In what's been a roller coaster season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, receiver Vincent Jackson has been a model of consistency and quietly put together one of the best seasons of his career.
The ninth-year pro leads the Bucs with 69 receptions for 1,334 yards and eight touchdowns and has been everything the team envisioned they were getting when he signed a five-year, $55.55 million contract as a free agent after spending eight years with the San Diego Chargers.
Jackson had his fifth 100-yard game of the season during Sunday's 28-13 loss to the St. Louis Rams and has already set career bests for receptions and yards in a season. He had his first 200-yard game in a win over Kansas City, and he's averaging a NFL-best 19.3 yards per catch.
The Bucs (6-9) will take a five-game losing streak into Sunday's season finale at Atlanta. Quarterback Josh Freeman has struggled during the skid, yet primarily because of the impact Jackson has had on the Tampa Bay offense, the fourth-year pro only needs 157 yards against the Falcons to become the franchise's first 4,000-yard passer.
Jackson's contract was done in all 5's in honor of Freeman, who wears jersey No. 5. In addition to giving the Bucs the first legitimate deep threat in more than a decade, the 29-year-old has helped third-year receiver Mike Williams rebound from a subpar 2011.
''I couldn't be happier to be here,'' Jackson said, adding that it didn't take him long to decide to sign with the Bucs following a short conversation with first-year coach Greg Schiano when the free agency period began last March.
''It only took about five minutes. Learning his mentality, his approach to the game, what he saw my role to be, being leader kind of guy with my work ethic, just the way he wanted this organization to change,'' Jackson said. ''Not just the players but an entire organization, the city and way the league views this team. It's fun to play for a guy like that. Everybody in this locker room has bought into it.''
Williams had seven receptions for 132 yards and scored Tampa Bay's only touchdown on a 61-yard catch-and-run against the Rams. His production slipped a year ago following a standout rookie year, however he's benefited from Jackson's presence and enters Sunday's finale with 57 catches for career bests of 931 yards and 16.3 yards per reception.
''My role is to do what I've always done. ... Obviously, guys kind of feed off the things I do,'' Jackson said. ''I try to be a professional at all times. Just sharing knowledge. We call it being farmers. You can't grow good corn if your neighbors don't grow good corn. I want everybody around me to be successful.''
Rookie Doug Martin has rushed for 1,321 yards and 10 touchdowns and is third in the league in total yards from scrimmage behind Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson.
Nevertheless, the Bucs will miss the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season.
Jackson, who had seven receptions for 108 yards, thinks the team is headed in the right direction.
A four-game winning streak helped the Bucs overcome a 1-3 start to climb back into contention for a postseason berth at 6-4. But mounting injuries, Freeman's inconsistency and a porous pass defense have taken their toll during their current skid.
There's been no letup in Jackson's game, though. He has 27 catches for 451 yards, including a pair of 100-yard performances, over the past five weeks to move within 69 yards of breaking Mark Carrier's 23-year-old franchise single-season record of 1,422 yards.
''I'm happy to contribute the way I have. I still think this offense has some things we haven't completely executed as well as we could have in all different areas,'' Jackson said.
''But we have great talent ... as far as offense goes. Tight ends, running backs, obviously Josh. For me to step in here, there's a lot of great tools around me that allow me to be successful,'' the 6-foot-5, 230-pound receiver added. ''For me, I just have to go out there, continue to work as hard as I work, have fun, enjoy it and we'll see how the season ends. Right now, it's about wins.''
Coaches and teammates rave about the receiver's work ethic and way he leads by example.
''He's been such an impact player for us. First by his performance on the field, plays he has made, the consistency, his professionalism, and the versatility,'' offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said. ''There is a complete physical presence, a dominant physical presence. He's a leader, part of the solution. We're very fortunate to have him.''
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