"The Washington Redskins are releasing me today. Today, for the time being, will be my last day as a Washington Redskin."
And with those words, tight end Chris Cooley began a sudden, emotional and impromptu farewell speech to an unsuspecting group of reporters Tuesday afternoon at Redskins Park.
Cooley's potential release from the team had long been speculated throughout the majority of the offseason. But now that the deed is finally done, fans and media alike are still pondering several things:
Was it the right move to let go of Cooley? This is the question Redskins fans (and perhaps the team) are asking themselves today.
For the second time in three seasons, Cooley was coming off of a major injury. That, in addition to being on the wrong side of 30, put him in a tough spot on a team that clearly wants to get younger and faster.
But at the start of camp, it seemed that Cooley was not only healthy, but he was also willing to take on a lesser role just to stay on the squad. That was evident by his embracing a new role at fullback, in addition to mentoring fellow tight ends Fred Davis, Logan Paulsen and the newly-converted Niles Paul. Cooley is considered the best blocker among this group, and with his prior experience as an effective pass catcher, he still had value to the team.
However, as it always is in the NFL, there was a business side to the decision. There's no escaping from the fact that Cooley was owed $3.8 million in base salary, and carried a $6.2 million salary cap hit. It's hard to justify paying that kind of money to a player who isn't going to be a starter. And according to Mike Shanahan, a potential pay-cut was not in the cards.
"We really never talked about anything having to do with money," Shanahan told reporters after the announcement was made. "We never talked about reduction or anything like that. I wouldn't do that to a guy like him."
The reason for Cooley's release, according to Shanahan, was that he wanted to do right by the player and allow him to be a starter elsewhere. But given what Cooley had done all offseason to try and contribute to the team, you have to wonder if that was the only reason.
For as dramatic and emotional as Cooley's announcement was Tuesday, there were still a few veiled hints that he could be back if things don't work out with other teams.
"Today, for the time being, will be my last day as a Washington Redskin."
What are the roster ramifications of Cooley's departure? Cooley being off the final roster means that there'll likely be three tight ends to make the team, giving the Redskins more flexibility elsewhere.
But where will they choose to use that extra spot on the roster? A sixth or seventh receiver? A ninth offensive lineman? More linebackers? The answer to those questions won't be revealed until Friday evening, when the Redskins must cut their roster from 75 to 53 players.
What's interesting to ponder are the specific roster battles that may have directly affected Cooley's fate. For example, rookie Alfred Morris' performance during training camp and preseason has made it impossible for the Redskins to walk into Week 1 without four running backs.
Another roster quandary centers around the back end of the receiving corps, where the Redskins have the likes of Dezmon Briscoe, Aldrick Robinson and Brandon Banks duking it out for the final receiver spot. With the extra roster space, the team now has the luxury (should they choose) to have Banks reprise his role as a pure return specialist, and still keep a player like Briscoe or Robinson.
It's unfortunate that Cooley's absence leads to a question about what to do with the vacated roster spot, but that's the harsh cruelty of the NFL. Rarely will players get the opportunity to leave a team on their own terms, and it's something that happens to the majority of them, from undrafted rookies to franchise fixtures such as Cooley.
Speaking of which.....
What will Chris Cooley's legacy be? Chris Cooley will go down as one of the team's most popular players over the last decade, and one whose tenure in Washington was a success both on and off the field.
Drafted in 2004 by then head coach Joe Gibbs, Cooley was among the Redskins' most consistent offensive weapons during a stretch in which the team struggled to score points consistently.
When he was at his best, he was a security blanket for the myriad of quarterbacks he played with. He was never the fastest tight end in the league by any stretch of the imagination. But his combination of good hands, ability to break tackles, and knack for getting open (particularly on third down) made him a very effective option for Redskins quarterbacks over an eight year span. He ranks among the franchise's leaders in a number of statistical categories, including having the most receptions by a tight end in team history.
But it's hard to describe Cooley's time in Washington without mentioning his relationship with the fans and the community. He was among the first Redskins players to embrace social media when the platform was first introduced, giving fans access to his life via blogs, videos, and other mediums. It was that type player-fan transparency that drew the community closer to him, and vice-versa. He made Northern Virginia his permanent offseason home, and considered himself a Washingtonian.
"I've been very, very fortunate to play for a franchise that has embraced me and for a fan base that embraced me the way that they have," an emotional Cooley told reporters Tuesday. "This organization has changed my life, in every way and for the better."
If this is truly it for Cooley, and he doesn't eventually return to the team, he will still be remembered as one of the Redskins' standout players despite the fact that the team did not achieve consistent success during his tenure. He's a cinch Ring of Famer, and will likely be honored on the team's next "Greatest Redskins" list.
Not too bad for a third round pick out of Utah State.