- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Al Saunders knows offense in general and star tight ends in particular. Two decades ago in San Diego, he had Kellen Winslow, who’s now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The last five years in Kansas City, he had Tony Gonzalez, who’s on track for Canton.

See why third-year Washington Redskins tight end Chris Cooley is excited about Saunders’ arrival?

“A spark needed to be added and it could have just been the two receivers [Brandon Lloyd and Antwaan Randle El], but Coach [Joe] Gibbs knew there was a chance to get the best there was out there and he moved,” Cooley said yesterday morning at Redskin Park while sifting through a handful of fan mail. “I look forward to doing some of the things Tony did for Al in Kansas City.”

And Saunders looks forward to using Cooley the same way Winslow (three 1,000-yard receiving seasons) and Gonzalez (two 1,000-yard seasons, seven Pro Bowls) were used.

Although he may not match his 71-catch total from last year, Cooley is confident his number of big plays will increase markedly.

“I’m excited,” he said, “because I’ve got that slow-tight end, can’t-make-the-plays-downfield, can’t-get-downfield reputation. But if I get more of those 60-yard catches like in Seattle last year, I’ll get over that stigma, get the H-back title out of here, and have people believe I can be an explosive tight end in the NFL.”

Here are four reasons why Cooley should be excited and stands an excellent chance to shed the label he so detests:

1. Room to roam

Because of injuries and ineffectiveness, Santana Moss and Cooley became the Redskins’ top two (only two?) options in the passing game last season. And opposing defenses covered Cooley accordingly, using a steady stream of double teams. It made a small difference. Cooley had two catches each (for a combined 20 yards) against Philadelphia and in the playoffs against Tampa Bay.

“It was really tough for me because it was a situation that I hadn’t dealt with in a long time,” he said. “Trying to work routes in double coverage that I had been running wide open on all season wasn’t something I had practiced a lot and wasn’t something I was comfortable doing.”

The first sign of Cooley taking advantage of the new receivers came in Saturday’s scrimmage against Baltimore. With Moss, Lloyd and/or Randle El attracting attention on the outside, the middle of the field opened up for Cooley.

“A lot of things we’re trying to do with Chris is give him experience and exposure going down the field,” Saunders said. “His repertoire has been mostly short and medium routes and running after the catch.”

2. The Saunders factor

Partly out of necessity (not a ton of talent at receiver) and partly because he was so good, Gonzalez became a focal point of Saunders’ passing offense in Kansas City. In five seasons with Saunders, he made the Pro Bowl each year and averaged 77.4 catches for 953 yards and nearly seven touchdowns. He had at least 63 catches and six touchdowns a season and had a monster 2004 with 102 catches for 1,258 yards.

Most impressive is Gonzalez’ average gain (12.3 yards a catch) and receptions of more than 20 yards (65). Cooley spent time this offseason watching Chiefs videotape and said he’s running a lot of the same patterns Gonzalez did in Kansas City.

“We watched a little bit of Rams and Chiefs tape early and it helped because I could watch the picture and see how it was done,” he said. “It’s the same as what they did there, as far as I can see. I’m starting to get really comfortable. A lot of the routes are different than my first two years. Now it’s all speed stuff. There aren’t any fakeout- or head move-type routes. I have to get to a spot as fast as I can. At first, it was tough to figure out. On an in route, I had to know my eight steps and to get the feeling of breaking fast and not slowing down. That was different.”

Part II of the Saunders effect is moving Cooley around.

“Everywhere — any position you can imagine,” Cooley said. “X, Y, Z [receiver positions], tight end, hand on the ground, halfback. I’ll be everywhere.”

3. Trust from the QB

Last season, it seemed that Mark Brunell often looked for Cooley when he was forced out of the pocket. Cooley became Brunell’s safety valve.

“From right when I got here, Mark and I have got along well,” Cooley said. “I feel I have a pretty honest relationship with him. When I come back to the huddle and he asks if I was open, I’ll be honest. If I say yes, he’ll know next time. And sometimes I’ll say, ‘Dude, there was nothing there.’ And I make plays for him. When he’s under pressure, I’ll find him and help him out. We’ve built a great chemistry. When you make big plays for a guy, he’ll keep going to you. That’s a big reason why I caught 71 balls last year.”

When teams had success handcuffing Moss late in the season — he had three catches at St. Louis, two against Dallas — Brunell went to Cooley, five catches (one touchdown) against the Rams and six catches (three touchdowns) against the Cowboys.

“We’ve been together for a couple years now, and I feel as comfortable with him as much as anybody else,” Brunell said.

4. Post-catch ability

Cooley’s per-catch average rose from 8.5 to 10.9 yards last year, and he had five receptions of at least 23 yards. Although the league doesn’t publish yards-after-catch statistics, Cooley had several long gains after receiving a dump-off pass from Brunell.

Saunders said a realistic goal for any tight end is 12 yards a reception.

“I caught a lot of passes three, four yards off the line and then I would run for six or seven yards,” Cooley said. “From being in the offense for four months, every ball I’m catching is 15 yards downfield, so I know I can have plays of 20-plus yards. I know I can have explosive plays.”

See why he’s excited?

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