Chris Cooley’s career obituary in Washington has been all but written in the past 72 hours. In the move-on world of the NFL and pro sports, Cooley has been portrayed as the once-rumbling but now gimpy-kneed tight end who will simply make too much money in the final year of his contract to justify keeping him and Fred Davis , the new It Guy at tight end who is due a raise.
The problem with logical, hard-fact assessments like that: They don’t necessarily square with what’s happening inside the walls at Ashburn.
“I’m not getting released,” Cooley said by telephone Thursday afternoon. “I’m what Joe Gibbs would call ‘a Redskin,’ ” he added, referring to the former coach’s designation for players he wouldn’t trade or cut.
Cooley said he sat and spoke with Coach Mike Shanahan for more than an hour Wednesday, the day it was decided he would be put on injured reserve for the rest of the season. He also spoke for an hour with General Manager Bruce Allen on Thursday.
The message from management: Come back healthy and your roster spot is secure.
“The conversations were about the steps that would be taken to get back on the field next year, how I would help Fred, my job responsibility now,” Cooley said. “I never asked about my future with the Redskins because we never had any talks that would lead me to believe otherwise.”
Unless they were paying serious lip service to the guy who’s caught more passes and piled up more yards as a tight end than anyone in franchise history, Shanahan and Allen, unsolicited, told Cooley he would remain with the Redskins.
“I was assured of that; you can say that,” Cooley said. “People can speculate my career is over in Washington all they want, but they don’t really know of the conversations I have had with the only people who make those kind of decisions. Now, the one conditional thing that could change their thinking is how well my knee responds to treatment and whether or not I get back to 100 percent. But as long as that happens — and I’m going to do everything I can to make that happen — I plan to retire here. I plan to win a Super Bowl here.”
If that happens, Cooley becomes an instant anomaly in Washington and beyond: the aging fan favorite who didn’t have to leave town for his happy ending.
Having seen Cooley grow up the past seven years, it’s hard to believe the rambunctious kid I met in 2004, with his affinity for ’80s hair bands and nothing but Yuengling bottlenecks in his refrigerator, now has pottery showings at his Leesburg gallery and will turn 30 next July.
Or that, eight years after Gibbs plucked him in the third round from Utah State, Cooley would wind up with more receptions as a tight end than all but 18 other players in league history.
My worst fear for Cooley is that he becomes the Redskins’ Don Mattingly. Through lean times, Donnie Baseball was the one thing a Yankee fan could count on before the team started winning championships again. But he wasn’t part of the renaissance.
Cooley’s mow-’em-down-for-another-15-yards-after-the-catch moments are some of the lone bright spots of the past decade for the Redskins. He’s one of the few good players to remember during bad times.
“It’d be awful if we were on the cusp of becoming a great team and I’m that injured guy in the press box watching us win in the playoffs,” Cooley said a week ago. “I’m Jeremy Shockey, sitting up there watching my teammates celebrate and I’m not part of it. That would be the worst.”
When the day comes to part ways with Cooley, there are other factors beyond football that must be weighed for a franchise currently undergoing an image makeover.
His candor off the field gives him that swashbuckling allure to the region’s fans, many of whom identify with Cooley’s off-beat, out-there persona. In many ways, he has become the heir apparent to Riggo. Cooley’s No. 47 jersey still a top-seller. Don’t think that doesn’t count for something in Ashburn.
Also, too much has been made of the money issue. His salary-cap number — roughly $5 million the past two years — is very reasonable given the going rate for elite tight ends. He doesn’t have any back-loaded deal that will cost the team down the road.
The main issue is health. Cooley’s broken finger suffered against the Eagles will heal, but the knee, operated on last January, is the long-term concern.
Now he has to see if that knee can respond to non-invasive treatment. One team employee with knowledge of the injury said Cooley would undergo some of the same platelet-spinning therapy used by other athletes. If that doesn’t work . . .
“Am I Vernon Davis, do I run a 4.4? No,” he said. “Do I have [New Orleans’s] Jimmy Graham’s ball skills, his unbelievable ability to go up and get it? No. But as far as field speed, I’m as fast as anyone when I’m healthy. I know what I am, and I know how to make the most of that.
“I know what my deficiencies are. I know what I do well. I truly believe in my heart that if I am back 100 percent healthy next year, I will make the Pro Bowl.
“The bottom line is, I’m glad Mike made the decision to put me on IR. Because I was too proud to stop playing. I needed someone to tell me to rest and make sure I rest.
“The only real fear that I have is that I come back and my knee won’t be better.”