On the first snap of full-team drills last Thursday, on a morning when the Washington Redskins' defense again outshined the offense, H-back Chris Cooley was the exception simply by doing what came so easily throughout his rookie season: He anticipated pressure on the quarterback, found a hole in the coverage and pulled down a pass for a nice gain.
Regardless who was behind center in 2004 -- veteran Mark Brunell or upstart Patrick Ramsey -- Cooley, 23, became an instant favorite, the quarterback's security blanket. A 6-foot-3, 265-pound natural athlete with the ability to read defenses, think like a passer, and snag almost any ball thrown his way tends to make one become popular with those who toss footballs for a living. Cooley was a rare overachiever in Washington's offense last season and now is a vital cog in what the Redskins hope will be a resurgent unit.
"Quarterbacks will look for people like that," said tight ends coach Rennie Simmons, "and you see a lot of teams across the league have combinations like that. [Quarterbacks] just have confidence in certain people. How do they get that? To me, you just go out on the field and make a few plays and it takes off from there. Certain people have it, and it's hard to get some other people to have it. It's hard to teach and coach; I think it's instinctive and that's what you look for when you try to find people in the draft."
Cooley was an instant hit and led the team with six touchdown catches. He rapidly absorbed the many and varied responsibilities that come with playing H-back in this system, and was starting by opening day. That decision thrilled the quarterbacks, who knew that if Cooley could get his hands on a ball, he could be counted on to catch it. "I'll put his hands up against anybody's," Ramsey said. "He's got really strong hands, that's the one thing you'll notice about him. He can pull it in in traffic."
Even as Washington's offense sank to the bottom of the NFL in the first half of the season, Cooley emerged as a clutch performer, snagging three touchdown passes in that span and earning Brunell's trust. When Ramsey took over, nothing changed. The coaches began to expand Cooley's role -- a transition that came too slowly, they admit now -- and he became Ramsey's go-to receiver when a big play was needed, often improvising to produce key third- and fourth-down receptions. The H-back and the quarterback grew close off the field as well, and now, after an entire spring working together, they expect to pick up where they left off.
"Chris just has a great feel," Ramsey said. "He kind of feels what I feel. I think that came as much as a surprise to me as it did anyone. I knew he was a good player when Mark was out there, but just going in [as the starter], I didn't realize until I got there how great a feel he has for it."
"I've always felt like I've been able to get open," said Cooley, the 81st pick in the 2004 draft, "and I have a feel for what's happening in the play. I have a feel for the blitzes, I have a feel for where guys are so, if something breaks down, I'm going to find Patrick and I'm going to find a place for him to give me the ball."
Cooley, whose substantial charitable endeavors made him Washington's honoree for the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, was third on the club with 314 receiving yards and 26 of his 37 receptions came in the seven games started by Ramsey, including five grabs for a career-best 75 yards in a Week 14 loss at Philadelphia. Cooley also had a 31-yard catch in that game -- the longest of his career -- and by the final few games teams were no longer leaving him unaccounted for in their defensive schemes.
"He's not going to sneak up on anybody this year," Simmons said. "They'll be ready for him this year. That means he has to work even harder. No question, he's an effective guy for us, and they've got to account for him."
Finding Cooley, however, is not always easy. He is regularly put in motion and could wind up on the line, in the slot or elsewhere. It's nothing new: At Utah State, Cooley was considered an H-back but was also the team's best receiver and occasional running back. He honed his blocking technique, ran reverses and jumped out at Washington's staff as it evaluated college players to fit Coach Joe Gibbs's scheme.
"We didn't have the depth, and it was necessary that I play those positions," Cooley said, "and it helped me and gave me confidence to know I can play anywhere on the field."
Getting adjusted to his new surroundings here took a little more effort. Cooley, who had spent virtually his entire life in Utah, was bewildered about what to expect when the Redskins drafted him. Last August, a trip to the mall or a journey to find the nearest supermarket could be daunting, but now he is settled into a suburban setting and comfortable in his home away from home.
"My off-the-field life has been awesome," Cooley said. "Virginia has been so nice; it was a nice surprise for me to be able to come out here. I thought I was going to come here and have to move into downtown D.C. Honestly. I didn't know. So it's been nice. I live out in the country, I have great neighbors, the fans are great and it's a great area. I felt like I fit in here really well."