With quarterback Mark Brunell rolling to his left near the 10-yard line in the dying seconds of the first half last night, there was little doubt where he hoped to throw the ball. Rookie H-back Chris Cooley was scampering in the same direction as Brunell, trying to find a bit of space amid a maze of bodies in the end zone, and settling on a spot near the left corner, a few feet in front of Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed.
Cooley clung to the ball when Brunell sent it his way, clasping it tightly to his chest with just 26 seconds remaining in the opening half to secure the first touchdown of the Redskins' 17-10 loss to Baltimore at FedEx Field. That catch put the Redskins ahead 10-0, and on a night in which two largely inept offenses were facing two of the best defenses in football, Cooley had given Washington what appeared to be an insurmountable lead.
"You want to be excited about something like that and it felt so good to come in at the half and then the next thing you know, you're down 14-10 and you're past it. It's over," Cooley said.
Cooley (6 feet 3, 265 pounds) was the only non-running back to catch as many as two passes from Brunell in the opening 30 minutes -- which featured nine punts and a grand total of 158 yards between both teams -- enough to make him an offensive star. The 22-year-old, who was taken with the 81st pick in the draft, has been one of few pleasant surprises for the Redskins' offense. He steadily climbed the depth chart in training camp and beat out respected veterans such as Brian Kozlowski to earn a starting job, no small feat considering the premium Coach Joe Gibbs places on having experienced players, especially at the vital H-back position, a hybrid between a fullback and tight end that is a key part of Gibbs's offense. Cooley forged an immediate chemistry with Brunell in the preseason that has continued to flourish.
Cooley, who was a standout at Utah State, has been particularly effective inside the 20-yard line, where Washington's offense has stumbled repeatedly. Without his ability to get open and make plays in that area of the field the team might be in worse shape than it is already. The Redskins have been unable to run the ball well in short-yardage situations -- failing to gain one or two yards in goal line situations or for key first downs -- and Cooley's production there has salvaged several drives this season.
"When [Brunell] starts to scramble, I'm just trying to do my best to give him a target," he said.
Cooley is tied for the team lead with two touchdown receptions and made a strong impact on the Redskins-Ravens game after being held without a catch in last week's loss to Cleveland. Brunell threw five times to Cooley in that game, but the Browns were well prepared, as all of those passes fell harmlessly to the ground.
That was the only week Cooley did not register at least one catch.
Cooley scored his first NFL touchdown in Week 2 against the New York Giants, hauling down the ball in almost precisely the same point in the end zone as he did last night. Again, Brunell, a left-handed quarterback, was rolling to his left on a bootleg inside the 10-yard line. Cooley was stationed on the left end of the line on this occasion, and feigned a block, engaging his man for a second then sprinting out to a pattern. He was all alone to make the catch, giving Washington an early lead.
Cooley was again a primary target in the end zone the following week against Dallas on Monday night. The Redskins ran the same play on the goal line at the end of the first half in that contest, except Cooley lined up on the right end, with Brunell rolling to his right. The play was originally installed for backup quarterback Patrick Ramsey, a right-handed passer who was expected to play that week with Brunell nursing a hamstring injury, and was left in for Brunell. Dallas anticipated the pass and linebacker Dexter Coakley batted it down.
Brunell's willingness to look for the rookie in crucial situations has aided his confidence, and Cooley has become a fixture in the team's offense.