This seemed like an unlikely development three months ago, when Cooper was reeling from an off-field scandal involving racist remarks made at a Kenny Chesney concert. He has come a long way.
Foles: "I am so proud of Riley Cooper. So happy for him. After what he's been through, and how hard he's worked, this is great."— Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) November 4, 2013
The unlikely duo has enjoyed a torrid couple of weeks, and anyone with the foresight to stick them in his or her fantasy lineups has been rewarded handsomely. Foles has been particularly good—much has been made of the 16 touchdowns he has thrown against zero interceptions.
Cooper has been a big part of Foles' success.
If the last two weeks haven't been crazy enough, consider the fact that Cooper leads the league in fantasy scoring in the four weeks that Foles has started. So what has made this connection go from dial-up to fiber-optic?
The McCoy Effect
Having arguably the most dynamic running back in the league can be a boon to the passing game, and not just because LeSean McCoy is a proficient pass-catcher out of the backfield.
Opposing defenses must account for him at all times. In fact, it would not be surprising to find out that Oakland and Green Bay purposefully tried to contain McCoy and force Foles to beat them with his arm.
That plan failed, if it was indeed the plan.
This play wasn't complicated, featuring three verticals and two flat routes out of play-action. DeSean Jackson, Brent Celek and Cooper ran the 9-routes, while Jason Avant and McCoy stayed in the flats.
The Raiders were in a good position to defend, but the fake to McCoy was the key to the touchdown.
At the beginning of the play, Oakland safety Brandian Ross sprinted forward in run support—or coverage for McCoy, depending on how you want to look at it—leaving Cooper matched up one-on-one with cornerback D.J. Hayden.
The rookie was playing off, meaning Cooper was really going to have to fly to get behind him. Hayden isn't exactly slow either—he ran a 4.33-second 40-yard dash at the last combine—but on the field, Cooper had enough to get by him.
To top it off, Foles threw a perfect pass to Cooper, who caught it in stride. Hayden's fall was the reason Cooper scored instead of merely catching a long pass.
That play encapsulated everything that is going right for Foles and Cooper these days.
Cooper's Underrated Skill
Lost in the fluky nature of all this is the fact that Cooper is actually pretty good at his job.
Discussed on the couch (coming out today), but don't underestimate Riley Cooper. He's a supreme athlete and knocking opp out of the park— Sigmund Bloom (@SigmundBloom) November 6, 2013
Matt Waldman, Bloom's peer over at Footballguys.com had this to say about Cooper last summer:
But it was Cooper who I thought was sliding under the radar. Tall (6’4″), built (224 lbs.), and swift enough to get separation down field, Cooper didn’t benefit from playing in a system where the quarterback could make multiple reads and execute the vertical game efficiently. Those weren’t Tebow’s strengths, but there were still enough examples on tape where Cooper flashed the potential to develop a complete game.
I wasn’t alone. NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah was between scouting gigs that year when Cecil Lammey and I caught up with him at the Senior Bowl. Cooper was one of Jeremiah’s favorite receivers at the practices and I could see why. Cooper was consistently working open on intermediate routes, earning separation deep, and making difficult targets look easy. He wasn’t flashy, but he was sound.
Perhaps we should be less surprised about Cooper's breakout and more surprised that Foles has become a quarterback who can progress through reads and deliver accurate deep balls, like the one that burned Hayden in Oakland.
On this play against Green Bay last week, Cooper simply made a defender look silly en route to an easy touchdown.
The Packers were in zone coverage here, and the play called for Cooper to run a sluggo. Cornerback Tramon Williams passed him off in coverage to safety Morgan Burnett.
The route was run so well that Burnett nearly fell down, leaving Cooper all to himself.
I can't believe Riley Cooper was left WIDE OPEN again. This Foles-to-Cooper stuff is bordering on surreal.— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) November 10, 2013
How does Riley Cooper get THAT open?— Andrew Garda (@Andrew_Garda) November 10, 2013
So Cooper can beat zone coverage with his sweet Napoleon Dynamite moves, and he can run deep with a fast cornerback, but can he beat press coverage?
Why, of course. Sadly for Hayden, this example comes at his expense as well.
The Eagles ran a dagger play here, with Cooper running a 9-route into the end zone. The Raiders blitzed linebacker Kevin Burnett and left safety Charles Woodson to play center field.
He was preoccupied with tight end Zach Ertz, who had gotten behind cornerback Ross, leaving Hayden to battle with Cooper on the outside. It did not turn out well for the rookie.
Cooper performed a sneaky push-off on Hayden, which knocked him off balance enough to get the receiver behind him. Another great throw from Foles put the ball exactly where only Cooper could make the play.
As good as the Foles-to-Cooper connection has been, sometimes it's better to be lucky than to be good. That has been the case for a couple of Foles' recent touchdowns, such as when Hayden fell down on that 63-yarder earlier, or this 45-yard score against Green Bay.
This was basically a two-man route if you discount running back Bryce Brown's route to the flat. Jackson ran a deep-in while Cooper ran a post route.
The Packers were in man coverage with a single high safety in M.D. Jennings. Like the play-action play illustrated from the Raiders game, Jennings was sucked forward when Foles play-faked, leaving cornerback Davon House alone to get beat like a drum.
Cooper blew by him, but that's not why he scored a touchdown.
Cooper had House beat badly, but Foles threw this up for grabs. Fortunately for Cooper, Jennings never looked back as he sprinted in his attempt to recover. The Eagles receiver corrected his course while the defensive backs were simply scrambling to catch up, and that was all she wrote.
It's no secret that Cooper suddenly began to thrive when Foles took over for an injured Michael Vick. The difference is quite stark, however.
|Riley Cooper's Statistical Breakdown|
|Pro Football Focus (subscription required)|
Not only is Cooper being targeted more often with Foles than when Vick was the starting quarterback, but the quality of those targets has improved dramatically.
Some of that is a product of the competition. As we have seen, the Green Bay and Oakland secondaries aren't exactly top-notch, ranking 18th and 19th in the league in passing defense, respectively.
Perhaps the fact that Foles and Cooper have spent a lot of time together on the second team has something to do with it. Cooper was elevated to starter when Jeremy Maclin went down with an injury during the preseason, but it wasn't half a season before Foles joined his receiver on the first-team offense.
Obviously, Cooper's production over the past two games is entirely unsustainable. He won't be scoring 20 touchdowns in the second half of the season unless the duo has somehow stockpiled all the good fortune on the East Coast.
But there is clearly something good happening between Foles and Cooper. It helps that they have that Chip Kelly fella and his vaunted offense. It seems like the coaching staff has done a nice job of developing the duo.
The icing on the cake here is that the Eagles' schedule is conducive to continued production.
Philadelphia has games remaining against the pass defenses of Washington (26th), Arizona (17th), Detroit (27th), Minnesota (29th), Chicago (20th) and Dallas (32nd), although Foles had a rough go against the Cowboys in their last meeting.
In other words, you might be able to ride the Foles-to-Cooper train to a fantasy championship.
As for 2014 and beyond, this duo might just play its way into more permanent roles if this keeps up. Maclin is a free agent after this season—an unfortunate reality for the talented receiver, who will be coming back from a big injury—and the Eagles might stick with Cooper as their No. 2.
However, first things first. Foles and Cooper have to prove all this isn't a mirage, but instead an oasis in the otherwise desolate sports landscape of Philadelphia.