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The Franchise Miss

It was April 24th, 2004, my birthday, and day 1 of that year’s NFL draft. For Redskins fans, it was a memorable and fateful draft, for it was that year the Redskins used a rare 1st round pick to select the incomparable Sean Taylor. Taylor’s rise to fearsome defensive force is well documented, as was his horribly unfortunate and tragic death.

Lost amidst the fanfare and hype surrounding Taylor’s selection that day was the acquisition of another player destined to have a major impact on the Redskins organization, tight end Chris Cooley of Utah State. Although physically gifted, Cooley came to the NFL with a remarkably unimpressive resume. Over his 3 year college career, Cooley pulled in a respectable, but hardly jaw-dropping 96 receptions for 1255 total yards. The Redskins scouting department must’ve had a hunch about Cooley. They selected him with their 3rd round pick, the 81st pick of the 2004 draft.

Cooley was a fan favorite, including this fan, almost from the start. Personable, gregarious, witty, and smart, he was a PR department’s dream from the day he arrived. Cooley was instantly popular off the field and on it, where he became a solid and occasionally spectacular go-to receiver for whoever happened to be tossing the pigskin that year. Cooley was tough and durable, with sure hands and the ferocity to go across the middle regardless of the price to be paid. He played every single game until a broken ankle ended his season midway through the 2009 campaign. Cooley has also won over fans with his openness, accessibility, and fun-loving spirit. His personal website, 'The Cooley Zone’ is not only a hot Redskins fan internet stop, but perhaps the best personal NFL player website out there.

Chris Cooley is a great Redskin, and a great guy.

But drafting him in 2004 may have been a colossal missed opportunity for the Washington Redskins. Setting well-deserved Cooley man-love aside, I believe the Redskins made a huge blunder in selecting Cooley. Sitting there for the taking in the 3rd round that year was a player who’d have had a far greater impact on the seasons since that draft. Better still, he was one of those rarest of NFL draft treasures, a franchise quarterback at bargain basement prices.

I’m speaking of last year's Pro Bowl quarterback, the Houston Texans Matt Schaub.

Who am I to challenge the wisdom of the Redskins 2004 scouting department and front office? Good question. After all, they’d drafted an obvious franchise QB only 2 years earlier in Patrick Ramsey. Ramsey was so talented, Joe Gibbs gave him about 5 minutes of starting glory in 2005 before giving him the hook in favor of a game but geriatric Mark Brunell. And you know the rest of this promising tale of quarterbacking glory, the latest chapter of which ended along with the Jason Campbell experiment. Suffice it to say, the Redskins and their fans have wrung their hands over the QB position nearly continuously since that draft day in 2004.

It didn’t have to be so. I can’t prove it, but had Joe Jackson Gibbs been in the driver’s seat a year earlier, we might well have drafted a QB instead with that precious second pick in 2004, and it may well have been a gunslinger from a little state university in Charlottesville, Virginia. As it was, Gibbs was just getting his head around the new NFL, and likely placed his trust in Vinny Cerrato and company, who'd made their bed with Patrick Ramsey and were determined to lie in it. Gibbs soon enough realized he needed a real quarterback. He could have had one to groom, and grow, from the beginning.

And why might we have gone that route you ask? It’s all about the numbers boys. Schaub was a legitimate star at Virginia, lighting up the ACC skies during his 3 years as a starter. True, the Atlantic Coast Conference was hardly known as a hotbed of NFL quarterbacks, but Schaub racked up impressive stats during his UVa career. He completed nearly 70% of his passes, threw for 6000 yards, threw 56 touchdowns with only 17 interceptions, and achieved a passer rating in the 140’s during his final 2 college seasons. In 3 seasons, he threw for over 7500 yards and set an ACC pass completion percentage (67%) record that has yet to be eclipsed (Philip Rivers couldn’t do better than #5 all-time, and Matt Ryan lags behind at #7). Schaub was the real deal in 2004, and would have been a steal at pick #81 that year.

There were a lot of quarterback gems sparkling in the April sun that 2004 draft day, so perhaps it’s understandable that lots of teams walked right past a diamond in the rough. Names like Manning, Rivers, and Roethlisberger were on every NFL team’s lips and dominated the conversation. Obscured by the light and hype surrounding those 3 great prospects, Schaub was an afterthought. When JP Losman was selected by Buffalo in the first round and Schaub was still waiting for a phone call well into round 3, he must’ve questioned himself whether anyone would recognize his talents. At 6’5”, 235 lbs, it was clear to me that Schaub had the stature, arm, and leadership skills to be an NFL starter, maybe even a franchise quarterback.

With the Redskins on the clock late in the 3rd round and Schaub still on the board, my heart was racing. Just down the road from the Skins at UVa, there was no way Schaub’s skills and promise could have escaped a Redskins front office with nothing but question marks at quarterback. He had to be their guy – it just made sense. I watched in disappointment as the Redskins drafted an unheralded tight end from Utah State.

I love me some Chris Cooley. And if you’re going to 'miss’ on a franchise quarterback in the 3rd round, there probably aren’t many other players I can think of who I’d rather us 'miss on' than Chris Cooley. Cooley is tough, dedicated, talented, and a team guy. He’s a great Redskin.

Still – I can’t help but regret that we never got to see what Joe Gibbs might have done with a star-in-waiting like Schaub - a big, strong, smart, and coachable quarterback who could make all the throws necessary to do great things in the NFL. Despite 3 years wasted on the bench in Atlanta waiting for Michael Vick to implode, Schaub has already made his NFL mark. Almost single-handedly taking the Texans from NFL marshmallow to division contender, Schaub has completed 66% of his passes during his tenure there, and in 2009 threw for 4770 yards (!), 29 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions enroute to his first Pro Bowl appearance.

We’ll never know where the NFL winds of fate may have taken the Redskins with Schaub in burgundy and gold. But this weekend, when the Redskins line up across from a guy they could’ve had behind center for the past 6 seasons, I won’t be able to keep from wondering.
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