What is it about Riley Cooper? The Eagles defend him as if he were accused of a crime he didn't commit and they were the law firm of Darrow, Cochran, & Dershowitz.
He had 47 receptions last season and already has 46 through 13 games this season. That's good. The rest . . . hmmm. His yards-per-catch average has plummeted, from 17.8 last season to 10.2 this one. He has caught one touchdown in 2014 after catching eight in 2013. He has ticked off teammate Jeremy Maclin by making a joke about Maclin's contract situation. And he and Mark Sanchez can't seem to connect, either before a play or during it.
Two games ago, against the Cowboys, Sanchez shouted at him for being out of position, forcing the Eagles to use a timeout. On the next play, Cooper wasn't looking for the ball when Sanchez hit him on the left hip with a pass. On Sunday, after the Eagles' loss to the Seahawks, Cooper said that Sanchez had thrown the ball to the wrong area of the field on a deep post pattern, resulting in a crucial fourth-quarter interception.
This is a player with a lot of stuff hovering around him, and Chip Kelly doesn't like stuff to hover around his players. He has a lower tolerance for it than most head coaches do. (Right, DeSean?)
Yet Kelly on Monday and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur on Tuesday absolved Cooper of just about any sin he has committed. The Eagles coaches apparently love Cooper. You might not, but hoo, boy, they sure do.
The decline in production? "That's not Coop's fault," Kelly said.
The confusion that appears to have arisen between Sanchez and Cooper? "We certainly see it different than you do," Shurmur said. "We're comfortable with him out there playing, and we don't have a problem like some people questioning me do."
Cooper's statistical drop-off is easy enough to explain: To limit big plays, opposing defenses are playing more zone coverage against the Eagles this year, meaning Cooper no longer has to beat just one man to free himself for a deep pass-and-catch. That said, Kelly, Shurmur, and Cooper have leaned on this talking point so much that they've made basic zone coverage sound like a pioneering defensive strategy that's somehow too mysterious for them to solve. And though Cooper is a solid player, he's not irreplaceable, certainly not so outstanding to warrant the praise that Kelly and Shurmur have heaped on him.
So what's at work here? The truth is that the Eagles have invested a lot in Cooper - financially, philosophically, intangibly. They signed him to a five-year contract in the offseason that could be worth as much as $22.5 million. Thanks to his size (6-foot-3, 214 pounds) and his willingness and ability to block, Cooper fits what Kelly wants in a wideout. He's the physical prototype.
"I have a very, very close relationship with Chip," Cooper said. "We talk very frequently. I'm one of the captains in our room, me and Jeremy, and we're always going up to Chip with ideas and things. Sometimes it's not even about football. I'm real close with Chip, and I'm going to just keep on doing what I'm doing."
How did you two grow so close?
"I don't know," he said. "I really don't know. I'm a hard worker. I play hard. I love the game of football. I think those are the types of players that he wants."
But there's more to the relationship that just Cooper's work ethic. The Eagles - Kelly, in particular - went to great lengths to keep Cooper a viable and important player for them after it was revealed he used a racial slur during a Kenny Chesney concert last year.
Once the Eagles lost Maclin for the entire 2013 season to a knee injury, Cooper immediately became their second-best wide receiver, behind DeSean Jackson. They needed him, and Kelly expended a lot of human capital to ensure that the players would welcome Cooper back and play alongside him without incident, and that Cooper could handle, psychologically and emotionally, the complex and combustible situation he'd created.
It's not outlandish to suggest that Kelly (with plenty of help from Michael Vick) is the primary reason that Cooper still has a job in the NFL.
"It's great that I've got their support," Cooper said. "I'm doing everything they're asking me to do."
So the Eagles praise Riley Cooper, and he praises them back, and no matter what Cooper's stats are or how many touchdowns he catches, this mutual admiration society will last as long as the team keeps winning. It's the way football works, even when stuff is hovering.