After a shorter-than-expected leave of absence, disgraced Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper is back with the team as they practice with the New England Patriots in preparation for their preseason opener Friday at Lincoln Financial Field.
Video of Cooper making racist comments at a concert emerged less than a week ago, so it's unlikely any hard feelings that existed when this story hit the fan have completely faded yet. Still, this is an ideal time to reintroduce the veteran backup receiver to the dressing room.
Cooper was listed as a starter on the depth chart the Eagles released Monday. If he's going to be accepted by his teammates again, we'll now know sooner rather than later. And by giving him a chance to suit up against New England Friday, Philly's giving him a fair shot at building his redemption case with a solid early impression on the field.
The Eagles are at home Friday and next Thursday when they take on the Carolina Panthers. In the next 10 days, they'll practice seven times and play two games. That probably means they'll have a feel for Cooper's position within the social structure of the locker room as well as his position on the depth chart by the time their Fri. Aug. 16 off day arrives.
If the unnamed sources have stopped calling him out and the tension around the team has eased (in other words, if Cooper has stopped being a distraction), and if he's still looking like a starter, the Eagles can keep rolling the dice. But they'll likely know by the end of next week if the potential reward will be worth the risk.
It's no secret that a double standard exists when players screw up. The more important you are as a player, the more you'll get away with as a person. Cooper has to let his game do the talking this week and next, and that alone will likely determine whether he's employed as we approach the home stretch of training camp and the preseason.
LeSean McCoy, Cary Williams and some unnamed Eagles reacted strongly to the Cooper debacle last week, but it does seem as though everyone is willing to put business ahead of personal relationships. As B/R colleague Michael Schottey wrote Friday, "the Eagles can probably win football games without Cooper and McCoy inviting each other over for tea and crumpets."
I do think football requires teams to have more cohesion than most sports, but I don't think everyone on the 53-man roster has to get along. As long as these guys can go about their business, and as long as Cooper can contribute, there's reason to believe he'll pass the tests thrown his way the next couple weeks.
I also believe football can accomplish some powerful things culturally. Second chances and reclamation projects thrive in dressing rooms, on the practice field and on Sundays in the fall. This is real life, not Remember the Titans, but it's not too late for Cooper to transform himself into a better person. And where better to do that than in a dressing room filled primarily with black peers?
This sad, disturbing story is going to reach a conclusion very soon. In a matter of weeks, maybe only days, we'll know if it ends as badly as it started or in feel-good fashion.