Where Kelly, Cooper And the Eagles Go From Here

Riley CooperThree seconds can shape a career. That’s the reality that has slapped Riley Cooper in the face over the last 48 hours.

One sentence. Ten words. And now he will forever be known as the football player who blurted out a racial epithet at an African-American security guard while loaded at a Kenny Chesney concert. Whether fair or not, that’s how it is.

Since the video was released, Cooper has done all the right things. He apologized to his teammates, his coaches and the organization. He has faced the media twice. He hasn’t run. He hasn’t hid.

In the last six months, Chip Kelly has taken a number of steps to change the culture at the NovaCare Complex. He has removed boundaries in the locker room, no longer dividing players by positional groups. He has removed signs in the parking lot that used to be reserved for offensive, defensive and special teams players of the week. He has changed things up dramatically in the weight room, the cafeteria and on the practice fields.

The focus has been on fostering a team-first mentality, increasing efficiency and giving the players every possible advantage at their disposal. But now, with the Eagles’ full squad having been at camp for only a week, Kelly faces a challenge in keeping everyone together. He acknowledged as much on Thursday.

“There could be a concern,” Kelly said, when asked if the Cooper situation might divide the locker room. “Yeah, there is a concern.”

The key here is how the players view Cooper and whether they can get past this, or even want to. In a perfect world, his teammates would educate Cooper and explain to him why he was wrong. He would understand. He would change. And he would be a better man for it. Maybe that’s how this whole thing plays out.

But maybe not.

The problem is isolating Cooper’s comment as one single mistake. The notion that the only time in his life where he used the n-word was caught on camera is silly. As is the idea that everyone makes racist comments after having had one too many beers. That’s why players like Jason Avant, LeSean McCoy and Michael Vick, who have been around Cooper for three-plus years, aren’t quite sure what to make of the outburst.

“It was kind of confusing,” Avant said Wednesday night, shortly after Cooper apologized to the team. “And the reason it was confusing is because I’m with him every day and I know him. And the first thing I kept saying is like, ‘That’s my boy. That’s a really good friend of mine.’

And this from Vick, via ESPN.com:

“That’s the thing. That’s not the guy we know. We know Riley.” Vick paused for a second. “Or maybe we don’t,” he said.

This isn’t about throwing stones and living in a glass house. Players like Vick, Avant and Cary Williams have been quick to admit that they’re far from perfect.

But for Kelly, it’s about establishing a culture in Year 1, getting everyone on the same page and building his program. By my count, the Eagles could be looking at around 21 new players when the season begins next month. That’s roughly 40 percent of the roster. Those are guys who don’t know Cooper and many who now probably don’t care to know him.

Football is different than other sports like basketball. With 53 players, there can be some cliques, and the team can still be successful. Not everyone has to like each other or be best friends. But Cooper’s presence, in some cases, will lead to a level of discomfort and awkwardness. There will be certain players who won’t want to be around him – in the cafeteria, in the weight room, on the field.

And then there’s his value to the team. Like it or not, players are treated differently based on the degree to which they help the franchise win games. Kelly’s stance is to treat everyone fairly, but not necessarily the same.

On a good NFL team, Cooper might be a fourth or fifth wide receiver. Don’t buy the argument that the Eagles would have handled this differently had Jeremy Maclin been healthy. The truth is the drop-off from Cooper to one of the other back-up wide receivers on the roster really wouldn’t be that significant.

And so, sometime between now and the Sept. 9 matchup against the Redskins, Kelly will have a decision to make. His hope is that players will accept Cooper back into their group, the wide receiver learns from the situation, and the team gets past this.

The other option will be to part ways with him. In the coming weeks, if Cooper’s presence is doing more harm than good, if it seems unlikely that he’ll be able to contribute to a winning culture, then the Eagles will have to consider moving on without him.

All offseason, we’ve looked for hints about what to expect from Kelly on the field. How fast will the offense move? Will it feature the read-option? Are they installing a true 3-4?

It’s Year 1. Away from the field too, it’s about building a program and establishing a culture. One way or another, Kelly will have to figure out how to deal with the unexpected distraction.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.
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  • Broadcasting Wisdom

    One thing this incident has done is forced me to youtube Riley Cooper highlights. I know it is an unrepresentative sample, but I actually came away much more impressed than I expected. Those two one-handed touchdowns against the Cowboys are plays nobody else on our team has made in the last decade. That bomb against the Patriots was great, and he had a few tough catches in traffic. I know his overall stats aren’t jaw-dropping, but those are based on opportunities – were there any notable drops? Especially with all this attention and the desire to prove everybody that he is worth the distraction, Riley could be in for a breakout year if he gets the starting nod. NFL Players and fans have forgiven a lot worse transgressions than this.

  • Brent E. Sulecki

    Im on board with Cary. Smallwood. and whitlock who all had very wellt thought out words to use talking about the situation.
    they all were very well spoken and thought out articles and made me really think.
    im not happy some people are saying that if riley was a 1st round guy with high talent then it would be easier to let this go. I mean look what some folks did with vick. just because he started playin well and winning games. it went away. but many would say that riley doesn’t have vicks pedigree or talent level. but just the same it doesn’t make it right to cut or not cut a player who has the same offense based on talent level. I think riley is very talented. multisport athlete. and I could see him somewhere with a stud qb like a brady or manning or Rodgers for that matter making him into a great and above quality wr…I mean whats the difference when you see riley to decker. same build. same speed. catching ability we don’t know because we have seen decker with a ton more chances. riley deserves a chance to play football as a starter and get himself character wise back on track. kobe raped a girl. shady threw a girl off a bus on 95…I mean those things are always there for these players…but since riley so far in his career has been a backup essentially he should be exiled…that’s not fair.

  • Philly0312

    Please – can we limit our cooper stories per day? I get enough of it on every other news service. I’m dying. I’d rather know how Graham looked in pads since Sunday, and how they’ve been using him. Kills me to think he might be on the bench a lot – such a waste.

    • jabostick

      I’m already sick of it too but the stories ain’t going away until some games are played or until Tebow does something of note.

      I will say that despite it being over-analyzed, I do find the whole reaction/response to be especially interesting this year given the new regime, the amount of bubble players on the roster, etc.

    • D3Keith

      You’re not obligated to click on or view any of them.

      • Richard Colton

        yes he is. addicted to Birds 24-7 just like a lot of people here. Not me though, I could quit anytime. I could. really…

  • If it continues to be a problem he will be let go. It’s as simple as that.

  • firstdown

    Lets play FOOTBALL….no more talk bout the drunk white pony boy from clearwater…hes not even good @ FOOTBALL….go chip….go whoever the QB…go EAGLES….!!!!!!!!

    • Richard Colton

      stay gold, ponyboy. stay gold.

  • Shark

    Vick killed dogs, he’s not one to judge. McCoy was accused of beating women (whether true or not, we can assume he has had his share of mistakes), he’s not one to judge. It is sad what Riley said, but I feel his punishment, a hefty fine, does fit the crime. The national media has completely overblown this and the fact that his job is being brought into question being potentially released for this incident, is ridiculous.

    • G_WallyHunter

      It is ridiculous, but when it comes to the team, it might have to be done. Picture you worked in an office of 20 or so people, half of which were black. If your boss and coworkers all saw a video of you doing what Riley did, you’d be out of a job the next day. This is no different, they are giving Riley as much slack as they can give him, but if the cancer and the “elephant in the room” doesn’t go away, then it must be done, he has absolutely no one to blame but himself

    • Dutch

      Why is it ridiculous his job is being brought into question? What kind of employer do you work for that allows racial epithets to fly out the mouths of employees representing their organization?

      It’s difficult for me to accept that some of you are absent an understanding on conduct in the workplace. You all are eventually going to cost your employer in amassing outrageous fines and penalties. If you did what Riley did chances are you would have been fired on the spot unless you’re working in your family run business.

  • bushisamoron

    He should have been released immediately FOR THE SAKE OF THE TEAM. I am sure there are racists of all kinds on the team as in life. Riley Cooper is but one of them. However because of the nature of the sport and the fact that a new regime preaching togetherness is trying to turn around the team, the best option was to release him immediately. Even now if he is released, it looks weak. Should have happened immediately.

  • barneygoogle

    Way overdone by the hysterical media, and flubbed by the spineless Eagles. The media has treated Cooper worse than they treated Aaron Hernandez.
    Cooper, please get a good lawyer and sue the media. And get a black lawyer…drive ’em nuts.

  • mike

    Has anyone seem more than the 20 second clip? I’m guessing there’s more somewhere. Does anyone know what Cooper was responding too? Doesn’t change the word choice, but might be relevant in understanding intent. Have any of seemingly hundreds of reporters covering this story and writing thousands of words bothered to ask that question?

  • John P

    what a joke..the fake outrage from the black players…they aren’t offended, they only think they are supposed to be offended…how can they get uptight over a word they each use 100 times a day…..plus the liberal media asking dummy questions…..these black players were never slaves, the whites were never slave owners..so I don’t but the argument that this is offensive for whites to say because of slavery…..total…fake….bs