Chris Cooley walked in the door in 2004 with Sean Taylor in his draft class, with Joe Gibbs as his first NFL coach, with Mark Brunell as his quarterback and with the Washington Redskins desperately trying to recapture their glorious past.
For Cooley, 30, that was eight seasons, two Pro Bowl selections and more than 400 catches ago. He is on his third Redskins coach. He is on his eighth starting quarterback. The constant is that the Redskins’ bid to return to lasting pro football relevance remains ongoing. They have only one playoff victory in Cooley’s tenure and they are more than two decades removed from their most recent Super Bowl triumph.
Amid speculation he could be traded or released before the season begins, Cooley, once a mainstay as the team’s starting tight end, says he is willing to play any role the Redskins give him in order to stay in Washington. He looks at the promise a new quarterback brings and burns to win with the Redskins after so many years of losing.
“I absolutely can be happy with any role on this team,” Cooley said. “The Washington Redskins have played a huge part in my life. I daily feel like I want to do anything I can do for this team. I owe this organization a lot.”
He added: “The only thing I want to do is win. I want to win on this team. That’s the only thing I haven’t been able to do.”
Fans have made Cooley one of the Redskins’ most popular players. To them, he is someone who always puts out maximum effort on the field and has squeezed the most from his ability. He seems genuine, honest and affable in his off-field encounters with the public. He was far ahead of most players in his use of social media to engage with fans. He makes his own pottery and sells it in his own Leesburg art gallery. In 2008, his jersey cracked the top 20 in NFL sales, unusual for a tight end.
Cooley is toiling through his ninth NFL training camp, attempting to demonstrate that his once-ailing left knee is sound enough that he can resemble the player he once was. He says he wants just one thing: He wants to see this thing through.
“I come to work thinking that I want to be the most productive player that I can possibly be,” Cooley said last weekend as he sat on a bench outside the back door at Redskins Park after a practice. “If that means fitting [a] role and moving around and doing a lot of different things, that’s what it means. And if that’s what helps this team win, I am a very happy guy.”
It wasn’t so long ago that Cooley was one of the sport’s most reliable pass-catching tight ends. He had 77 catches as recently as the 2010 season, and he holds the Redskins record for receptions by a tight end, with 428. But his body betrayed him last season, when he had eight catches in five games before Coach Mike Shanahan told him to shut things down and get healthy. A broken finger “enabled” an already “pending” decision about his knee to be made, he said.
“I think it was becoming apparent that a week of work was too much,” Cooley said. “And when a guy can’t handle a week of work, then he can’t continue to play for you.”
Cooley took three months off and began running hard in April. Since then, he said, he has become increasingly confident that he is physically capable of being a top-shelf tight end, the sort of player who could aid the NFL development of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III and help Shanahan turn the Redskins into winners again.
But first, Cooley must convince the organization that his knee is sound and he remains a useful player. The Redskins have a talented starter at tight end in Fred Davis, who was having a big season in 2011 before he was suspended for the final four games for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. The team also has moved Niles Paul, a rookie wide receiver last season, to tight end.
So does Cooley still fit in and, if so, how? The plan, it appears, is for the Redskins to use Cooley in small doses to keep him fresh and maximize his effectiveness.
“I think Chris has done a good job,” Shanahan said this week. “The big questions that usually pop up this time of year, especially after a guy does come off an injury last year or the year before . . . [are] can he stay healthy and has he lost anything? And we’ll get a chance to see him the next couple games playing, and hopefully he’s set to play at that same level and he can still stay healthy.”
Cooley, who would count more than $6 million against the salary cap if he is with the team this season, started at fullback in last week’s preseason-opening victory at the Buffalo Bills because first-stringer Darrel Young was sidelined by a hamstring injury. The next two preseason games, this Saturday night at the Chicago Bears and a week later at home against the Indianapolis Colts, could be more telling.
“I don’t think I’m in any case best suited to be a Pro Bowl fullback or a wide receiver,” Cooley said. “But I’m capable, I think, in some capacity to fit all those roles. I think that if I can do that well, it gives us our offense a lot of diversity.”
Cooley’s teammates say they believe he’s doing well. Paul said that the Cooley he sees on the training camp practice field this summer is “the Chris Cooley that I used to watch back in the day,” by which he meant not all that long ago.
Said wide receiver Josh Morgan, who was signed by the Redskins as a free agent in the offseason: “He’s a cool vet out there. Strange guy, but real funny, real humble, real hard worker. You can see he’s still got a lot of play-making ability in him. He just comes in, shuts his mouth and works hard every day, a true professional.”
The free-spirited Cooley, the guy who once created a stir by accidentally posting a photo of his private parts on his blog, now finds himself in the role of locker room elder statesman.
He is a different kind of leader, perhaps, but now an example for younger players.
“If I am in any capacity a leader,” he said, “then it is [as] the guy who shows up and works hard every day and is accountable for his job. As far as I feel, football is a game. And if I can’t come every day and enjoy what I do and have fun and make it a fun environment, then it’s not something that I should be doing. And so I probably don’t show that leadership the same as other guys do. But at the same time, I take it very, very seriously.”