The best pass-catching tight end in Washington Redskins history shuffled down the steps and out the backdoor of Redskins Park on Tuesday afternoon. Instead of heading to the right and on down to the practice fields, as he did so many times over eight memorable seasons, he made a left.
Chris Cooley, wearing a light blue golf shirt and jeans and flanked by team public relations officials, walked over to the podium and announced he had been released by the only NFL employer he has known.
He held back tears while running down a list of thank-yous. He tried to put into words a football career that has reached a crossroads.
"The Washington Redskins are releasing me today," Cooley said in the most somber of tones. "So today, for the time being, will be my last day as a Redskin."
That qualifier — "for the time being" — is enough to give the legions of Cooley fans hope that the final chapter of his Redskins story has not been written.
Coach Mike Shanahan said Cooley wants to be a starter for an NFL team. And since Fred Davis has earned that status with the Redskins, the team granted him an opportunity to seek a starting spot with another organization.
Cooley did not mention that desire, though, during a 4-minute, 30-second speech. He did not field reporters' questions, and Shanahan would not say whether Cooley asked to be released.
If Cooley, the longest tenured player on the team until Tuesday, did request his release, he prioritizes taking a pay cut to play extensively over serving as a backup for the Redskins. The emotion with which Cooley spoke Tuesday clouds that possibility.
"This organization has changed my life in every way for the better, and I appreciate it," Cooley said, speaking slowly to maintain his composure. "I've loved every minute of playing here. It's been a good ride. It's been a pleasure."
If Cooley simply was beaten out for a roster spot by tight ends Niles Paul and Logan Paulsen, and Shanahan and general manager Bruce Allen don't want to keep a fourth tight end for whatever reason, Cooley has accepted that outcome.
"There's really no hard feelings for me," Cooley said. "I talked to all the coaches, and it's OK with me that they're moving in the direction they're moving. Since Bruce and Mike have been here, I've trusted everything that they've done and everything that they want to do. Even though I'm not a part of that today, I still do believe in what they're doing."
Shanahan, however, emphasized his belief that Cooley can still contribute at the NFL level.
Cooley was heavily scrutinized during training camp because he finished last season on injured reserve with a left knee injury that required surgery. After turning 30 in July, he had to prove he could still run and catch and block -- talents that made him a fan favorite. With 428 receptions for 4,703 yards and 33 receiving touchdowns, he leaves as the most productive receiving tight end in Redskins history.
"I felt like he came back hard," Davis said. "Coming off the injury, the hand thing and the knee thing, I think he got over that. He was out here practicing every day. He didn't miss any days and was running pretty good routes and catching the ball pretty well."
"He practiced well," Shanahan added. "I thought he played well. I think he's got an opportunity to start in the National Football League. He's healthy, and we'll just see where it plays out."
The Redskins save $3.8 million against the 2012 salary cap by releasing Cooley, but Shanahan insisted money was not a factor in the decision. He said the Redskins never approached Cooley about restructuring his contract, which had two years remaining.
So for now, Cooley can look for a job ahead of Friday's final league-wide roster cuts, while the door in Ashburn stays cracked open behind him.
"There's a lot of scenarios that could happen here in the next week," Shanahan said.
Said Cooley: "I have every belief that I can be not only a productive player, but a starter in this league. It would be a tough decision for me to put on another jersey. It's something that I've really never had to imagine. For now, I'll take some time and make sure what I do in the future is exactly what I want to do."
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