The video of Riley Cooper’s racial indiscretion captured at June’s Kenny Chesney concert has turned Chip Kelly’s inaugural training camp into a media, both national and local, circus for all the wrong reasons. While storylines continue to pour out of the Novacare Complex regarding the nature of Kelly’s camp, the negativity surrounding the ill-spoken comments by the career reserve wide receiver continues to dominate the headlines. At this point, it is redundant to rehash the nature of the story surrounding Cooper. At this point, the intriguing aspect is how the team will address the issue, both internally and externally. There have already been multiple reports of fracturing in the locker room, and, with a head coach with zero NFL experience, the handling of this delicate situation could be as important, if not more important than any other decision the franchise will be presented with over the next few years.
To this point, I would argue the management, coaching staff, and team leaders have all said and done the right things. Cooper addressed the media multiple times, Jeffrey Lurie voiced his displeasure with his employee, Chip Kelly has been open and direct with the media in terms of the football aspect of the situation, and the organization fined Cooper an undisclosed amount. Friday morning, the latest action by the team added a new wrinkle to the situation.
#Eagles announce WR Riley Cooper has been excused from all team activities as he seeks counseling for his recent actions.
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) August 2, 2013
While the organization appears to be taking the most sensitive, calculated route as far as dealing with the matter, one has to wonder if the Eagles, who after the loss of Jeremy Maclin are thin in terms of wide receivers with significant NFL experience, are trying to distance themselves from the embattled wide-out in as ‘PR-friendly’ a way as possible. For all the issues that fans have had with the direction of the team during the Jeffrey Lurie era, they have always placed an emphasis on being a model franchise from a public relations standpoint. Whether it was the handling of the acquisition of Michael Vick, the Terrell Owens fiasco, or even the death of Garrett Reid during last season’s training camp, the talking heads always seem to say the right things and usually the correct actions are taken.
The unique aspect of this case is the fact that rumblings of dissension in the locker room surfaced almost instantly following the release of the video. LeSean McCoy has voiced his disappointment with his teammate and even newcomer Cary Williams has been surprisingly vocal regarding the issue. All things considering, no matter how much the team says that the handling of Cooper is not a football matter, the reaction from some of the primary players on the team would suggest otherwise.
So the franchise has bought themselves some time by sending Cooper away for treatment and keeping him away from team facilities. While the questions will undoubtedly continue to be asked to Cooper’s teammates and coaches, his absence should alleviate some of the media pressure that has engulfed Novacare the past few days. However, at the end of the day, the start of the Chip Kelly era will be defined with the final decision made regarding Cooper’s future with the Eagles.
On one side of the argument, Cooper brings a lot to the table from a skill standpoint. As far as viable starting options, he represents the tallest of the Eagles WR corps, standing 6’3″. While veteran Jason Avant has proved to be a serviceable slot receiver during his tenure, he does not possess the necessary physical tools to play opposite DeSean Jackson in the Eagles’ base offense. Cooper, who played at Florida under Urban Meyer, also has vast experience as a wide receiver playing in a spread offense with an emphasis on the short-passing game. Looking down the road, should Chip Kelly name Nick Foles the team’s starting quarterback, removing Cooper might be a tough blow to the second-year signal-caller. During his stint as the starter last year, Foles made a habit of targeting Cooper, hooking up with the wideout for two of his six touchdown passes. While Cooper has been buried in the depth chart for all of his four seasons with the Eagles, he showed flashes of potential last year and to not acknowledge that Cooper possesses talent would be foolish. In professional sports especially, there are countless stories about teammates disliking each other off the field. At the end of the day though, every player in the room has the same profession, and if one is producing on a consistent basis, enemies can usually put aside their differences for a common goal. Obviously, the nature of Cooper’s situation makes this as extreme a case as there is.
While several of Cooper’s teammates, most notably Jason Avant, have exclaimed that they will forgive Cooper and do not expect the situation to divide the locker room, the nature of a new coaching hire makes any possible distraction a potential ticking time bomb. While Kelly has said and done all the right things and appears to have control and support of his players, he has never dealt with the week-in, week-out grind of the NFL season and it is impossible to predict if the rookie coach is ready to handle a hostile locker room. Regardless of any opinion on quarterback Michael Vick, the Eagles do have a luxury of a team leader who has had to win over the locker room. Vick has shown tremendous leadership addressing any and all questions or concerns with eloquence and assurance. Many people argue that, one of the primary reasons Vick is still on the team, is that he has garnered the respect and support of his teammates in the good times and the bad. While no one in the Eagles’ organization would admit it, Vick has helped his case for staying on this team immensely in the past few days. Yet it is still not a guarantee whether Vick will remain on the team, let alone be named the team’s starting quarterback and leader.
Even with Vick in the fold, keeping Cooper on the roster would most likely result in negativity aimed towards the Eagles franchise. While Andy Reid always seemed to be able to keep the outside opinion of his teams out of the locker room, Reid is no longer here and it is difficult to say whether or not Chip Kelly would have the same capability to take the brunt of such negativity on his chin. If Cooper were a more integral part of the team, it would probably be a tough sell to cut ties with him. However, even with the Maclin injury, with what little we know about Chip Kelly’s offense would indicate that wide receivers are not the most important part. In fact, I would argue that, especially in the case of Cooper, who’s ball skills are not on par with DeSean Jackson or Damaris Johnson, wide receiver is far less important than the running backs, tight ends, and even the offensive line.
By acquiring Michael Vick following his release from prison and helping him in his extensive community outreach work, the Eagles franchise established themselves as a franchise looking to help players become the best men that they can be. Their actions, to this point, towards the Riley Cooper situation has mirrored that philosophy to a tee. Everyone from Jeffrey Lurie, to Chip Kelly on down has stressed their hope that Cooper can benefit from whatever counseling or treatment necessary and fully realize and accept the error of his ways. They have also come out and said that, at this point, cutting Cooper has not been, nor will it be in the team’s immediate plans. This early in the preseason, when a team with a new coach is trying to establish a sense of unity in the locker room, this stance is an acceptable one. Cooper is not the only one on the roster whose missteps have been profiled in the media and to make a snap decision without exhausting all options could be seen as hasty or irresponsible. By sending Cooper to get treatment, the Eagles can allow the overwhelming media coverage subside a bit before making, what they find to be, the best decision for his future.
At this point, the Eagles owe Riley Cooper no favors. He has been in the league long enough to try to distinguish himself as a key contributor, and has not done so. They have taken every negatively slanted question in stride and answered in only a way that could make Cooper seem as sympathetic as possible. They are doing the only possible thing to prevent the hordes of media from setting up a permanent residence next to Cooper’s locker until the season starts. At this point, whatever decision the team makes regarding Cooper, he will have to live with knowing that his employers did all they could to try to preserve his stature. With Cooper away at treatment, the team’s brain trust will be able to make as calculated a decision as possible without the influence of Cooper constantly addressing the media and having his teammates field countless questions about him.
While, at first, I felt that the team’s situation personnel-wise made it almost impossible to cut Cooper, even with the circumstances. However, after hearing what I’ve heard from the rest of the roster and seeing the steps the franchise has taken to help Cooper, I feel as if bringing him back would not be in their best interest and they should, following his clearance from whatever courses he is taking, cut ties with Cooper and send him on his way.
In a football sense, Cooper is missing the most important part of the season for the team. While a winning season and a trip to the playoffs should be every team’s goal entering a season, it would be surprising to say the least if the Eagles accomplished this. With Chip Kelly taking the reigns, the team’s goal, at least on offense, should be rooting his offensive system and developing a timing and pace that is unconscious across the depth chart. With the fast-pace that is expected out of the offense entering the season, the connection with whoever is the quarterback week 1 is of utmost importance. Especially in Kelly’s training camp, where there is no tackling to the ground, pass-catchers have the ability to perfect their routes and timing with all of the signal callers. While Cooper does have a history with both Vick and Foles, he is used to an entirely different offense and, if he does return, will be playing catch-up as far as gaining the trust and timing with the starter.
The football side of this decision is secondary. While no one in the organization would admit it, Cooper’s selfish words and irresponsibility have put a bulls-eye on their team, again. While the past few years, ill-timed statements by Vince Young and Michael Vick have served this purpose, Cooper’s words go beyond any rallying cry another team would ever need when facing the Eagles. Aside from the dissent in the locker room, which is inevitable no matter who tells you otherwise, the focus on beating a team that decided to bring Cooper back will far outweigh the motivation that ‘Dream Team’ brought on. Replacing a wide receiver is a small obstacle for an organization to overcome. Putting a new, albeit innovative and dynamic, head coach in a situation with unnecessary distractions and opposition just seems irresponsible and foolish. With the 24-hour news cycle and seemingly never-ending media coverage given to NFL teams, there will be few times that Chip Kelly and his team won’t be able to escape the questions on why Cooper is still on the team and what their opinion of him is. In a rare season, at least as far as the last dozen or so years go, where the Eagles are not considered to be a favorite in the NFC, it would stand to reason that the team would embrace their ‘under-the-radar’ status while the team works out the kinks as far as implementing a new philosophy. Even if the team went winless during Kelly’s first year, I would bet my last dollar that, after that last game, there would be a question about whether Cooper’s presence in the locker room doomed the season from the get-go.
There are dozens of wide receivers that enter the league every year with the same skills as Cooper. With the increased focus on the spread offense at both the high school and college level, serviceable receivers have been pouring into the league. While he does not have an NFL track record, Chip Kelly is a much more unique commodity. Should things go swimmingly as far as the implementation of Kelly’s philosophies, a task that, with Cooper on the roster may be more difficult, the Eagles have a chance to gain a jump on the rest of the league for years to come.
The organization made a major statement when they hired Chip Kelly. They told the rest of the league that they were taking a calculated risk in the hopes that, with Kelly’s advanced offensive mindset, they’d be able to usher in a new era of NFL football, much in the same way that Bill Walsh did with the West Coast offense. Every word spoken and decision made in the matter of Riley Cooper has appeared to be as calculated as their hiring of Kelly. Ultimately, no matter how much an emphasis the organization places on making sure their players are given every chance to rehabilitate their image, there is a time and place for letting an athlete, one who has been given every opportunity in the world to do something that the smallest percentage of humans in the world can, pay the ultimate price for his stupidity. The way I see it, this is as obvious a case for taking that route and bringing back Riley Cooper into the fold would cause far more harm than good.