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The Definitive Answer to the Cooley Question

Should the Redskins sign Chris Cooley? History has an answer for us.

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Let me first say that I love Chris Cooley.  He hosts a very entertaining and informative radio show on ESPN 980, he seems to be a good guy and he was a great player and Redskin.  In fact, he was probably the second best tight end in Redskins franchise history behind only Jerry Smith.

Chris Cooley Statistics Rec Rec Yards Rec TD Pro Bowl
Career Values 429 4,711 33 2
All Time Franchise TE Rankings 1st 2nd 2nd t-1st

That still doesn't even do him justice though, because he ranks in the top 50 among tight ends in NFL history in each of the four categories listed above.  That may very well make Chris Cooley one of the fifty greatest players at his position in the history of the game.

Now that you know how I feel about the guy, hopefully you'll believe that I'm being objective when I say that I'm strongly against the Washington Redskins signing him.  Adding Cooley might give nostalgic fans a warm and fuzzy feeling inside, but in my opinion it ultimately would not be a net positive when it comes to helping the team win games.

A successful comeback is not impossible, but the reality is that the odds are stacked firmly against it happening.  This is an opinion based in history and in fact, and not one based on emotion and hope.  Here are the facts and seven reasons not to bring number 47 back to Washington.

1. Chris Cooley's Play Began to Decline Seven Years Ago

Cooley was fantastic in the early parts of his NFL career.  So much so that his production through his first seven years and up until his age 28 season have only been matched by a handful of other players, most of whom are Hall of Famers.

Year Games Targets Rec Rec Yards Rec TD
2004 16 63 37 314 6
2005 16 103 71 774 7
2006 16 95 57 734 6
2007 16 110 66 786 8
2008 16 111 83 849 1
2009 7 45 29 332 2
2010 16 126 77 849 3
2011 5 13 8 65 0
2012 9 3 1 8 0

However, we can see that his numbers began to drop off after his pro bowl 2007 and 2008 seasons.  Much of this was a result of missed games due to injury, but the truth is that his play was also sharply declining even when he was on the field.

Year Yards/Rec Catch % YPRR Total PFF DYAR DVOA
2004 8.5 58.7% N/A N/A 0 -7.2%
2005 10.9 68.9% N/A N/A 141 12.9%
2006 12.9 60.0% N/A N/A 76 5.3%
2007 11.9 60.0% 1.71 8.9 95 5.9%
2008 10.2 74.8% 1.84 2.5 82 4.3%
2009 11.4 64.4% 1.87 2.4 10 -3.6%
2010 11.0 61.1% 1.51 -4.0 -34 -11.6%
2011 8.1 61.5% 1.12 -2.0 -25 -36.4%
2012 8.0 33.3% 0.44 0.5 -6 -36.4%

When we move away from the basic counting stats and look at Cooley's efficiency numbers and advanced metrics it becomes obvious that he just wasn't the same player in his latter years as a Redskin.  He was able to put up some decent numbers in 2010, but he did so much less efficiently than he had in previous seasons.  The fact is that all of his statistics, basic and advanced, steadily worsened from 2008 until his last year with the team in 2012.

Why should we except a player that has not had a productive season in five years to come in and produce for the team now.  A player that was 28 at the time and that is now 33.

2. He's Old as Dirt

Yes, Chris Cooley is 33-years old.  Many people would tell you that they are or were in their prime at age 33, but in the NFL 33 is practically ancient (unless you're a good quarterback or kicker).  Just how old would that make Cooley relative to his potential tight end peers though?

Well, I'm glad you asked, or at least that I asked for you, because below I have ranked 120 active tight ends by their age on the first day of the 2015 season.  These tight ends were chosen based on the final 53-man roster projections done by ESPN's NFL Nation sites prior to the start of training camps.  I also consulted with team depth charts and added several extra guys to ensure that as few players as possible were missed.

If Chris Cooley returns to the NFL this year, he will be the fourth-oldest tight end in the league behind only Ben Watson and future Hall of Famers Antonio Gates and Jason Witten.  Or to put it another way, he is the 117th oldest tight end in this group.  At age 33 he would be roughly seven years older than both the average and the median age of these players.

Perhaps Chris Cooley was hampered by injuries late in his career though and that is what caused the drop in his production.  With two full years to heal and rest maybe he would be back to normal.  Once a good receiver, always a good receiver, right?  Wrong.

3. Old Tight Ends Aren't Good Receiving Tight Ends

The performance of almost every athlete suffers when they enter their thirties and it is no different for tight ends.  To help illustrate this point, I've listed the average receiving totals for all tight ends between the ages of 31 and 33 since the year 2000.  Where these numbers would have ranked among tight ends in the 2014 season has also been included in the bottom row of the table.

TE Age 31-33 Since 2000 Rec Rec Yards Rec TD Y/G
Group Average 23.8 245.6 1.8 17.3
Hypothetical 2014 Ranking 37th 36th 43rd 44th

Well, this certainly is not what the Cooley comeback truthers wanted to see.  These numbers were not a result of a small sample either, as the average was derived from a group of over 120 players; 120 players that averaged over 9 starts in the seasons in question.  Even if Cooley does catch on with the Redskins or another team, I don't really foresee him getting many, if any starts.

It was also somewhat generous to include 31 and 32-year old tight ends in this group, but at least that should keep the "more tread on the tires" crowd at bay on this point.

There is one valid argument that his supporters might bring up here though, and that is that Chris Cooley is not your average tight end.  I must admit that he is far above average in almost every respect.  Information gleaned by comparing Cooley to a list of tight ends littered with less talented players like Walter Rasby, Donald Lee, Robert Royal and Kris Mangum just isn't adequate enough to write him and his hopes of a successful comeback off just yet.

4. Player Comparisons and the Tight End Retirement Home

Pro Football Reference lists a set of ten comps for the players in their database for every year between a player's third and final seasons in the league.  They also list full career comps that take longevity into account.

I used this resource to create something of a Frankenstein monster group of comps to see how long the players whose careers most closely mirrored Chris Cooley's played and how those that played at age 33 fared in those seasons.  The group was comprised of his top five career comps and the top five for his seventh and ninth seasons.

The reasoning for using year seven and year nine is not as obvious as it is for the career comps.  I used year nine, which was his final year, to encompass his entire career while also making longevity less of a factor.  I also included the top five from his seventh year, because I wanted to pretend as if his lowly eighth and ninth seasons never happened.

Two additional comps, Owen Daniels and Raymond Chester, were also added to the group to provide a bigger sample size.  Both players showed up as comps in four different years throughout Cooley's time in the NFL.

Player Comp Final Year Age Age 33 Rec Age 33 Rec Yards Age 33 Rec TD
Billy Joe DuPree 33 12 142 1
Jay Novacek 33 62 705 5
Raymond Chester 33 13 93 1
Russ Francis 35 41 505 1
Rodney Holman 35 25 244 2
Jim Whalen 28 N/A N/A N/A
Paul Coffman 32 N/A N/A N/A
Todd Heap 32 N/A N/A N/A
Doug Cosbie 32 N/A N/A N/A
Mike Barber 32 N/A N/A N/A
Brent Celek 30/Active N/A N/A N/A
Owen Daniels 33/Active N/A N/A N/A
AVERAGE 32.5 30.6 337.8 2.0
Average w/ Zeros 32.5 15.3 168.9 1.0

This presents something of a mixed bag for Cooley's comeback prospects.  Five of these players weren't able to stick around long enough to see their age 33 seasons, five of  the others actually did last that long, two of which definitely had strong seasons as receivers.  The remaining two players in the group are still active, with one of them turning 33 before the end of the season and the other with three years to go.

If we take out the active players, then that leaves us with somewhere between a 20 and 30% hit rate based on whether or not you determine Rodney Holman's 33-year old season to be a success or not.  The averages for the five tight end comps that did play that long are not bad, but the picture becomes much grimmer if you include the zeros from the retirees into the mix.

The fact that some of the players that had the most similar careers to Cooley performed rather well when they were 33 may give some semblance of hope to the idea that a successful Captain Chaos comeback tour is within the realm of possibility.  However, there's something that makes Cooley different from those that have been deemed most similar to him.

5. Those Who Do Not Learn from History Are Doomed to Repeat It

There are still a few more lessons to be learned here.  First, if you're a NFL tight end, then do not leave the game at age 30 and attempt to comeback three years later.  Some of Cooley's top comps had good seasons in their thirties, but none of them left the game and attempted a comeback like he is trying to do now.

And if you're a tight end, don't suck in your eighth and ninth year in the league and expect a career renaissance to follow thereafter.  Between those years in Cooley's career he posted a meager combined stat line of nine receptions, 73 yards and zero touchdowns.  Here is a list of tight ends that have performed similarly in their eighth and ninth seasons.

Now here is a smaller list that shows how many of those tight ends went on to have any modicum of productivity as receivers after those years.

No, I did not forget to include a link or table.  The reason being that there is no such link or table.  None of the players that ever experienced a dramatic late-career downturn like the one that Cooley had ever went on to be successful as receivers again.

We've spent a lot of time focusing on receiving though.  We aren't talking about fantasy football here and receiving is Jordan Reed's job anyways (if he's breathing).  The Redskins just need people to block.  You know, that thing Jordan Reed hates to do.  It's not a big deal if Cooley isn't the second coming of Tony Gonzalez; they just need him to at least be a reliable blocking tight end.

6. Cooley is Not a Good Blocker

Year PFF Pass Block PFF Run Block
2007 3.5 (2nd) -3.6 (49th)
2008 -1.6 (39th) -0.8 (54th)
2009 -0.1 (26th) -0.3 (55th)
2010 -5.2 (62nd) 9.0 (13th)
2011 -0.3 (39th) -1.7 (53rd)
2012 0.1 (37th) 1.3 (39th)
Total -3.6 3.9
AVERAGE -0.6 (34th) 0.7 (44th)

Okay, so I know that Chris Cooley has "people skills", but if I was Scot McCloughan, I would probably being asking him "What would you can do here?"

His average ranking in run blocking and pass blocking is 34th and 44th respectively.  And those averages are fairly heavily affected by his only good years in both categories.  If you take those seasons out of the equations, then his average rankings fall to 40th and 50th.  Ouch!

7. Meet the New Boss, NOT the Same as the Old Boss

I'm pretty sure that we all know what the Redskins would've done if presented with this same situation any time between the years 2000 and 2014.  Dan Snyder would have already picked the player up in his private jet and signed him to a multi-million dollar deal.  And yes, I know that Cooley lives in the area and that he specifically stated that he would take the minimum salary.  Dan Snyder still would have done both things regardless.

This, however, is 2015 and Scot McCloughan is running the show now.  McCloughan is a skilled personnel man that builds teams through the draft and not by signing washed-up and aging free agents.  The days of acquiring players like Deion Sanders, Donovan McNabb Jason Taylor, Bruce Smith and Ryan Clark (the list goes on and on) are in the past and that's where they should stay.

This team does not need all of the additional fanfare and media hoopla that would come with the addition of a player like Cooley.  He has already created a distraction by literally begging the Redskins to sign him and by airing the team's dirty laundry when he publicly announced that three out of the four main decision makers on the Redskins are in favor of his comeback.

It's pretty obvious that the "three" consists of some combination of Dan Snyder, Bruce Allen, Jay Gruden and Scott Campbell and that the "fourth" is Scot McCloughan.  Who do you want to side with?  Who do you trust?  A group led by one of the worst owners (Snyder) and executives (Allen) in the NFL or the one represented by one of the best talent evaluators in all of football (McCloughan).

I don't worry about that kind of drama too much though, I'm more concerned about actual football and what history has to say on this matter.  I love Chris Cooley and it would be great to see him have a successful comeback with the Redskins, but that does not change the facts.  The fact is that history does have an answer for us.  It's not the one that we want to hear, but it's the one that's most prudent given the situation.  The answer is a resounding "No."