More than speed involved in deep passing

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
1:30
PM ET
PHILADELPHIA -- Buddy Ryan had no use for sprinters playing wide receiver.

"Those guys are usually fast for a reason," Ryan would drawl. He wasn't talking about fast-twitch muscle fibers, either. He was talking about being afraid to get hit.

[+] EnlargeRiley Cooper
Drew Hallowell/Philadelphia Eagles/Getty ImagesRiley Cooper's baseball background has been of more use on deep balls than speed.
Chip Kelly has nothing against speed. He values it. But he sounded just a little bit like his ancient Eagles coaching forefather when asked about Riley Cooper's success catching deep passes.

"This isn't a track meet," Kelly said. "I just think that conventional wisdom is that speed isn't the factor, because if it was, then the fastest guy in the NFL would catch the most deep balls. It's not that. There's a lot more to it."

During his tenure with the Eagles, Andy Reid was often (and fairly) criticized for preferring a stable of steady, unspectacular receivers to having a mercurial No. 1 receiver. Reid's experiment with Terrell Owens was both proof that he was wrong and confirmation he was right, depending on your viewpoint.

Reid drafted and developed DeSean Jackson, who certainly has elite speed. Jackson has thrived under Kelly, obviously, but so has Cooper -- especially since Nick Foles took over at quarterback.

In the first five games, all started by Michael Vick, Cooper caught eight passes for 91 yards and one touchdown. In the seven games started by Foles, Cooper has caught 27 balls for 608 yards and six touchdowns.

Cooper has decent speed, but Kelly cited other aspects of his game to explain his 19.3 yards-per-catch average, which is second in the NFL to Cleveland's Josh Gordon.

"Riley's got a great background in baseball," Kelly said. "He does a great job of tracking the ball while it's in the air. I think a lot of it is he has some background being an outfielder. That [44-yard] catch he made on the post route [Sunday], he just did a great job at tracking the ball.

"Sometimes it's got to be a great pass by the quarterback for it to be a successful play. I think with Riley, you can miss him a little bit, but because of his ability to adjust to the thrown ball in the air, it's one of his strengths. ... There's a lot of fast guys that run down the field, but when the ball is not thrown directly to them, they can't adjust to it."

Kelly was quick to point out that Jackson has a similar knack for adjusting to the trajectory of the throw. The irony is that these are the kinds of technique-related qualities that Reid prized more than pure athleticism. Kelly values those, as well. He has just found ways to use them in a more explosive passing attack.

Phil Sheridan

ESPN Philadelphia Eagles reporter

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