Veteran tight end Chris Cooley tried to hold back tears when the Redskins released him in late August. He believed the team had the brightest of futures, and the thought of not being part of that deepened his pain.
Exactly four months after his release, Cooley, the Redskins’ all-time leader in receptions by a tight end, savored being part of an historic turnaround that could culminate in an NFC East championship Sunday night. But he would hardly view his first division title and the Redskins’ first in 13 years as a culmination.
“A division title is cool, great – that’s no one’s goal,” he said Friday. “The goal is to win the Super Bowl. If we win the division title and lose in the first round, no one gives a damn. We don’t care. I don’t think this group of guys cares – 90 percent of this team hasn’t been playing for the Redskins long enough to think we haven’t won the division in 13 years. We’re here to win. We’re here to win it all. I’m here to win it all. If this for whatever case was my last year ever, I wouldn’t pat myself on the back five years from now and say, ‘Yeah, I was part of a team that won the division.’”
The Redskins’ turnaround has been special for Cooley, in particular, because he spent the first seven weeks of the season out of football. Washington re-signed the nine-year veteran after Fred Davis tore his left Achilles’ tendon against the New York Giants on Oct. 21.
He is familiar with the Redskins’ losing culture, and he sees the change this season.
“I think it’s really special for me because it’s been a completely united effort as far as the group of guys,” he said. “You’ve been around long enough to realize this is the first year that there hasn’t been distractions. There’s hasn’t been [drama] going on. There hasn’t been any outside influence. It has been a locker room and a staff that have kept working, kept believing in what they wanted to do and really played for each other and worked for each other.
“You see that with the players. You see that with the coaches. It has been pretty cool for me to see a staff, guys like Kyle [Shanahan, offensive coordinator] and Haz [defensive coordinator Jim Haslett], putting together game plans week after week after week for their players. That has got to be hard for a coordinator to put all pride aside and say, ‘This is what I want, but this is what my players do best, so let me do what my players do best.’ And it’s pretty cool to see that effort from the staff, and the players’ response has been terrific.
“This is the best that we’ve worked, I think, since I’ve been here,” Cooley continued. “There’s no one that doesn’t want to do it. There’s no one that has a problem with going out and practicing hard. The expectation is to go out and work hard. The expectation is to play hard. We’ve had some great leadership and it has translated throughout the season. Look at guys like Pierre blocking downfield and getting after guys. You look at the way that has spurred our receivers. You look at the way Alfred has run the ball. We have so many plays that get so much more yardage just because guys are playing harder than the team we’re playing against.
“We’re doing things right, and that’s what’s really cool. I think when I left the thought was we had the chance to do things right. We had unbelievable talent and cohesion for a group in training camp. It’s the first offense I’ve been in for three years, so it felt like it, as opposed to change, change, change, new players, new quarterback. We did have a new quarterback, but we had a lot of the o-line back. We had the staff all back. We had everyone work together. It was like, ‘Oh man, this is coming together fast.’”
Cooley kept the turnaround in a measured perspective before Sunday night’s game against Dallas.
“What’s crazy is that for as much as we’ve achieved, it’s nothing,” he said. “We’ve literally achieved nothing, and that’s really unbelievable. I thought for sure this team gets to 9-7 – and that’s when we’re at 6-6 – then we’re in the playoffs. Without a doubt. That’s the way the NFC picture looked at the time. So it’s wild is to think you go on this run, win six games in a row and beat a lot of good teams and it still might not be enough. It’s pretty wild, but looking at what we have to do this week is no different than what we’ve had to do for six weeks in a row.”