- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2011

The season opener against the New York Giants was four days away, and Chris Cooley was climbing the walls of Redskins Park. Because of the wet weather, Mike Shanahan had changed practice to an indoor walk-through, and Cooley was counting on something more substantial, something that would help him knock the rust off and make him feel better about the knee he’d been rehabbing. He’d hardly been on the field, after all, since camp began. In fact, because of the lockout, he’d hardly played since the 2010 finale, on Jan. 2.

Into Shanahan’s office he went. “I’m the only guy here that’s [upset] that we’re not going to go out on the field and practice today,” he told the coach.

The two-time Pro Bowl tight end was on edge all week. The next day he took off the cumbersome brace he’d been wearing on his left knee and all but threw it in the trash. “I had a calf strain from wearing it,” he says. “And I felt better without it. I think it was a hindrance.”

As game day approached, Cooley didn’t feel like a nine-year veteran, one of the best at his craft. He felt more like a rookie, like somebody who hadn’t proved anything.

“I was nervous,” he said. “I’m not going to lie to you. I had a lot of anxiety about how I’d be able to perform.”

He’s smiling now - because the verdict is in. The Redskins chopped the pesky Giants down to size 28-14, and No. 47 caught both passes thrown to him, gaining 21 yards and contributing to two touchdown drives. After watching a tape of the game Monday morning, he came away convinced that, despite what Troy Aikman kept telling Fox viewers, he wasn’t the least bit “hobbled.”

“I know I can play better,” he says, “but I was pleased with what I was able to do. I was 100 percent on assignments. I thought for the most part I blocked well. … I don’t know if I felt rusty. [But] I didn’t feel like myself - yet.” He also was happy to note that “I was running down the seam faster than I was last year.”

That’s because he’s 20 pounds lighter, lighter than he’s been, he claims, “since I was 18.” It was clear at the start of camp, when his surgically repaired knee began acting up, that he needed to take off some weight if he was going to return to action by his target date, Week 1. (Team doctors and the training staff were telling him he might not make it back until the third or fourth game.) So now, after playing last season at “close to 260,” he’s tipping the scales at a lithe 234.

“It felt great being lighter. The biggest thing I noticed and the thing I was concerned about was not having great endurance. [But] I was never tired. And obviously I didn’t play all the plays in the game, but I did play more than I expected. I’ll have to get used to [having less heft] in the running game. I’ll have to get used to maybe playing with better leverage, playing with better technique, because I notice it a little bit when I’m [blocking] these guys. But as I continue to get my feet under me, I think in the passing game I’ll just be so much better playing lighter.”

He’ll never be as lithe as Jerry Smith, though. Smith is the Redskins great Cooley passed in the record book Sunday when he made his second grab - which gave him 422 for his career, the most by a Washington tight end. Smith, who stood 6-foot-3 like Cooley, played at a mere 208 pounds in the, uh, pre-megavitamin era (1965-77).

Rest assured Cooley has heard of him. “Somebody asks about Redskins history in this locker room, I know more than anyone else,” he says. He even knows that Smith, one of Sonny Jurgensen’s favorite targets, “had more [touchdown catches] than me. He had a lot.” Smith certainly did - 60, which was the NFL record for tight ends until 2003. (Cooley, with 33, is barely halfway there.)

“I’m definitely proud of it,” Cooley said of his new team mark. And he has no intention, of course, of stopping here. “I’m going to continue to have receptions for this team, and in today’s football [his final total will] be a hard record to break. Someone will have to play football for this team for a long time to break what I’m going to do.”

If Fred Davis, the other tight end, keeps playing the way he did against the Giants, though, Cooley may not catch passes at quite the same pace he has in the past. Davis had five receptions for a career-best 105 yards and - dare I say it - looked very Antonio Gates-like at times. But Cooley doesn’t seem the least bit concerned. Excited is more like it - excited at the damage he and Davis can do in a two-tight-end set, which the Redskins used fairly often Sunday.

“When both of us are in,” he said, “the defense has to decide whether it wants to play us in a base defense or a nickel defense, and that can create mismatches. We’ll create a lot of big plays if teams play us in base [and cover one of them with a linebacker].”

So ends our story of the tight end who hardly touched a football from January to September, then stepped from the trainer’s room right into the opening game (or darn close). There was nothing that was going to keep Cooley from contributing to the cause against the Giants. To him, “Your mental ability to heal yourself is as important as any external ability.” Besides, he adds, “There’s something special happening in our locker room right now, and I’m not willing to not be a part of it.”

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