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Cooley Tries to Block Out Mistakes

By Nunyo Demasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 24, 2005

Chris Cooley reveled in the euphoria of Monday night's 14-13 victory over the Dallas Cowboys at Texas Stadium. The cathartic outcome -- snapping a nine-game, decade-long hex in Texas Stadium and at least momentarily affirming Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs's controversial quarterback switch -- was easily the biggest win in Cooley's brief NFL career.

Cooley, who plays H-back, a hybrid fullback and tight end, and his teammates remained in a triumphant mood when they returned to Redskins Park the next day for a short week of work before the bye. However, Cooley's demeanor changed dramatically during a film-review session Tuesday as he watched his mediocre blocking, particularly against defensive backs.

"We walked off the field in Dallas and it was the greatest game ever," Cooley, 23, declared Thursday. "And the next day, I'm like, 'Well, damn, I didn't help the team as much as I could have.'

"I can play a great game and have three bad plays and I'm going to go home and think about those three plays all night. Out of 70 plays, I'm going to think about three plays. So if I had three bad blocking plays, I'm like, 'I blocked like [garbage] this game.' "

After a splendid rookie year, highlighted by a team-high six touchdowns, Cooley is expected to become more of a focal point in Gibbs's offense. The 6-foot-3 Cooley shed about 15 pounds, dropping to 250, to increase his quickness and become more explosive downfield. But entering the regular season, Cooley was most excited about his improved blocking. The area had essentially been his sole weakness last year, and Cooley worked hard on his technique, and looked strong in the area during preseason.

Cooley is sharp when blocking near the line of scrimmage after initially appearing intimidated last season against defensive ends. But Cooley needs to become more consistent blocking away from the line, against elusive defensive backs. Although Redskins coaches agree that Cooley's blocking against Dallas was inconsistent, they believe his perfectionist approach is what will make him a star in the NFL.

"He's got a great attitude about playing the game," said tight ends coach Rennie Simmons. "He's very instinctive and very confident and enjoys playing the game. And you just like to have guys like that. He's willing to work to get better. That's a big thing."

After two games, Cooley has five catches for 54 yards, averaging 10.8 yards. Those numbers are higher than they were after two games last season, when Cooley was still learning the complicated role of playing H-back in Gibbs's system. Over Cooley's first nine games last year, he had only 11 catches. But Cooley had 26 catches in Washington's final seven games -- with quarterback Patrick Ramsey starting -- as his role was increased.

Cooley emerged as a threat in the red zone while finishing with 37 catches -- third best on the team -- for 314 receiving yards. With Washington's starting wideouts each listed as 5-10 and less than 195 pounds, Cooley has essentially become Washington's big receiver in the red zone.

And after coming on strong late last season, expectations have risen: The Redskins have made Cooley an integral part of the offense although the results haven't yet come. "I'm happy with where I am as a player. I feel confident," Cooley said. "I'm disappointed in my production personally."

The coaches said that nothing has changed about their plans for Cooley. Two games is too small an indication of a player's role throughout the season, Simmons said. (One Cooley touchdown was negated by a penalty.) And against the Cowboys, the Redskins frequently used three-wide-receiver sets, with Cooley switching to the pure tight end position.

"It just worked out that way," Simmons said of the first two games. "Sometimes, the ball goes in your direction more than others."

Cooley estimates being involved in about 60 percent of the plays last season. This year, he's in just about every play. And fatigue can be a factor.

"The biggest thing for me right now is I'm playing every play," said Cooley, who blocks in roughly half of Washington's offensive plays. "Now once in awhile, it's like, 'Damn, I'm tired out there.' "

It didn't help Monday, when a prevalent assignment was blocking defensive backs because of Dallas's 3-4 defense.

"That's hard for a guy to do sometimes," Simmons said. "In college, he probably never was asked to do that."

Reserve tight end Brian Kozlowski has lasted 12 years in the NFL by honing his blocking skills. But even Kozlowski said that it's difficult blocking smaller players out in space.

"We're not used to doing it as much as a wide receiver is," said Kozlowski, who lost the starting H-back job to Cooley last year. "Normally, the H-back or tight end blocks a big linebacker. They're not really trying to dodge you. They'll try to go through you."

But Cooley, as is his nature, didn't want to use any excuses.

"You're not expected to go out there and just miss," he said. "You're expected to go block him. I didn't, so right now I'm just [angry].

"I wish we could play the Seahawks tomorrow. I'm ready to keep going."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company