Game-Winner Caps Cooley's Finest Day

By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 27, 2006

Brian Kozlowski took a look around the Washington Redskins' locker room yesterday afternoon and sent a warning to Chris Cooley.

"Skippy, you're about to get trapped," Kozlowski said, one tight end to another.

Sure enough, within moments Cooley was surrounded by a media horde that wanted to discuss one of the best days of the third-year tight end's career. His 89 receiving yards were a career high. His 66-yard touchdown reception late in the fourth quarter was the longest catch of his career. More important, that play -- in which Cooley ran through one tackle, bounced off another and then sprinted down the sideline to the end zone -- provided the winning margin in Washington's 17-13 victory over the Carolina Panthers.

The touchdown sent Cooley on a victory quarter-lap, in which he head-butted teammates and slapped hands with fans all the way back to the Washington sideline.

"The most unbelievable feeling," he said, once the cameras had him surrounded in the locker room. "I just tried to celebrate it with the guys and all the fans as much as I could. It was a blast."

The winning play provided a measure of redemption for Cooley, who watched a perfect pass from quarterback Jason Campbell carom off his hands earlier in the second half. He said he tried to forget about that gaffe as soon as he headed to the sideline, and on the Redskins' final scoring drive, he got another chance. Campbell, who had to call the play himself because of a helmet malfunction, initially looked for Brandon Lloyd. But Lloyd was covered on the sideline, and Campbell then turned his attention to Cooley across the middle. After a modest pickup, Carolina defensive backs Chris Gamble and Mike Minter failed to bring down the tight end, and a trailing Lloyd then provided an escort to the end zone.

"If he catches the ball, it's like, 'Turn and find someone to block,' " Lloyd said. "Every time Cooley catches the ball, there's that potential to break something. It's only supposed to be a 15- or 16-yard gain; he turns it into a 66-yard play."

"I might get cussed out for not going downfield to block but I just put my hands up because I saw the touchdown before it happened," Santana Moss said. "He's like the best when it comes to breaking tackles, [and] to see him run that fast, I was impressed."

"I was surprised that it was even as close as it was," Cooley said. "I guess I'm not the fastest guy on the field, but after I got past [Minter], I thought in my head, 'I'm gone.' "

After being kept out of the end zone for the first five games, Cooley has now scored five times in six games, the second-most prolific scoring stretch of his career. And he has emerged as the most popular receiver during Campbell's short tenure as the starting quarterback. Over the past two games, the tight end has eight catches for 147 yards and two touchdowns. No other Redskins target has more than 52 receiving yards over that stretch.

"Everybody knows what Chris means to us," Washington Coach Joe Gibbs said. "I feel so bad when we can't get him the ball like we'd like to. He's a big playmaker."

Three of Campbell's four touchdown passes have gone to tight ends, but after yesterday's win, the quarterback said he's merely throwing where his progressions dictate. He said coaches have called plays "that I feel more comfortable with," and that Cooley's performance should create more opportunities in the passing game for Lloyd and Moss in the future. Neither starting receiver complained about his relative inaction yesterday, when they combined to catch four passes for a season-low 20 yards.

"I think Jason's looking for the open guy," Lloyd said. "I think he's looking at guys that he knows are going to make plays. He's just throwing to the playmakers. You know, there's a lot of us out there. That's what it comes down to."

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