- The Washington Times - Friday, December 24, 2004

It took one of the most vicious hits of the Washington Redskins’ season for rookie H-back Chris Cooley to feel he finally had arrived.

The play was a 12-yard pass in the Nov.28 loss at Pittsburgh. The ball, Cooley and Steelers linebacker James Farrior all arrived at roughly the same time. Cooley was slammed to the turf but immediately popped up.

“I think he wanted to put the ball in [Farrior’s] face or something,” tight ends coach Rennie Simmons said with a laugh. “But that was his attitude — ‘Hey, bring it on.’”

Cooley certainly brought it that day. His seven catches included two that converted fourth downs. One of those receptions was a touchdown, of which he now has five. Yesterday he called his performance against the NFL’s No.1 defense the point at which he shed his rookie mentality.

“After that game, I felt like, ‘Yeah, I’m a part of this team, and I’m going to be a part of this team,’” Cooley said.

Cooley’s arrival has played a key role in the Redskins finally gaining traction on offense and positioning themselves for an outside shot at the playoffs. Although no one will mistake him for the Kansas City Chiefs’ Tony Gonzalez or the New York Giants’ Jeremy Shockey, there is little doubt Cooley has become a big part of coach Joe Gibbs’ offense.

Over the past six weeks, Cooley has caught 21 passes and scored three touchdowns, emerging as the Redskins’ most reliable goal-line target and a resilient competitor. His improvement even led Gibbs to second-guess the decision to bring Cooley along slowly — a choice Simmons sounds like he opposed.

“I don’t want to say, ‘I told you so,’ but I felt all along he was that type of player,” Simmons said. “The one thing you can’t put into a player is that self-confidence. Even if they come up with a bad play, they remain confident that they can make plays. Chris has a tremendous amount of confidence in his abilities, and I think that’s going to [propel] him to another level.”

The crest of Cooley’s rookie year is coming just as he should be stymied by the “rookie wall.” It’s well-known in the NFL that rookies have difficulty performing in December, by which point all their previous football seasons ended or wound down considerably. Cooley, a third-round pick out of Utah State, conceded the last few weeks have been wearying.

“It doesn’t feel like a wall, it feels like dragging a plow the last month,” he said. “It just gets longer and a little harder to come in every day. And it’s not because I don’t love it. It’s just [that] we’ve been here forever, and it’s a lot of football.”

But Cooley’s combination of intelligence, toughness and great hands have pulled him through. Veteran offensive lineman Ray Brown has been impressed with how quickly Cooley has learned the varied responsibilities of an NFL H-back, and Gibbs loves how Cooley can hold onto the ball while getting drilled.

Perhaps Cooley’s most important attribute, though, is his knack for getting open.

“He just feels what we’re trying to do, and he feels what I’m expecting,” quarterback Patrick Ramsey said. “He’s always where you expect him to be. Some guys have the speed. Some guys have [other things]. He’s just got great awareness as far as where to be and how to get open.”

Cooley said the knack stems from “a couple things” — some tangible, such as studying the plays and opposing defenses, and others more nebulous.

“It’s a feeling,” he said with a shrug.

One thing that wasn’t much of a feeling was Farrior’s blow. Although it sent a shiver into everyone watching, it barely resonated with the rookie. In fact, it wasn’t until he saw it on film a few days later that he realized what an ugly shot it was.

The next big hit doesn’t concern Cooley, who considers a more worrisome task lead-blocking for running back Clinton Portis, in which he must break from his pass-catching comfort zone and tangle head-to-head with linebackers. Being able to perform such alien tasks makes Cooley believe he is becoming “an all-around type of tight end.”

“I feel like I’m improving in every area,” Cooley said. “I watch film from the beginning of the year and preseason to now and I think I look so much better out on the field. I feel better out there. I feel faster. And I also feel quite a bit stronger.”

He’s even learned how to celebrate a catch. After Farrior’s hit, teammates teased Cooley that he didn’t even make the first-down signal. He joked a few days later he just might do it if he got the chance.

Sure enough, in the Dec.12 game against the Philadelphia Eagles, he got pummeled on an important 31-yard catch. He leaped to his feet, ran straight upfield and gave an emphatic first-down sign.

Now he’s really arrived.

“Yeah,” Gibbs said with a laugh. “He got that out of the way. But he’s making plays for us. That’s one of the things we were missing earlier in the year.”

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