Cooper Controversy: Why he’s still an Eagle

Many fans are irritated by the fact that receiver Riley Cooper has not yet been cut by the team.  From a fans’ perspective, Cooper looked to have an abysmal 2014 season, dropping crucial passes that could have had huge ramifications on games.  To top it off, the guy doesn’t appear to be a standout personality on the surface, and is certainly not deserving of his rich 5 year 22.5 million dollar contract (with 8 million guaranteed) based on last year’s production, in which he amassed 577 yards on 55 receptions and scored only 3 touchdowns.

It was an extreme drop-off from the 2013 season in which he gained over 800 receiving yards and scored 8 touchdowns.  To the fans wondering why he is still on the team, the answer is not so simple. Chip Kelly has had to overcome many obstacles throughout his two year tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles, though the Riley Cooper racial slur debacle has proven to be perhaps one of the biggest thorns in his side to this date.  Drunk and angry that he wasn’t able to get backstage at a Kenny Chesney concert, the former Florida Gator was caught on tape yelling that he would “fight every n****r” in the crowd. He later apologized, though many individuals in the media and in the locker room had a hard time believing the sincerity of his statement.

Cooper’s detractors argued that people are often the most honest when they are drunk, as they have little filter.  The word he used was incredibly offensive to the majority of players on the team who were black, especially considering the context with which the word was said.  Kelly was going to have to make a tough decision on how to handle the situation.  Although the Eagles still had a considerable amount of talent at the receiver position in DeSean Jackson and Jason Avant among others, Kelly opted not to cut the receiver the team selected in the 5th round of the 2010 draft.  Perhaps it was due to Maclin’s season-ending ACL injury, or perhaps Kelly saw a role for him to take advantage of his strengths.  All that is certain is that although being fined “a good amount of money” according to Cooper, Kelly permitted him to return to the team after only a brief break and a couple days of counseling.

This quick return may have been a mistake, stirring up much controversy. The way he has handled Cooper has haunted Kelly to this day amid accusations by former running back LeSean McCoy and former positional coach Tra Thomas of being a racist.

ESPN personality Steven A. Smith echoed McCoy and Thomas’ sentiments, saying in his show “First Take” that Kelly cut, traded, or let walk three talented black stars in DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy, and Jeremy Maclin,
while keeping the significantly less talented Cooper.  While Smith’s stance is ludicrous, Riley Cooper’s presence on the roster admittedly gives him just enough ammunition for him to make a feasible argument.  In addition, Cooper being on the roster could be seen as questionable to some due to Kelly’s emphasis on keeping high-character guys.  Jackson and McCoy clearly have questionable character, but doesn’t Cooper also fall into that same spectrum? Don’t be so fast to judge. Maybe his actions that night were merely a huge mistake; the receiver never has given off the impression of being too smart.  Said Michael Vick in 2013, knowing of the importance of second chances, “I think he’s definitely become a better player because of the issue.  Maybe it was a way for him to get the best out of himself.” Elizabeth Merrill, an ESPN senior writer, wrote that none of the various former and current teammates and coaches she interviewed had any recollection of Cooper making racist remarks.  Kelly had repeatedly said that Cooper’s action had shocked him, as it wasn’t the Riley Cooper that he had come to know throughout practices.

060315_riley-cooper_600According to center Jason Kelce, if Cooper was a jerk, nobody would have accepted him back.  Currently Cooper is known as an incredibly hard worker that does what the coaches ask and fights hard for his teammates on game day.  That appears to be everything Kelly covets in a player from a cultural standpoint.  Besides, Kelly claims to have gotten rid of both Jackson and McCoy solely due to them not fitting his scheme.  Kelly prefers tall receivers with good hands and running backs that are north-south runners, ones that hit the designated holes rather than dance  from side to side, trying to make the home run play.

Perhaps Cooper is a good schematic fit for the Eagles.  At 6’4 and weighing 230 lbs., Cooper fits the bill as a big and tall receiver.  While whether he has good hands is questionable, working in Cooper’s favor is his underrated ability to track balls in the air.  This skill could have come from all the time he spent playing baseball at Florida.  In watching some of his highlights, you can see him track the ball nicely in touchdown receptions versus the Packers, Lions, and Raiders.  If Cooper has these favorable traits, why did he regress so much?  Perhaps he had a better connection with Nick Foles than with Mark Sanchez.  Maybe he is better catching deep floaters; he was targeted deep much more during his breakout season.

Receivers coach Bob Bicknell disagrees with the sentiment that Cooper regressed at all, instead giving off the impression that he’s even improved. Per Marcus Hayes of philly.com, Bicknell explained how Cooper’s good blocking on the perimeter greatly helped the run game and how him quickly running through opposing secondaries left other receivers open.

He also mentioned Jordan Mathews stealing some of what could have been Cooper’s touchdowns.  He is essentially naming Cooper an unsung hero of the Eagles offense.  It is true that fans and media members alike tend to judge receivers off of touchdowns and flashy plays rather than their full contribution to the team. Another reason for Cooper’s presence on the 2015 roster could be the Eagles being prudent fiscally.

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - DECEMBER 11:  Riley Cooper #14 of the Philadelphia Eagles warms up before a NFL game against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium on December 11, 2011 in Miami Gardens, Florida.  (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Riley Cooper

Let’s just say that if Cooper was going to get cut this year, it would have happened by now, as the “remaining $1 million of his 2015 [contract] fully guarantees if [he’s on]on the roster 3/14/15,” according to spotrac.com. Cooper has a dead cap of 7.2 million dollars for 2015.  Perhaps the Eagles feel that it is not worth having unnecessary dead money counting against the cap when they could still utilize Cooper’s skills as a tremendous blocker. It is uncertain where the fifth year receiver stands on the depth chart, though seeing him as the number 2 receiver instead of either second year pro Jordan Mathews or newly drafted Nelson Agholor would be a shock.  While a huge disappointment, at least to many people, last season, he would certainly make an adequate third or fourth receiver, albeit an expensive one.

Currently, however, Josh Huff appears to be the more enticing play for third receiver, as he has tremendous upside.  What makes him exciting his big YAC potential, as the receiver has tremendous ability with the ball in his hand after the catch. It is rumored that the Eagles are more excited about Huff’s potential than Mathews,’ but that is a story for another day.

At the very least, Cooper could provide a veteran presence in a young receivers room, mentoring the rising stars.  At the very best, Cooper could be used in goal-line or short yardage situations for his good size and strong blocking, as well as making occasional contributions in regular receiving situations. In hindsight, the Eagles probably wish that they had never signed Cooper to that contract, but alas, it cannot be taken back.  They must work with what they have.

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