thing for me is what we do as a team. I have nothing personal going on with those guys. I'm a Tampa Bay Buccaneer now and this is my focus, and us getting away with the win is the only thing that matters to me."
There were certainly some emotional ups and downs during Jackson's seven years in San Diego, but he holds no bitterness and is simply thrilled to be playing in Tampa now. Likewise, the Chargers have moved on to new plans and new contributors on offense and have nothing but good things to say about their former big-play receiver.
"You can't help but say, if you have a player like Vincent, that you're not going to miss him, and we're working hard to get the production in other areas," said Chargers Head Coach Norv Turner. "Like I said earlier, Vincent's a tough matchup guy. If he gets one-on-one with most defensive backs he's going to have an opportunity to make big plays. And if you double him or you do things to keep him from having the big plays, then it opens up opportunities for everyone else.
"Obviously, it opens up the field for a lot of other guys, having a player like Vincent. I think they've benefitted from Vincent being there. I think it helps the running game, I think it helps the other receiver, and obviously those are two very talented guys."
That's exactly what the Buccaneers believed Jackson would do for their other potential stars on offense when they signed him to a lucrative deal in March, and they haven't been disappointed. Jackson gained a reputation in the Bucs' locker room almost immediately for his staunch work ethic and his drive to prepare as thoroughly as possible, and that has rubbed off on his teammates.
"For me, my role is just to do what I've always done," said Jackson. "I love this game, I have so much fun out there, and obviously guys kind of feed off the things I do. I try to be a professional at all times, make sure that I can bring some guys up around me, get the Mike Williams, get the Tiquan Underwoods and break down some extra film with them. When I get Josh in a moment to himself, [I] talk to him a little bit about some coverage and some tendencies and things that I think work. It's just sharing knowledge. I want everybody around me to be successful."
San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers, who certainly had his share of down-the-field hookups with Jackson, remembers the receiver doing the same thing in San Diego. In fact, Rivers said that even though Jackson saw almost no action on special teams in San Diego, he still maintained a special teams notebook that was as thorough as anybody's on the team.
"He practiced and he was great in the meeting room as far as the way he prepared," said Rivers. "He's just a real committed player. He practiced hard, he prepared hard and he was good in the locker room. You can't say enough positive about my experience with him here and the type of professional he was."
For Jackson, approaching his football career in that manner means being utterly dependable, doing the same thing every day and every week in order to be successful. And that's not going to change this week, either, no matter who is coming into town to face his Buccaneers.