Chris Cooley’s first year as a sports-radio host and game analyst was supposed to be a celebration. The former Washington Redskins tight end played for last season’s NFC East champions, and when he launched his media career this summer, he fully expected to be talking about another winning team.
Instead, Cooley has spent weeks picking over the wreckage of one of the worst campaigns in franchise history. And as the season deteriorated into a 3-12 disaster filled with on-field blowouts and off-field controversies, one of Washington’s harshest critics has been a 31-year-old media rookie just 12 months removed from sharing a locker room with the players he now appraises.
“I literally thought we would win 11 games,” Cooley said this past week. “I didn’t think I’d be doing this kind of breakdown in any way, shape or form.”
Still, having played in the same scheme for the same coaches and with many of the same players responsible for this disappointment, Cooley was unusually positioned to diagnose the Redskins’ maladies. So as the failures mounted, he began doing a weekly film analysis of every player’s performance — stars and role players alike — on his ESPN 980 show. The results have been jarring.
Cooley identified players who looked like they weren’t giving maximum effort, players who weren’t talented enough to contribute and players who failed at their assignments. Reporters assigned to the Redskins beat began tuning in for his analysis, and fans buzzed over it.
“It’s become a monster; it gets almost as much response as anything we do,” said Chuck Sapienza, the station’s program director.
“I’m really amazed that he’s doing this because my experience with athletes is they’re hesitant to do it, especially with athletes they’ve played with,” said Andy Pollin, who has spent 22 years doing sports radio in the D.C. market. “He’s telling you that a guy like Josh Morgan isn’t interested in blocking on running plays. That kind of thing you just don’t hear. I find it educational, and again, I’m amazed at what I hear him say each week.”
After years in high-tech meeting rooms, Cooley now watches film the same way thousands of fans do: on his home computer, using the NFL’s “All 22” coaches’ film, which is available by subscription on the league’s Web site. Over the past month, he has spent about 10 hours a week breaking down film, rewinding plays a dozen or more times so that he can watch every movement made by every player.
He tries to look at the film like a coach would, assigning players pluses or minuses on virtually every snap and coming up with a weekly letter grade for every participant. He called it “the best part of my week.”
And yet as the team slid toward the bottom of the standings, his assessments have often been harsh, especially after the Redskins were routed by Kansas City at home Dec. 8. For example:
“I gave him a negative on almost every single special teams play,” Cooley said of Jose Gumbs.
“Biggers is a very poor tackler,” he said of defensive back E.J. Biggers.
“I just don’t believe Josh Morgan cares about playing that much,” he said of the wide receiver.
“I think this was the worst game I’ve seen Kory Lichtensteiger play,” he said of the guard.
“His technique right now, as far as dropping and throwing the ball, is dreadful,” he said of quarterback Robert Griffin III.”
“Kedric Golston played at a ‘D’ level,” he said of the defensive lineman.
“He cannot play nose tackle for this team,” he said of Barry Cofield.
“This is not the London Fletcher you’ve ever seen play before,” Cooley said of the retiring linebacker. “It’s not good. It really isn’t good.”
There was more, a litany of critiques for one player after another, mixed in with praise for the few Redskins he evaluated positively. Such assessments would sound harsh coming from a generic talking head, never mind from a friend and ex-teammate.
“Would you say something a different way potentially if you had it to get back? There’s no such button you can push,” said the team’s radio voice Larry Michael, who works with Cooley during game broadcasts, when he is similarly critical. “But I don’t think he has any regrets on what he has said, because he’s being honest. In his mind, that’s what he was hired to do.”
Cooley said four or five players have reached out to him with questions about his critiques, which they’ve mostly heard of second-hand. He told those players the same thing he’s said on his show, which airs 4-7 p.m. on weekdays: “If you want to show me where I’m wrong, I will take time out of my day at any time to sit down with you, and you can show me.”
And he said he doesn’t believe he has harmed any relationships.
“If I can’t be honest with my evaluation, then it undermines my credibility,” Cooley said. “I’m not gonna attack any of these guys personally. What I’ve said about Josh Morgan doesn’t say anything about him as a person; it just says he’s not trying very hard on the football field.”
After a recent practice, many players said they haven’t listened to the criticism from Cooley or any other media analyst. When the team is losing, several players said, they avoid the media entirely.
But one player after another praised Cooley’s football acumen and ability to evaluate others, especially on offense.
“Cooley knows everything,” said Niles Paul, who spent hours in the tight ends room with his former teammate. “He literally knows every position, down to the quarterback. Cooley criticized me in the room if I made a mistake, so I wouldn’t expect anything less from him.”
“He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever played with as far as understanding everybody’s responsibility in the offense,” said backup quarterback Rex Grossman, who added that Cooley’s analysis is more credible than any other in this market. “If somebody else in the local media played on this team for three years, maybe they would have a competition, but it’s not even close. They’re speculating; he’s not.”
Still, other players noted that without knowing the precise details of every assignment, even someone familiar with the playbook could make missteps.
“No doubt that Chris knows ball. I don’t mean to take that away from him,” guard Chris Chester said. “At the same time, there’s so much intricacy to each play and each scheme and each assignment that it’s very possible for something to look a certain way and in all reality be not closely related to the way it appears.”
In any case, Cooley benefits from his reputation as an unconventional cut-up, someone who can say nearly anything without making enemies.
“Not from Cooley,” tight end Fred Davis said when asked whether players would be offended by harsh words from an ex-teammate. “I don’t think anybody would care. That’s his personality, and being in that job, that’s the type of stuff you have to do anyway. If you’re controversial, people listen to you, you know what I mean?”
Cooley, of course, is not the only ex-Redskin to be highly critical of this struggling team. There are his ESPN 980 colleagues Doc Walker and Brian Mitchell, Comcast SportsNet analysts Trevor Matich and Shawn Springs, WUSA’s Darrell Green and 106.7 the Fan’s Fred Smoot and LaVar Arrington, among others. (Arrington also does analysis for The Washington Post.)
The difference is that Cooley played under the team’s current administration, a distinction that seems likely to end in the coming days.
“We just have this rare window where he knows all the plays inside and out,” said Steve Czaban, who co-hosts ESPN 980’s afternoon show with Cooley. “It’s a really unique window, and it’s a window that’s going to close to some extent because when the new coach comes in I doubt he’s going to have the type of access that he had before.”
While Cooley has been critical of the coaching staff — “You leave me feeling dirty when I get done listening to your press conferences,” he said of Mike Shanahan earlier this season — he retains good relationships with his former coaches. He has discussed several of his player evaluations in private conversations with Mike and Kyle Shanahan and was encouraged to find that the coaches agreed with his assessments. A new coaching staff might be less willing to swap information.
“Chris will not need that,” said Sonny Jurgensen, the longtime radio analyst with whom Cooley now shares the radio booth on game days. “He will be more comfortable in what we do in broadcasting. You don’t have to have the playsheet; you don’t have to be able to know what plays the offensive coaches are calling.”
Indeed, Cooley plans to turn his film focus to the NFL’s playoff teams in coming weeks, where he will be less familiar with the scheme and personnel. And while his familiarity with the Redskins’ playbook and roster might plummet after this season, he said that could actually make his life easier.
“You’ve got to figure this will be the hardest year,” he said. “I counted the number of guys I care about: It’s 25 or 30. Then there are guys I’m close to who I would feel bad if I said something [critical]: That’s probably 12 or 13. How many are still going to be here in three years? So yeah, it’ll get easier and easier.”