Chris Cooley finished up his workday at Redskins Park earlier this week, showered, changed and wandered into the film room. He wanted to compare that afternoon’s practice to one a couple of weeks earlier. The eighth-year tight end knew he felt different — though his ailing left knee was certainly sore — but he needed to see the visual evidence.
While Cooley has waited for his knee to fully recover, his friend and teammate Fred Davis has quickly emerged as the team’s leading receiver with 191 yards on 11 catches through two games. Cooley, meanwhile, has spent a good chunk of those games on the sideline. Last Sunday he failed to catch a pass, in fact, for just the second time since his rookie season.
“One thing I noticed, if I catch a ball in practice and run 40 yards, as I decelerated, I could see a limp,” Cooley said. “So I can't go to the staff and say, ‘Why am I not on the field 100 percent of the time?’ They could point to this play and say, ‘Show us that you’re better.’ ”
Late Wednesday afternoon, he watched the tape and finally liked what he saw.
“You can really see the difference. It’s a noticeable burst,” he said. “I mean, I can feel how I’m running, but when you look back and see it, you can really see the difference. This is the first week of practice that I’ve noticed that burst.”
What remains to be seen is whether a healthier Cooley causes any change in the Redskins’ plans at tight end. While Cooley certainly hopes it does — “I want to be on the field,” he said matter-of-factly — he is able to take some comfort in the progress he’s made in just a few short weeks.
While Cooley always had maintained he would be ready for Week 1, not many in Redskins Park were as optimistic. Cooley has had two tears of the meniscus in his knee, the first in 2005. In January he had arthroscopic surgery; then he aggravated the injured area on the opening day of training camp.
He was unable to practice, and in the ensuing weeks, Cooley said he saw four different doctors. He tried cortisone, lubrication, electric stimulus — “anything and everything,” he said. But nothing helped as much as a series of platelet-rich plasma injection therapy treatments, a technique designed to accelerate tissue regeneration.
“I’d say I felt 50 percent better after each time that I did it,” Cooley said of the treatments.
Still, he essentially had just one practice under his belt in the week before the Redskins’ Week 1 matchup against the Giants.
“Pride-wise, no one could tell me I wasn’t going to play,” he said. “I’ve never really been hurt like that, with the pressure to come back and play. It feels like an immense amount of pressure.”
The pressure was both internal and external. Cooley, who still is listed atop the team’s depth chart, said he knew that every play he missed amounted to another opportunity for Davis.
“There’s also a level of competition in our locker room right now. I’d say it’s good competition, but obviously, I want to be on the field,” he said. “There’s nothing bad between Fred and me, but there is the thought from me that I want to get on the field as much as I can.”
After three seasons of learning under Cooley, Davis has taken advantage of his early opportunities. While Davis has played 116 snaps in two games, Cooley has played only 76. Davis has been targeted 13 times and Cooley only five. Dallas’s Jason Witten is the only tight end in the league with more yards than Davis’s 191. Forty-five tight ends have more than Cooley’s 21 yards.
Coaches, though, said Cooley is still a vital member of the team. They don’t measure his season based solely on receiving numbers. The mere fact that he’s on the field is telling, said offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
“Cooley’s really exceeded expectations with us,” he says. “We weren’t sure whether he was going to be able to play as much as he has.”
While Coach Mike Shanahan said he’s still waiting for Cooley to be in optimum game shape, Cooley, a two-time Pro Bowler, has been just as helpful on the sidelines as he has on the field. Last Sunday against Arizona, Cooley noticed that Davis had just one catch through 11 / 2 quarters. Cooley told coaches Davis appeared to be frustrated. “Hey, I think we need to get Fred the ball,” Shanahan recalled Cooley saying.
“That’s what you have to have – unselfish people looking out for the team,” the head coach said. “That will give an idea of what type of guy you have with Chris.”
Said Cooley: “Fred’s a guy where if you get him involved early in the game, he is a better player. There are some guys who you feed them the ball, the adrenaline is going and you see a higher level of play.”
Cooley knows that in order to get the looks and playing time that Davis has seen the first two weeks, he’ll need to show that his knee is healthy. Studying the practice film this week, he’s noticed that he’s not favoring his left knee while running and feels he has his speed back.
“Look, I can still tell that it’s sore. It’s not like I don’t feel it,” he says. “But this is the first week I watch on film and you don’t notice it. It looks like it‘s just me out there. You could never tell by watching the film that there‘s anything wrong.”
To start the year, Cooley had an elaborate two-hour routine to prepare for each practice that involved ice, electrical stimulation, ultrasound and creams. “Today I just rubbed some Bengay on my leg and said, ‘Let’s go do it.’ ”