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Cooley finally receiving message

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A year ago, Chris Cooley's head was in a month-long spin cycle.

Like the other members of the Washington Redskins' offense, Cooley was absorbing Al Saunders' monstrosity of a playbook. What made things doubly difficult was that Cooley had to learn the offense from three different angles — tight end, fullback and receiver — and completely change the way he ran his routes.

Cooley needed to hear the entire play call, construct what the words meant and visualize how the play was supposed to be executed — all in the time it took for him to get from the huddle to his position.

"I would be leaving the huddle trying to piece together the words and figuring out what I was supposed to do," he said.

But as the Redskins started their second week of training camp yesterday, Cooley's transition to Saunders' playbook and his philosophy on route-running was complete.

Instead of listening to quarterback Jason Campbell's entire play call, Cooley usually can guess what the call is after only two words. Instead of getting his mind and body in agreement over a new style of route-running, Cooley effortlessly can make cuts without slowing down.

The Redskins envision the result to be Cooley's biggest season. A free agent after this year, he has averaged 55 catches, 607.3 yards and 6.3 touchdowns since the Redskins traded into the third round to pick him in 2004.

If the first week of camp is any indication, Cooley could have career bests in catches (71), yards (774) and touchdowns (seven). Nobody on the Redskins' defense has been able to cover Cooley consistently.

"Not that I've really seen yet," tight end Todd Yoder said. "He really loves the routes they have for him in this offense."

Saunders envisions Cooley's role as similar to that of Tony Gonzalez in Kansas City.

"I expect Chris to be one of the dominant forces in what we do offensively," said Saunders, the Redskins' associate head coach-offense. "Like Tony was for us in Kansas City, he can be used as a multiple-threat receiver."

Cooley found his transition to Saunders' system a bigger deal than he expected. He didn't become completely comfortable until halfway through 2006. But he had a lot to deal with. Saunders' offense is a legendary 700 pages, and most weeks, Cooley said, the game plan would include 200 plays. Once he learned the new language, Cooley knew where he was supposed to go. But there also was a new way of getting there.

Saunders wants his receivers to run routes by never slowing down. That allows them to catch the pass in stride and maximize after-the-catch yards. Last year Cooley's average gain improved from 10.9 to 12.9 yards; his yards-after-the-catch improved from 7.0 to 7.4 yards, best among all NFL tight ends. Cooley hopes to increase that total to the 8.5-9.0-yard range this year.

"In college and with Coach Gibbs the first two years here, we were always taught to slow down and give a fake one way and then go another way," Cooley said. "Now we want don't want any loss of speed. I don't have to worry about any fakes, just run as fast as I can. It was a tough transition because it was weird at first to get my body and feel to keep moving. I didn't feel comfortable or feel I was making progress until halfway through last year."

During a play in yesterday's practice, quarterback Jason Campbell released the ball before Cooley came out of his break. The result was another completion.

"That's exactly what we want," Cooley said. "The whole idea of this offense is for Jason to throw the ball before the receiver is open. He knows where I'm going to be."

Said Campbell: "Chris is a big target [6-foot-3, 249 pounds] over the middle, and he has speed. Because he has so much speed for his position, he can stretch the field for us. If a team tries to double another guy, that will open things up for Chris."

Ideally, Cooley and Santana Moss will face a steady diet of single coverage. But a No. 2 receiver needs to emerge first. Last year, none did, and defenses swarmed Campbell's top two targets. If Cooley gets good matchups this year, the Pro Bowl could be in the offing — not a bad way to earn a new contract.

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