It wasn't a bargaining session, per se, but it might as well have been.
The setting was Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. In only the third game he has played this season, Vincent Jackson caught three touchdown passes to help the Chargers beat the San Francisco 49ers, 34-7, in Week 15. His statement was clear: "This is why I should be paid like one of the top wide receivers in the NFL."
The Chargers' response isn't likely to come for months, but Jackson reminded them of what they were missing through the better part of a season that, with two weeks left, has them fighting for their playoff lives.
He also reminded himself of what might have been had there been no contractual standoff that only ended because he needed to report to the team for the minimum six games necessary to qualify for an accrued season for future free-agency and pension purposes. Given that Jackson has seven catches for 141 yards (an average of 20.1 yards per reception) and three scores, imagine the numbers he would have put up had he been part of the team from the start (or as close to it as the three-game suspension he served for violating the NFL's personal-conduct policy would allow)?
"Obviously, I've been thinking about it all year," Jackson said. "Just about coming off the last three years, I've only been going on an upward (trend) -- a thousand yards (1,098) my fourth year, a little more (1,167) last year, and (entering this season) off the Pro Bowl. Playing with more confidence, another year with Philip (Rivers), another year in that offense of Norv (Turner) ... it's only bigger and better things that can happen. Yeah, I've thought about it, what exactly I could have done."
But he insists he has absolutely no regrets for handling the situation the way he did. Jackson refused -- and still refuses -- to settle for anything less than a salary commensurate with what the highest-paid receivers earn. And he was determined to minimize his exposure to injury while waiting for the contract he wanted.
"I'm very resolved in the decision that I made," Jackson said. "Yes, it was difficult. It was a tough thing to do. But it was something that I just believed in. I felt inside that it was the right thing to do.
"It's tough. I love the game, I work very hard at it. And I spent pretty much my whole summer and fall continuing to train, continuing to do football activities just to stay on top of my game because I knew, sooner or later, I'm going to be back on the field, whether it was this year or next year, and I don't want to lose anything. I want to continue to be competitive. I want to be considered one of the best receivers in the league.
"I don't know if there was really a feeling of frustration watching the team play because I definitely understand the beast that this business is, and I wished nothing but positive things for my teammates. I built relationships. These guys are my friends, so I wish them to be healthy and wish them to be successful. Once I had the opportunity to come out here and play with them, then there was no looking back, no regrets. I'm just happy to be able to finish the season and hopefully help this team make the playoffs."
Amazingly, Jackson doesn't express any bitterness toward Chargers management. In fact, he said he fully understood the team's approach to his contractual situation, trying to get the most for the least amount of investment.
Jackson finished the last of his five-year contract in 2009, but because 2010 was an uncapped season, he was still a year shy of unrestricted free agency, which shifted from four to six years. As a restricted free agent, Jackson was, at a minimum, entitled to a one-year tender offer of $3.268 million. He refused, and after failing to accept the deal by an NFL-mandated June 15th deadline, the Chargers were able to cut the offer to $583,000. By joining the Chargers for the final six games of the season, Jackson wound up getting the prorated minimum of $271,000.
At one point, the Chargers, according to an NFL source, gave his agents permission to discuss a contract with about five teams to which they would consider trading Jackson. Among the teams believed to be on the list were the Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks. But a trade was never made. Jackson said he "never asked to be traded," that he isn't seeking to leave the Chargers now, and remains as open as ever to trying to work out a contract that would be to his satisfaction.
"I can't walk around with a negative, pessimistic attitude," Jackson said. "I'm totally positive about this season. I'm excited to be playing for the Chargers right now. Everything we went through is in the past, it's part of the business. And I feel like I have a good relationship with them still. Even the people up there at the management (level) have been very friendly and welcoming to me and supportive of what I'm out here to help the team do.
"Do I still believe there's a chance (to work something out)? Absolutely. What will happen? I couldn't tell you. Honestly, I don't think anyone knows that."
It has been reported that, because of his two arrests for DUI, Jackson could face a lengthy suspension if he were to encounter any additional off-field problems. However, according to a league source, Jackson is "not one false step from being suspended for the whole year or anything like that. Because his previous suspension was (for violating) the personal-conduct policy, if he were to have, say, another DUI, he would lose four game checks but no playing time."
Said Jackson, "I've made my mistakes, I've taken responsibility for it. I don't have any question in my character. I don't believe any other team should have any question in my character. You can ask anybody in that (Chargers administration) building that's ever worked with me the past six years how they feel about me as a person, as a teammate and a guy in the locker room, and I doubt you'll hear anything negative.
"Unfortunately, those kinds of things, for some reason, the media likes to bring up over and over and likes to rehash. It really doesn't bother me anymore. I believe that, in my heart, that'll show through and anything that's printed about the negative stuff, people will overlook."
Charger fans are thrilled with Jackson's impact in three games. They, too, wonder if the team would have been in a better position for the postseason had he played more games.
Jackson received a good deal of criticism from fans during the summer, and their reaction to his immediate return to the team was lukewarm, at best. But he managed to gain a great deal of support after his performance against the 49ers.
"People were disappointed and not understanding the whole business of the NFL," Jackson said. "They're just fans, and they want to see the best players out there. They buy season tickets and stuff; they want to see the best product on the field. Unfortunately, that wasn't able to work out. But since I've been back, it's been nothing but the opposite. It's been nothing but positive. They're so happy to have me back, and they feel like I belong here. They want to see me get what I deserve."
A question that begs to be answered is this: Why didn't Jackson's agents and the Chargers reach some sort of compromise that would have prompted him to report sooner and perhaps put the team in a stronger position for the playoffs? If the Chargers fall short of the postseason, Jackson, his representatives, and the team are going to share the blame for failing to resolve the dispute, especially when a compromise could very well be worked out in the offseason.
The Chargers have not commented publicly on Jackson's contract situation, but the San Diego Union-Tribune recently reported that there was virtually no chance they would offer him a long-term agreement and that, if the collective bargaining agreement that replaces the one due to expire in March still includes a franchise tag, the team would likely apply one to Jackson.
Under previous franchise-tag rules, a player could receive an "exclusive" designation, meaning he would be paid a guaranteed salary for one year worth the average of the five highest-paid players at his position (in Jackson's case, it would be more than $10 million), or a "non-exclusive" label, which would pay the same money but allow the player to negotiate a multi-year deal with 31 other teams. If another club made an offer that the player accepted, his current team could either match the offer to retain him or receive a pair of first-round picks as compensation for him.
"That's something I really haven't been able to sit down and think about much right now, just because I'm so focused on football," Jackson said of the prospect of receiving a tag. "I'll get together with (agent) Neil (Schwartz) and those guys, and we'll discuss what the best options are. But, honestly, we'll have to cross that bridge when we get there. Right now, I'm just going to look forward to finishing this season strong, and I expect good things to happen after this year."
Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.