Scanning the Redskins’ offensive personnel, there’s uncertainty at quarterback, an offensive line that wore down last year and a running game that was worse than all but two other teams’. The only position that appears reliable heading into the new season is once again the tight end spot.
But while some fans have yet to grow tired of debating Chris Cooley vs. Fred Davis, in the position meeting room, it’s not an either-or proposition. If the offense clicks, both Cooley and Davis could be on the field at the same time.
“In our room and in our eyes, we’re not competing against each other,” said Cooley, the eighth-year veteran who is coming off one of his most productive seasons. “We’re competing for everyone to get more involved. We feel like the two of us, we should be on the field all the time.”
The goal entering last season was to involve Cooley and Davis in the offense. That was, in fact, the specific game plan heading into many contests. But it was the Redskins first year running Mike Shanahan's version of the West Coast offense and quarterback Donovan McNabb struggled at times.
“We had to go back to what we knew could get us first downs,” Cooley said. “For us to be successful last year, we were more simple. I don't think that we’ll have to resort to that this year.”
Davis started nine games in 2010 as the second tight end, replacing the fullback on the field. But he had only 316 yards on 21 catches, sharp dropoffs from the previous season.
This year, he’s making a strong case early in camp that he needs to be on the field more. Coaches say Davis has shown that he’s more familiar with the offense, and he reported to camp at 242 pounds, 15 pounds lighter than last season. He’s quick enough that coaches could put Cooley and Davis on either end of the tackles or line them up wide.
“[He] almost looked like a wide receiver,” Shanahan said of a trimmed-down Davis. “He's got the type of body to carry 260, but he's even better at the weight he’s currently at. He’s looking quick and elusive.”
Davis has benefited from some extra reps in practice. Cooley had surgery for a meniscus tear following last season, and his knee has been bothering him early in camp. He had it drained last week and missed a pair of practices. Cooley was limited in practice Monday, and Davis continues to see action with the first team.
“They're giving me an opportunity to get out there a little bit more, get my confidence up,” said Davis, “so I'll be ready to play.”
The tight end has become the Redskins’ most reliable spot on offense from week to week. Washington used at least one tight end more often than all but three teams last season. Coaches are not scared to call for their “tiger” formation, which includes two tight ends on the field, but it’s often for blocking purposes.
With two tight ends at the line, the Redskins were 53-of-88 passing last season for 758 yards and four touchdowns. But the second tight end was barely an option late in games. Davis had only eight catches and 68 yards in the second half of games in 2010.
“Certainly having a couple of guys like Fred and Chris will allow us to be versatile,” said tight ends coach Sean McVay, “and if we are able to use those two-tight end packages more, I think that’s something hopefully we’ll get to. But ultimately, it’ll be a week-by-week thing, how we match up personnel-wise against a certain defense.”
The Redskins know what to expect from Cooley, a strong pass-catcher who is well-suited for Shanahan’s offense. He had 849 yards and three touchdowns on 77 catches last season, a career high for receiving yards and the second-most receptions of his seven NFL seasons.
The bigger question mark is Davis, a former second-round pick who has yet to establish himself as an impact player. In addition to dropping the weight, Davis said he spent the offseason studying the playbook and working on his routes, even traveling to San Diego to catch balls from quarterback John Beck. Coaches say he’s quicker getting in and out of breaks but still strong enough to block.
“The best thing Fred has shown me is he’s playing more confidently,” said offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. “He’s got a better idea of what we want him to do. He feels more comfortable in the offense, and he’s coming off the ball a lot harder. He’s not thinking, he’s just playing.”
Said Davis: “I’m not to going to lie — I’m not trying to be cocky — I feel we could both start on teams anywhere. I feel I could go somewhere and play, start right away.”
Davis knows that unseating Cooley in Washington would be a tall order. His best chance of having an impact on the offense this season could be showing coaches in the next few weeks that the Redskins are more productive with two tight ends than one.
“We’ve proven that we can do so many different things,” Cooley said. “We can do things receivers do, do things fullbacks do, so why not put us both on the field?”