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.