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End Comes Suddenly For Chris Cooley, Released Tuesday By Redskins

By ZAC BOYER

zboyer@freelancestar.com | @ZacBoyer

(Originally posted 8/28/12, 2:10 p.m.; Updated 8/28/12, 9:53 p.m.)

ASHBURN – Chris Cooley tried to force a smile on his downtrodden face. On so many occasions, his jovial, carefree attitude could get him through a difficult moment, but this time, he wiped his eye and briefly hung his head.

Cooley

If it were to end like this, it’s best it happen quickly.

Cooley, the wildly popular Washington Redskins’ tight end and the face of the franchise for the better part of the past decade, fought back tears and struggled with his emotions as he announced Tuesday he was being released by the team.

It wasn’t the most unexpected move, given the team’s financial constraints and its depth at the position, though a hastily called press conference predictably left many questions unanswered.

“It’s been awesome,” Cooley said, shortly after sharing the news. “I’ve been very, very fortunate to play for a franchise that has embraced me, and for a fan base that has embraced me the way that they have. This organization has changed my life in every way for the better, and I appreciate it. I’ve loved every minute of playing here, and it’s been a good run.”

Head coach Mike Shanahan said the decision to release Cooley, made earlier Tuesday, was an attempt to allow him to secure a starting role elsewhere in the league. Fred Davis has taken over as the team’s starter, though the team has increasingly used two, and sometimes three, tight ends on the field at once.

Cooley seemed to minimize the possibility of switching teams; a true fan of the Redskins and their history, he said he was unsure if he’d even consider doing so. Plus, with his release coming as teams need to shrink their rosters and the regular season beginning in a week, such an opportunity would seem unlikely.

“I’m very confident in my abilities to continue to play the game,” Cooley said. “It would be a tough decision for me to put on another jersey. It’s something that I really never had to imagine, so for now, I’ll take some time and make sure what I do in the future is exactly what I want to do.”

The longest-tenured player on the roster, Cooley, 30, was drafted in the third round by the Redskins out of Utah State in 2004. He grew into a reliable receiver, averaging more than 700 yards and 10 yards a catch from 2005-09, and with two receptions in the opener last September, he passed Jerry Smith to become the team’s all-time leader in receptions by a tight end.

Still, his health was a concern. He only played in four more games last season, hampered by inflammation in his left knee, before the decision was made to end his season prematurely for the second time in three years.

He returned to offseason workouts in a battle for playing time with Davis, Logan Paulsen and Niles Paul, whom the team converted to tight end from receiver during the offseason, and knowing the cramp on the roster, he willingly played fullback and on special teams in the preseason to try to demonstrate his value.

It would come with a heavy price tag. Cooley was scheduled to make $3.8 million this season, the fifth of a six-year, $30 million contract, and he counted for $6.23 million against the salary cap.

Shanahan said the Redskins never asked Cooley to restructure his contract or consider taking a pay cut out of respect. Only two players – left tackle Trent Williams and cornerback DeAngelo Hall – counted more against the salary cap this season than Cooley, who doesn’t have an agent.

“Any time you deal with people like Chris, or any veteran that has accomplished a lot on and off the football field, it’s always very, very tough to talk about things like this that eventually do happen to players,” Shanahan said. “But yeah, that’s as tough as it gets.”

Cooley was embraced by fans for his work ethic, which led him to become the Redskins’ all-time leader in receptions by a tight end. But he was beloved for his everyman persona, with a good-natured vibe allowing him to relate to nearly anyone he spoke to.

He scrawled the names and logos of several ‘80s hair bands on a pair of gray sweatpants, which he’d often wear around Redskins Park without shoes. During training camp, he would try to beat the heat by eschewing shorts altogether, stripping down to his boxer briefs before or during a practice.

“Just watching him as a player and in the film room and how he studies, he’ll be missed,” Davis said. “When I got an opportunity to play a couple years ago and last year, he was always in my ear, telling me little things that I can do better. He helped me adjust my game a lot, so I definitely appreciated having him here and learning from him.”

“He helped me get comfortable with this team [and] this offense,” quarterback Robert Griffin wrote on Twitter not long after Cooley’s announcement. “He is a legend in my mind and will be missed. Thank you, Chris Cooley.”

Cooley leaves the Redskins with 428 catches for 4,703 yards and 33 touchdowns. His 428 receptions rank him 19th all-time amongst tight ends in league history, and he ranks fifth amongst all Redskins players in receptions, ninth in receiving yards and ninth in receiving touchdowns.

“It’s been a pleasure to be a part of this team,” Cooley said. “I’m so excited for the group of guys and the coaches that are here this year. I think that there’s a lot in store for the Redskins. I think the future’s awesome.

“I can’t tell you how much I think of this staff and the players on this team. I’m thrilled for what they can accomplish, and I wish everyone here the best.”

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