By Paul Tenorio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 31, 2008
Washington Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell isn't quite sure which Chris Cooley he's going to get when he comes to work. The Redskins star tight end is known for having a somewhat offbeat personality (see: spandex shorts, blog-driven beard-growing contest).
"It's often what day you catch him on," Campbell said, laughing. "Some days he's quiet, some days he's hyper, and I don't know what. Like he had too much caffeine, he's wearing all these crazy clothes. You never know what you're going to get out of him each and every day when it comes to his personality."
As he enters his fifth year in Washington, Cooley, despite his sometimes goofy antics, will be one of the leaders of a team aiming to get back to the playoffs under first-year head coach Jim Zorn. And while he doesn't necessarily fit the bill of what a leader may look like, Cooley's work ethic and drive don't go unnoticed.
"I think he gives everything he's got, he loves to play," Zorn said. "I think Chris challenges himself every day. He's quite a guy because he's a very good athlete but wants to get better each time. He's thinking things through of how he can do it better when he gets out on the field. And he just gives everything he's got."
Since entering the league in 2004 as a third-round draft pick out of Utah State, the 26-year-old has developed into one of the Redskins most beloved players, both on and off the field.
Cooley has solidified himself as one of the NFL's top tight ends, finishing fifth in the league at his position in receptions (66) and yards (786) in 2007, and third with eight touchdowns. He also earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl.
Meantime, his candid personality has endeared him to fans across the nation. He pens a popular blog on which he recently campaigned to find a fanatic's lost -- or stolen -- tomahawk (and succeeded), makes appearances on a popular morning radio show, and this summer generated headlines with his outspoken nature, critiquing training camps and rookie contracts. (He wrote that, "When someone can jump into the league and earn more than [a veteran] without playing a single down, it's hard to stomach.")
For Cooley, it wasn't a matter of making news as much as just being himself no matter the venue, he said.
"Because of the nature and popularity of this game, if I can just be myself and show who I am, I think people will like that," Cooley said. "I'm really not concerned if people are down on me or not or what people's opinions are. I think what we do is entertain people. And whether I make you happy or mad or whether you like me or not, if I entertain you or if I create something where you're excited about football, all in all, I think that's good for me and good for the sport."
The journey to this point has moved quickly, he said, chuckling slightly when asked if it was weird to be considered a veteran at his age.
"It's been fast. I played four years. I can't believe this is my fifth year," Cooley said. "It really does feel like I just got here, and then at the same time there's so much I've put in and so much I've invested in this team that I guess it's not strange to be called that."
As he continues to grow into one of the league's more recognized names, Cooley said he continues to be overwhelmed by the amount of work that goes into being a professional football player.
"Not only is there so much time spent preparing for a game . . . I mean we put in 60 hours a week preparing for that three-hour game -- it's unbelievable," he said. "But then taking that and flipping it to off the field. I'm so busy. I get myself so involved off the field. I'm always surprised. I'm flying here. I'm doing this. I'm doing an interview here; it has been amazing to me."
The 2008 season will bring new challenges for Cooley. With the Redskins switching to a West Coast offense, Cooley, who thrived in four years under former coach Joe Gibbs, has had to adjust to a new scheme and a new role on the field.
"Change is always hard at first," Cooley said. "But I'm really growing to like the offense. . . . I'm gaining confidence in what I'm doing. I'm still playing tight end, but it's different, the passing scheme is completely different, and I have to learn it."
But Zorn said he expects Cooley to thrive in his offensive system, calling the tight end a "critical role."
"The thing about any offense is you can't just have a tight end that catches the ball only," Zorn said. "You've got to have a guy that can block and catch, but you also want a guy that can uncover from a defender. And he's got that talent. You've got to have a guy that can always get open versus a linebacker covering him, and can get often get open with a safety covering him. I think he's got some football savvy to do that."
In addition, Zorn, who like Cooley is known for being frank, has brought change with a more disciplined atmosphere around Redskins Park, Cooley said.
"He's very strict," Cooley said. "You don't see that, the players do. He's really strict. We're fining guys for the first time. In the four years I was here with Gibbs, I don't remember anyone that got fined. Guys are walking in two minutes late to a meeting and getting fined, so he's also strict. But I think everyone respects him. He's putting out an image for everyone to respect, and I think that's something you've got to like."
Cooley expressed optimism at what he believes can be an effective offense and team under Zorn, and praised Campbell: "I don't think I could be in a better situation as far as a quarterback goes," Cooley said. Both Zorn and Campbell will be vital to Cooley's success this season and beyond, and Cooley said he is hopeful for what he and the team can accomplish.
"I'm not satisfied with what I have done so far," he said. "I feel like I can make a lot more plays than I have in the past, [and] I'm hoping to do that this year. I'm hoping to have a lot of catches.
It "would be great to have a [Cowboys tight end Jason] Witten type of year, what he did last year, and I think I can be that type of guy for this team."
And while Cooley may bring a quirky personality to the team, to Zorn that's not necessarily a bad thing.
"What he does for our football team with his personality is [that] part of this game has to be fun," Zorn said. "At the appropriate time we've got to be able to laugh at ourselves. We've got to be able to enjoy what we do. And I think he brings that to the table and a guy that enjoys the game. I think he enjoys his teammates; his teammates enjoy him."