The backdrop behind Riley Cooper had changed from where he stood on July 31.
On that day, he was outside the NovaCare Complex with a brick wall behind him and microphones shoved aggressively in his face. His future with the franchise that drafted him seemed very much in question. Hours before he spoke, a video had surfaced of Cooper using a racial slur at a Kenny Chesney concert. Now it was time to face the music and answer question after question about the incident, his status with the team, his relationship with his peers and more.
Thursday afternoon, however, carried a different feel. Some seven months later, Cooper stood in the hallway at the NovaCare Complex in a grey hoodie, black shorts and black sneakers. The reporters were now asking about his career year in 2013 and his promising future in Chip Kelly’s offense.
Cooper, 26, had just signed a five-year, $25 million deal with $10 million in guaranteed money. Even before the ugly incident last summer, he was unproven as an NFL-caliber wide receiver. Cooper had done very little in his first three seasons. But after a breakout campaign in 2013, he was able to cash in and now figures to have a somewhat prominent role in one of the league’s most explosive offenses.
“It was tough, everyone knows that,” Cooper said. “I dealt with a lot of adversity, but I don’t think… since I was little it’s a dream to play in the NFL. But does anyone ever dream of getting a multi-million dollar contract and getting paid as a starter? That’s something that I don’t know if I ever thought about. But it’s upon me now and it’s here and I’m extremely fortunate.
“I have a lot of people to thank for that. My parents for always being there and supporting me and stuff, and my agent Joel Segal for helping me through this whole process. So it’s cool man. It’s a cool feeling. And I’m proud of myself.”
From Cooper’s perspective, re-signing with the Eagles was a no-brainer. For starters, he doesn’t have to go to a new city and answer questions about his character and what happened last summer. From a football perspective, he’s found a coach in Kelly who values his skill set: tracking down deep balls and blocking on the perimeter in the run game.
Even if the Eagles bring Jeremy Maclin back or draft a wide receiver early, Cooper figures to see the field plenty.
“When Jeremy went down, you don’t want to see it, but I finally got to go in and contribute and just play football, do nothing different than I’ve been doing the last few years,” Cooper said. “This game’s just all about opportunity, and I went out there and just played football how it was supposed to be played, just played hard every single down, whether it’s blocking or catching, just doing everything you can to win as a team.”
The “opportunity” argument isn’t exactly on-point. In 2012, Cooper played more than 70 percent of the team’s offensive snaps in the Eagles’ final seven games (Nick Foles started six of them) and averaged just 29.4 receiving yards per contest.
In 2013, though, teams played a lot of man coverage with one deep safety against the Eagles’ potent running attack. With DeSean Jackson on the other side, Cooper saw plenty of single coverage and made the most of his opportunities, averaging 17.8 yards per catch, good for third-best in the NFL.
“I didn’t want to go anywhere else,” he said. “I wanted to be here. I love the system. I feel like I fit it.”
As for the way Cooper’s teammates perceive him, it would be a mistake to think they’re lining up to be his best friend just because he caught eight touchdowns. There very well could be guys who don’t care for him in the locker room, but they showed in 2013 that they could be professional and focus on putting a quality product on the field.
“I do feel like he’s accepted by everyone in the locker room,” said Jason Kelce. “Obviously, I can’t speak for everybody. But I think the biggest point is that it was obviously a terrible situation, but Riley right away came forward, said he was wrong, made a mistake, and I think guys were able just through time and through being with him and understanding who he actually is that it kind of diffused and got out of the headlines. So at this point it’s really a non-factor. It’s not brought up anymore. And it really doesn’t need to be.”
Cooper clearly hopes the incident is behind him and that he doesn’t have to answer questions about it going forward. Asked about the possibility of the league legislating use of the “N-word” during games, he said simply: “I think it’s a good rule.”
To say this is a story of redemption would be over-dramatizing it. Only Cooper knows for sure how last summer affected him and whether it actually promoted any positive change in his off-the-field behavior.
But it’s clear that he appreciates the support he got from the organization when things looked dire.
“I love Mr. [Jeffrey] Lurie, Chip and Howie [Roseman],” Cooper said. “They believe in me, which means a lot. It really does.”