July 7, 2012

1969: Eagles Obtain Harold Jackson from Rams

On July 7, 1969 the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles completed a seemingly minor transaction. The Eagles sent RB Israel “Izzy” Lang to Los Angeles for second-year WR Harold Jackson and rookie DE John Zook. Zook was immediately dealt by the Eagles to Atlanta along with DT Frank Molden, DB John Mallory, and a draft pick for LB Jim Purnell, who the Falcons had only recently obtained from Chicago (and who was, in turn, dealt to the Rams shortly thereafter).

LA’s running back corps had been badly depleted by injury in ’68 and especially missed HB Les Josephson, who was lost for the year with a foot injury. It was hoped that the 27-year-old Lang would provide a suitable running mate for FB Dick Bass. At 232 pounds, he fit Head Coach George Allen’s preference for big backs. In five years with the Eagles, mostly in a reserve role, Lang rushed for 872 yards on 244 carries (3.6 avg.) and caught 63 passes for 554 more yards. More of a natural fullback, he had also seen action at halfback and, while he had briefly started, fell behind FB Tom Woodeshick on the depth chart and finally requested a trade.

This followed an earlier transaction in which the Rams obtained All-Pro OT Bob Brown from the Eagles. At that time, CB Irv Cross returned to Philadelphia, where he had played his first five seasons before being dealt to Los Angeles, and he gave a favorable scouting report on Harold Jackson, an obscure backup receiver.

Jackson was an unheralded twelfth-round draft pick by the Rams in 1968 out of Jackson State. He started out the season on the practice squad and was activated for just two games, catching no passes. On the small side at 5’10” and 175 pounds, Jackson nevertheless had outstanding speed and good hands.

Izzy Lang was ultimately a disappointment with the Rams, lasting just one season and carrying the ball only once. Josephson’s successful return to the lineup, combined with the arrival of HB Larry Smith, kept him on the bench and he retired after the season. John Zook proved valuable in Atlanta, lasting seven years and gaining selection to one Pro Bowl before moving on to the Cardinals.

Harold Jackson moved directly into the starting lineup for the Eagles, who were attempting to rebuild once again under a new owner (Leonard Tose), general manager (Pete Retzlaff), and head coach (Jerry Williams). He caught his first touchdown pass in the second week against the Steelers (a game in which veteran WR Ben Hawkins caught four TD passes) and two weeks later had a hundred-yard receiving game against the Colts (8 catches, 138 yards), which became the first of three consecutive and a total of five for the year. When it was all over, Jackson had caught 65 passes for a league-leading 1116 yards (17.2 avg.) and nine touchdowns. He was selected for the Pro Bowl – a huge accomplishment for a player who had been on his team’s practice squad a year earlier.

Jackson was with the Eagles for four seasons. While the team never rose above mediocrity during his time with it, Jackson continued to play well and had another Pro Bowl year in 1972 when he led the NFL in pass receptions (62) and receiving yards (1048) for a 2-11-1 club that was otherwise starved for talent on offense. Along the way, he set a team record for consecutive 100-yard receiving performances with five (three to close out the 1971 season plus the first two contests of ’72) and had a total of 13 such performances in his 56 games with the team – remarkable considering Philadelphia’s mediocre attack. He caught a total of 215 passes for 3493 yards (16.2 avg.) and 21 touchdowns. With the Eagles taking advantage of his speed on end-around plays (especially in ’72), Jackson carried the ball 17 times for 122 yards – a 7.2-yard average.

The Eagles were seeking to revitalize the offense under a new head coach in 1973 and Jackson was traded back to the Rams along with RB Tony Baker and three high draft choices for veteran QB Roman Gabriel. With a LA club that had a conservative offense but was also much better than the Eagles overall, Jackson had an outstanding year in ’73 – while his 40 catches were 22 fewer than his league-leading total of 1972, they were good for 874 yards and a 21.9-yard average plus a NFL-topping 13 touchdowns. Along the way, he burned the Cowboys for 238 yards and four TDs on 7 catches in a game at the Memorial Coliseum. Afterward, he was not only selected to his third Pro Bowl but received consensus first-team All-NFL recognition.  

Jackson’s second stint in Los Angeles lasted for five years and, while he never again caught as many as 50 passes in a single season (more a reflection of the era he played in and LA’s offensive style than his talent), he was still highly regarded and was selected twice more for the Pro Bowl, in 1975 and ’77. From there it was on to New England, where he stayed for four years, his best coming in 1979 when he caught 45 passes for 1013 yards (a career-high 22.5 avg.) and seven touchdowns at age 33.

Following inconsequential stops in Minnesota and Seattle, Jackson’s career came to an end in 1983. At that point he had caught 579 passes and his 10,372 yards ranked second only to Don Maynard in NFL history at the time. A low-key individual who was too often overlooked, he was very consistent and certainly justified Philadelphia’s interest in 1969.