And now, as fall takes on winter’s bite, things could not be much better.
It was not an easy road, from the worst days of Cooper’s personal life to the best days of his professional life. He caught two more touchdown passes from Nick Foles on Sunday in a 27-13 win over the Green Bay Packers. In his past five games, Cooper has caught 20 passes for 462 yards and six touchdowns.
“I’m just playing football,” Cooper said. “I’m playing the same football I always played.”
This run of on-field success would have been tough to imagine back in July, when that ugly video of Cooper using the N-word appeared on a local Philadelphia sports blog. Cooper was fined and, worse, had to stand up in front of his teammates -- most of whom are African-American -- and explain himself.
A couple weeks later, Cooper and teammate Cary Williams got into a fight during practice. It was the kind of fight that happens frequently in the NFL, but this time, there was no ignoring the undercurrents. Williams was one of the players who expressed unease about having Cooper as a teammate, and the fight forced everyone to ask again whether Cooper could co-exist with his teammates.
“Everybody gets a second chance, man,” veteran linebacker Trent Cole said. “You have to forgive. We’re all brothers. We’re all together. If Riley was really like [he appeared in the video], he wouldn’t be able to play for long. I think everybody embraced him. We’re playing football together. It is what it is.”
It was a long road from there to here. To make it, Cooper had to disappear twice. First, he went home to Clearwater, Fla., for a few days to spend time with his family and let things settle down. The second disappearing act was on the field. Given the chance to start when Jeremy Maclin tore his ACL, Cooper caught just eight passes for 91 yards and a touchdown through the first five weeks.
That made him as anonymous as possible in the wake of his public troubles. Cooper was a marginal player who was easy to ignore, and he did his best to stay out of the spotlight off the field.
“Riley’s a guy that comes to work every single day,” center Jason Kelce said. “Everybody here knows he’s a really good player. I’m happy for him, happy that he’s overcome some things. It’s good that the team hasn’t really missed a beat. I think we have good guys in the locker room. It was a little rough for maybe a week there, but everybody eventually got over it.”
When Foles replaced the injured Michael Vick as starting quarterback, Cooper started getting the ball thrown his way. As it happened, Foles’ first start was in Tampa, where Cooper went to games to root for Derrick Brooks and Mike Alstott. It was the first time he’d seen his family since his brief summer exile. Cooper caught four passes for 120 yards and a touchdown.
Last week, with Foles back after missing a game with a concussion, Cooper caught three touchdown passes.
“He’s showing you what he’s always been,” Foles said. “I believe in Riley and it just so happens that when I’m reading out plays, he’s getting open and making plays. He’s a big, physical receiver, and I love the fact he does a great job blocking and he’s a team player.”
There’s no denying the correlation between Foles’ playing quarterback and Cooper’s emergence. Explaining it is a little trickier. Vick is at least five inches shorter than Foles. Maybe Foles is seeing Cooper’s routes develop in a way Vick couldn’t. Or maybe it’s just that Foles is comfortable throwing the ball where his receivers can make plays without needing to see them wide open.
“He trusts in his wide receivers,” Cooper said. “If it’s man-to-man, if that’s his read, if that’s where he’s supposed to go, he throws it up. We told him as a group: 'If you trust in us, we’re going to go get it or we’re going to bat it down.' Having that confidence, he’s going to let the ball fly a little bit.”
Cooper’s first touchdown Sunday was a perfect example. He ran a post route. Two Packers defensive backs ran it with him. Foles said he deliberately underthrew the ball, making it like a pop-up that Cooper, who was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies, could run down like the baseball player he once was.
“He put it where only I could get it,” Cooper said. “A few guys told me it looked like a baseball play. In baseball, you have a glove to block the sun. Here I didn’t. I think it helped a little bit, catching those fly balls with the sun in your face.”
Cooper dove to catch the ball and rolled into the end zone. One of the Packers stepped on his leg.
“I got cleated real bad,” Cooper said. “Got a little bruise on my shin.”
On the second touchdown, Cooper broke off the line as if he were running a post route. He juked safety Morgan Burnett, then broke toward the corner. Foles found him easily for the 32-yard score.
“The safety thought I was going across his face,” Cooper said. “I just took it high and Foles hit me, man.”
It really can be that simple.
Cooper let a question about the summer, and the journey into the fall, pass without addressing the specifics.
“I’m having a blast,” he said. “I love football. It feels so good when you’re contributing to the team and you’re winning games. Everything is so new. The personnel is new. The plays are new. I love it. I love blocking on the perimeter for DeSean Jackson on a bubble screen and getting after it. I love the whole feel of what we have going on.”
It is a feeling Cooper could have missed out on entirely. For Cooper and for his team, it could have been so much worse before it got so much better.