Monday, December 19, 2005

Chris Cooley came off the field after his third touchdown, went over to the stands and flipped the ball to his 19-year-old brother, Tanner, in the second row. Shortly after, as the H-back headed to the locker room at halftime, he put a finger to his lips as if to say “shush” to the television camera following him.

It was a wasted gesture.

The Washington Redskins’ poorly kept secret had a breakout game against his team’s hated rival in a contest loaded with playoff implications. The short-yardage receiving specialist, in his second season out of Utah State, etched his place in Redskins-Cowboys lore.

“This is No. 1 in my career all time, ever,” Cooley said, flashing an innocent smile through his scraggly beard. “I will be on a high all week.”

It was Cooley’s first multi-touchdown game of his career and doubled his season total. He became the first Redskins player to catch three scoring passes since Michael Westbrook against the Arizona Cardinals in 1998.

Cooley, a prototypical Joe Gibbs tight end with reliable hands, scored the Redskins’ first two touchdowns on catches of 8 and 2 yards. It wasn’t until his third score, however, that he flashed his big-play potential.

The 6-foot-3, 265-pound target caught a pass just beyond the line of scrimmage. He cut inside, bounced off a defender and found a seam down the left sideline for a 30-yard touchdown.

“Right when I caught the ball, I turned and put the breaks on,” said Cooley, a third-round draft pick in 2003. “The first guy slid past me. There was another guy, and I kind of just lowered my shoulder and ran right through it, and I saw the end zone after that. I was a little surprised because usually more guys get to me. I am usually not fast enough to go all the way.”

It was a welcome sight for the Redskins, who have been searching desperately for a receiver to complement Santana Moss since David Patten was lost for the season in Tampa, Fla., on Nov. 13 and James Thrash was hurt the following week.

Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell said Cooley has evolved into a “go-to guy” whose role has increased because of the injuries.

“His role has always been real big,” Brunell said. “Hopefully that will continue. When guys go down, other guys have to step up. And Chris certainly has done that.”

Cooley also had a 19-yard pickup off a screen pass. Cooley, who entered the game second in the NFC in receptions among tight ends behind the New York Giants’ Jeremy Shockey, had six for 71 yards yesterday. With 60 catches this year, he is eight shy of breaking the franchise’s single-season record for a tight end/H-back set by Jerry Smith in 1967.

Cooley, who has been trying out the nickname “Captain Chaos,” now has 12 touchdowns in less than two years as a pro.

“I have never seen a tight end break as many tackles as he does,” Redskins receiver Santana Moss said.

About the only thing Cooley didn’t do right yesterday was give the footballs from his first two touchdowns to Tanner, a freshman football player at Utah State. Tanner specifically asked his brother for a souvenir if he scored.

“The first one [the officials] took away from me,” said Cooley, whose family was visiting from Logan, Utah. “The second one I threw all the way up in the air. I said if I score again, I have to remember to give him the ball.”

And on a near-perfect day for him and the Redskins, he did.

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