Cooley said an emotional goodbye to the Redskins after eight seasons with a team that failed to recapture the glory of its past even as he carved a niche as a beloved player who squeezed the most out of his ability. Cooley caught more passes than any other tight end who has played for the franchise and was a charismatic figure who had a knack for connecting with fans.
“It’s been awesome,” Cooley said, fighting back tears during a brief news conference at Redskins Park following the team’s practice Tuesday. “I’ve been very, very fortunate to play for a franchise that has embraced me and a fan base that has embraced me the way that they have. This organization has changed my life in every way for the better and I appreciate it. I’ve loved every minute of playing here.”
Coach Mike Shanahan portrayed the move as the team’s attempt to let Cooley, who turned 30 last month, pursue a starting job with another NFL team.
“That’s what we’re doing at this time, giving him every opportunity to see if there is a chance for him to be a starter on another team in the National Football League,” Shanahan said. “I had many conversations with him over the past year, just general talks, sometimes more specific than others. But in essence, he’s going to get the opportunity to check to see if he can be a starter on another team.”
But Cooley had said in an interview just a few weeks ago that he wanted to remain with the Redskins in any capacity, even if that meant relinquishing the centerpiece role and starting job that once were unquestionably his.
“I’m happy to do whatever is asked of me. I think I always have been,” Cooley said. “I think I’ve always been a very coachable player. I think I’ve always been a player that said, ‘Look, I’ll do whatever you want me to do.’ And I’ve fit in a lot of different ways. I’ve fit it on a lot of different offenses. I’ve been accommodating to a lot of different roles, and it’s worked for me.”
Cooley joined the Redskins in 2004 as a third-round draft pick from Utah State. He was in the same draft class as Sean Taylor, the star safety who was slain in 2007, and was coached by Joe Gibbshis first four seasons with the Redskins.
Amid frequent turnover of coaches and starting quarterbacks, the Redskins won only one playoff game during Cooley’s tenure. But he had 428 catches, a franchise record for a tight end, for 4,703 yards and 33 touchdowns. He was selected to two Pro Bowls.
“He’s just a competitor,” said Antonio Pierce, a former NFL linebacker who played with Cooley with the Redskins and against him while with the New York Giants. “He was a guy you always had to account for. The Redskins always relied on Chris Cooley over the middle.”
Cooley had a reputation as a free spirit off the field who once sparked a controversy by accidentally posting a photo of his genitals on his blog. He was ahead of his time in interacting with fans online as well as in person. He made his own pottery and opened an art gallery. Redskins followers adored him.
“It’s the way he carried himself,” Pierce, now an NFL analyst for ESPN, said in a telephone interview. “He had this wild hair. He came in as this kid from, where, Utah? You had a team with big personalities like LaVar [Arrington] and Clinton Portis, and he made his own personality. What did they call him, Captain Chaos? He played reckless. He sacrificed his body. He gave his all. I think people connected with that.”
Cooley had only eight catches in five games last season before he was placed on the season-ending injured reserve list with a broken finger and an ailing knee. Cooley declared his knee sound this year during training camp. But the Redskins have Fred Davis — who was putting together a big season in 2011 before he was suspended for the final four games for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy — and have moved Niles Paul, a rookie wide receiver last season, to tight end. The team also has Logan Paulsen as a blocking tight end.
“There’s really no hard feelings for me,” Cooley said. “I’ve had good talks with [General Manager] Bruce Allen. He’s been great. I talked to all the coaches and . . . it’s okay with me that they’re moving in the direction that they’re moving. Since Bruce and Mike have been here, I’ve trusted everything they’ve done and everything that they want to do. And even though I’m not a part of that today, I still believe in what they’re doing.”
Cooley said during training camp that he believes the team has a bright future with rookie Robert Griffin III at quarterback. He had hoped to be on a Redskins team that became a consistent winner. But if Griffin returns the Redskins to NFL prominence, it will be without Cooley.
“He helped me get comfortable with this team [and] this offense,” Griffin wrote of Cooley on Twitter. “He is a legend in my mind and will be missed.”
Cooley played regularly at fullback during the Redskins’ three preseason games, casting increasing doubt on his status with the team amid speculation that he might be traded or released. Shanahan said Tuesday the two sides did not discuss Cooley’s contract. Cooley would have counted more than $6 million against the salary cap this season had he remained with the team.
Shanahan did not rule out the possibility of the Redskins re-signing Cooley if he is unable to find a starting job elsewhere. Cooley said he believes he still can be a productive NFL player, but that it would be difficult for him to play for another team.
“I’ll take some time and decide what I want to do moving forward,” he said at his news conference. “I have every belief that I can play football. I have every belief that I can be not only a productive player, but a starter in this league.”
Mike Jones contributed to this report.