JASON KELCE calls Riley Cooper a "good friend."

Kelce, the Eagles' center and most honest man in Philadelphia sports, yesterday endured this sequence of conversation:

With the press, Riley Cooper can be eloquent and introspective and thoughtful.

"Yeah."

And, sometimes, incredibly rude and dismissive and insulting.

"Yeah."

That can be an indication of a maturity level, and of personality.

"Yeah."

Have you seen him change?

"Through my 4 years here with Riley, he's definitely matured a great deal."

There is no reason to doubt Kelce's word. He sees Cooper in private.

Cooper's public image has changed little.

That lies at the root of the curious criticism of Cooper this season.

He has blocked fabulously. He has stayed healthy. He has been marginalized, but he has not complained. He will catch more passes this season than last, and he has not dropped many passes.

However, Cooper makes a lot more money this season. He makes fewer big plays these days.

And, while he can be as charming and candid as anyone, Cooper more often chooses to act like a brat.

His history of boorish behavior and the lingering taint of his bigotry create a stain that, over time, the best performances on and off the field would expunge.

This season, he has not performed his best.

For weeks Cooper's coaches and, to a lesser extent, his teammates have apologized and excused and endorsed Cooper's curious season when asked by reporters.

They view it as a vendetta.

"Every week, we're answering questions about Coop. He's out there playing and competing, and the last time I checked, he's only had two drops and we all remember what games they were in, right?" offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. "We see it differently than you do, but we know exactly what routes are called and the adjustments of the routes depending on the coverage. We certainly see it differently than you do.

"We are comfortable with him out there playing and we don't have a problem . . . like I think some people questioning me do."

Like Cooper, Shurmur does not suffer fools lightly, and he balks when dead horses are being beaten. That doesn't mean the questions lack merit.

In February the Eagles shielded Cooper from free agency when they signed him to a 5-year, $22.5 million contract. They sold Cooper as an emerged talent capable of improving on his 47-catch, eight-touchdown 2013 and predicted that Cooper, in his fifth NFL season, would continue to ascend.

But has he been worth the money?

On the field, Cooper has caught 46 passes in 13 games. That's just one pass less than he caught in 16 games last season.

However, his average yards-per-catch dropped from 17.8, third in the league in 2013, to 10.2, fifth-worst among all wide receivers. Considering the Eagles now see a lot of zone and cut speedy receiver DeSean Jackson in March, a modest drop might be acceptable, but Cooper is a 6-4, 230-pound specimen who is averaging fewer yards per catch than teammates Zach Ertz and Darren Sproles, who are backups.

Worst, Cooper has only one touchdown catch this season. He had eight in 2013 but, after he dropped touchdown passes at Indianapolis and San Francisco in the first four games, the Birds have looked elsewhere.

And they almost never design a play to go deep to him anymore. Then again, since Mark Sanchez replaced Nick Foles in Game 8, the Eagles clearly consider deep passes against zones to be bad bets.

"The deep balls, teams are taking away. The longer throws aren't there," Cooper insisted.

Head coach Chip Kelly and Shurmur both said Cooper grades out well after each game. Cooper asserted that he and Kelly are "very close," a relationship Cooper attributes to Cooper's selfless and physical play. Those intangibles sometimes elude statistical quantification.

"I understand where everyone's coming from, and it's not ya'll's fault. Ya'll aren't in the meeting room. Ya'll don't know the routes we're supposed to run. Ya'll don't know the scheme that we're trying to do," Cooper said. "I wish I could bring everybody in and turn on the film and say, 'This is what we're trying to accomplish with this play.' I wish I could show ya'll that."

Cooper could have been condescending when he said that. He was not.

Nor was he pleading when he said, "I'm doing everything they're asking me to do. Blocking good. Doing the right stuff. Not making mental errors."

The composition of the team changed around Cooper. Jeremy Maclin, a No. 1 receiver and a former first-round pick, returned from injury and replaced Jackson. The Eagles traded for Sproles, drafted big slot receiver Jordan Matthews and looked more to their tight ends.

Cooper also has not had a really big game, which affects the perception. Cooper's best showing this season was a five-catch, 88-yard game in Arizona, but he equaled or bettered 88 yards four times last season.

There is much more to this than production.

Cooper can be a smug bully. His imposing size and classical good looks lend an air of entitlement to his antics.

Of course, the stench of racism magnifies all of these marks against Cooper.

In the summer of 2013 Cooper used a racial slur while intoxicated at a concert and the incident was caught on video. He briefly left the team, but only after public outcry made him a distraction. He offered apologies, claimed he sought "help." He returned just 4 days after leaving . . . as cocky and as disingenuous as ever.

He remains so.

After the Seahawks stifled Cooper and Co. on Sunday and intercepted a pass intended for Cooper, he was asked a question by one reporter; and, incredibly, Cooper grabbed his leg and bolted from the locker room yelling, "cramp!" - typical sophomoric humor.

Cooper recently wisecracked that teammate Jeremy Maclin's contract situation was making Maclin horde playing time, and Cooper was caught arguing with quarterback Mark Sanchez at Dallas on Thanksgiving.

Yesterday, even as he cooly explained his satisfaction with his season, he offered troubling contradictions.

He said he didn't know how many catches he had this season . . . then said that this year's starting receivers had more catches in 13 games than last year's group had in 16. He said he didn't keep track of deep-pass attempts . . . then said that the Eagles had thrown deep more often early this season than any other team.

Tomorrow, he will tell you to look east for the sunset.

His nature is what it is. At one point yesterday, in the midst of a patient and insightful series of responses, he claimed a simple inquiry concerning his production was a "trick question;" dealt a gentle reprimand when asked the same question twice; then, exasperated, cast himself as victim:

"People are always trying to nitpick. Negativity sells."

Yeah.

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch
Blog: ph.ly/DNL