It's almost like Chris Cooley has been on the Physically Unable to Perform List for the first seven weeks of the season. Except, of course, that he was willing and able to perform; the Washington Redskins simply preferred other tight ends — temporarily — and released him in training camp.
But Cooley was back Wednesday, smiling for the cameras and thanking his many fans for their support during his trying, jobless times. The big question, though, a two-parter, is: How much can he contribute in the wake of Fred Davis' season-ending Achilles injury and, just as important, how much do Mike and Kyle Shanahan really need him to contribute?
No offense likes to lose a weapon like Davis, a receiver to whom Attention Must Be Paid. Among tight ends with 50-plus catches last year, only New England's Rob Gronkowski (14.7) and Green Bay's Jermichael Finley (13.9) averaged more yards per grab than Fred (13.5). What makes it worse for the Redskins is that they already were missing Pierre Garcon, their putative No. 1 wideout, who has been sidelined with a toe ailment.
But the passing game has been getting by all right without Garcon, and it might be able to survive Davis' absence, too. Why? Because it's a different offense this year with Robert Griffin III at the controls, less reliant on any single receiver. Cooley said it himself: "The offense is all over the place. They're doing so many things now that we haven't done before. What Robert's done is unbelievable. It's a different [attack because of his uniqueness]."
The numbers bear this out. In their first seven games last season, the Redskins passed 250 times and ran 171. In other words, they were 59.4 percent pass. Through seven games this year, they've passed 198 and run 250, making them 53.6 percent run. That's a pretty big swing from one season to the next. And it's mostly attributable to Griffin, who has 64 rushing attempts — some planned, some unplanned. (Rex Grossman and John Beck had 17 in the same stretch in 2011.)
In addition to being less tilted toward the pass, the current offense spreads the ball around more. The top four receivers — Davis (24), Leonard Hankerson (22), Santana Moss (19) and Josh Morgan (18) — are within six catches of one another. Also, Fred's totals have dropped quite a bit from last year. Through Week 7 last season, he had 36 receptions for 517 yards and two touchdowns. His stats this season are 24-325-0.
So he may not leave as much of a void as some think. The offense, after all, has been functioning quite well despite decreased output from him. As for blocking, the Redskins shouldn't lose anything when Cooley is on the field; that was always one of his strengths. Whether he can still be a receiving threat is another matter, but Garcon — don't forget about him — might be able to help in that area if he ever returns to the lineup.
Besides, this seems to be more of a wide receiver offense than a tight end offense. The days of Cooley catching 70 to 80 balls a year — Davis was on pace for 79 last season when he began serving his suspension — may be gone. As Moss says, "The thing that excites me about this offense is that everybody can step up and be a part of what we're doing. Everybody can feed off each other. [Despite getting fewer opportunities than in the past,] I'm happy because I know we have a better team."
As we're seeing, offensive balance — run-pass balance, share-the-ball balance — has all kinds of benefits. The Redskins are fifth in the league in total offense (406.3 yards a game), fourth in scoring (28.7, thanks in part to four defensive TDs) and, basically, have been making defenses defend every square inch of the field.
"I think with our offense and with Robert back there, we can control the tempo of the game and we can control the situations we're in," Kory Lichtensteiger said. "We're not in drop-back passing situations every down like maybe we were last year. The defense has to respect everything now. And we can use the play-action on third-and-4 instead of third-and-12, when it wouldn't be as effective.
"It helps everybody. Because offensive linemen don't want to get in a game where it's drop-back, drop-back, drop-back. Running a play-action is much more preferable for us."
Again, nobody's too thrilled when a tight end like Davis goes down. And in the past, it undoubtedly would have been a huge blow to the offense.
This time, though, the Redskins might actually live to tell about it, even if Cooley is just a 30-year-old shadow of his former self. They have a real offense now, remember — and a real quarterback.
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