Lining up on any given play, Amari Cooper knows he needs to reach a very specific spot on the field at an exact moment in time. That’s practically thing number one in the job description for wide receiver. But the Cowboys superstar also knows that it’s how he gets from Point A to Point B, the little things he does along the way, that will set him apart from everyone else and ultimately determine his success.
So understand why he doesn’t pay much mind to surprises like teammates getting injured or missing games for suspension or COVID protocol. They’re just minor distractions, hand-checks at the line of scrimmage to be fought through. Because there’s still a route to be run, an assignment to complete.
“Things happen,” Cooper told reporters this week, referring to the Cowboys’ rash of bad luck that has La’el Collins suspended, Randy Gregory on the COVID list, DeMarcus Lawrence recovering from foot surgery, and fellow wideout Michael Gallup shelved with a calf injury… all within the same week. “Just got to keep pushing forward, keep adapting. I feel like everything is going to be cool. That’s what we practice for.”
Cooper has always been one of the more thoughtful and cerebral players in the Dallas locker room. But trying to give some perspective to the extreme adversity he and his teammates are already wading through just two weeks into the season (after an entire year of it in 2020), the four-time Pro Bowler is rapidly approaching Jedi Master status.
“The game’s got a way of humbling you.” That’s what Cooper told CeeDee Lamb after the second-year receiver suffered a few glaring drops in last Thursday’s season opener, just before rebounding to snare Dak Prescott’s first touchdown throw of the season.
The philosophical kernel stopped Lamb cold on a hot and humid night in Tampa.
“He was like, ‘That’s, like, the realest thing you ever told me,’” Cooper relayed. “It’s just how it is sometimes. It just reminds you to concentrate on the small details.”
Concentrating on the details has never been a problem for the critically-minded Cooper. Growing up in Miami, he learned quickly that the secret to standing out on the football field came not only from what he did with his hands and his feet, but also from what was happening between his ears.
“Everybody knows that south Florida is like a hotbed for football. And the specific neighborhood I grew up in, it was just so big. I had to start playing football. I really started playing at my afterschool program. That was the thing: you try to finish your homework as fast as possible so you could go play football. And it just sprung up from there,” the 27-year-old shared.
“That’s where I became, like, a technician,” he continued, snickering at the term and even using air quotes. “Because everybody was so good, you had to focus on the small details of route-running, because everybody played receiver… When you’re playing football in an unorganized manner, you have a quarterback, and everybody else is at receiver. And our counselor at the afterschool program, he was the quarterback. He’s only going to throw it to you if you’re open. So if you go back him and you’re like, ‘Why didn’t you throw me the ball?’ He’s going to be like, “You ain’t getting open.’ I used to always be one of those kids who’d go to him, “Man, I want the ball.’ He’s like, ‘You’ve got to get open.’ So I just started finding ways to get open.”
Amari Cooper is incredible. pic.twitter.com/kM7mcDJDk7
— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) September 10, 2021
Everybody in the NFL can run. Everybody can use their body for leverage. Cooper’s game has always been about outsmarting defenders, playing mind games, fine-tuning the tiniest physical details and using them as smoke and mirrors to camouflage his route-running intentions.
And he leads a master class in it every day, coaching up his fellow pass-catchers. It’s something he’s actually done since high school.
“I think it would just be a disservice to my teammates who are doing the same job that I’m doing,” Cooper explained, “to consistently see them running a route that may not be the best way to run it and not say anything.”
And Cooper says plenty. He normally comes across as soft-spoken, a man of few words. Until the topic is running routes.
“You’ve got the lines, right? A comeback looks like a comeback, or a slant looks like a slant. But you also have variations in every route. The lines that you see on an actual playbook, it’s just a guideline. So this is what a slant looks like, this is what an out looks like, this is what a go looks like. But to actually get out there in front of a defender, sometimes it all goes out the window,” Cooper said. “It’s like the difference between going to school and studying something and actually doing the real job. It’s like you see the differences of what you learned in school and actually doing it, if that makes sense.”
It’s definitely making sense to Lamb. The first-rounder out of Oklahoma caught 74 balls as a rookie and came close to topping 1,000 yards in the 2020 season. Against Tampa, his 104 receiving yards placed him in the top 10 leaguewide for Week 1 of the ’21 campaign.
And no one is more congratulatory than Cooper.
“Coop has been great for me these first two years,” Lamb said of his veteran teammate. “He’s been a great mentor. A great big brother. We were just talking, and he’s like, ‘I see you got your 100 [yards].’ I was like, ‘Man, just lead the way. I’m not going to be too far behind.’ He was just like, ‘Vice versa, bro, there’s going to be days where you lead the way, and I won’t be too far behind.’”
But like any big brother, Cooper occasionally has to go out of his way to keep the youngsters on the right path.
“He’ll get on you, now. He’ll let you know when you’re slacking,” Lamb assured. “I just got to go match energy. And then the way he runs his routes, when he’s mad at you and he’s looking like that running routes, it’s like, ‘Dang, I’ve got to try to top that. I don’t know how.’ Just competitiveness.”
CeeDee Lamb is a tough cover… pic.twitter.com/VY0ksGAin7
— Joey Hayden (@_joeyhayden) September 10, 2021
Cooper will have a new padawan in class this Sunday. With Gallup on injured reserve, Cedrick Wilson will get a heavy dose of action against the Chargers, and lots of opportunities to learn from the master.
“Have to give it to him, he’s for sure the best route runner that I’ve been around,” Wilson said this week of Cooper.
But even the 2018 sixth-round pick who’s gotten limited time on offense knows it’s not just one thing that makes No. 19 so dangerous.
“From an outsider’s point of view, it all goes together: the feet, body, and mind. He knows how to control it all.”
Competitiveness and control. Those traits drive Cooper, in his seventh year as a pro, to continue to look for new ways to blend creativity with precision.
“With any given route,” he described, “you can basically do anything you want to; it just has to time up, and you have to get open, and you have to be right. You can’t do something that doesn’t look like the route and then it doesn’t work, because that’s when you get cursed out. That’s why you have to know, on certain routes, the quarterback’s drop. Because his drop is different: sometimes he has a one-step drop, three-step, five-step, sometimes it’s a play-action, you have to know these things so you can time up your route in the right way. Also, on certain routes, you have a specific place you have to be. On a dig, the quarterback isn’t supposed to even throw it past the hash. So if you try to construct the route to where you’re diving down and getting past the hash, this is not good timing; you’re not in the right place. All those things you have to be aware of.”
It was all clicking for Cooper against the defending Super Bowl champs. He led all NFL receivers in Week 1 with 13 catches and tallied 139 yards, third-best in the league.
Amari Cooper vs Bucs
38.9 PPR fantasy points pic.twitter.com/HFD6BTfVbJ
— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) September 10, 2021
Turning in stat lines like that aren’t a surprise any longer when it comes to Cooper… even though his entire job is predicated on making sure the other guy has no idea what’s coming.
“I’m trying to make them think I’m running anything other than the slant,” Cooper offered as an example. “If I’m running a slant, I need him to think I’m running something that’s going that way instead of this way.”
But that doesn’t mean Cooper’s out there freelancing his way down the field, making it all up as he goes.
“Sometimes you can improv a little bit,” he said, “but it still has to go together. A slant is a three-step route. I can play with it a little bit, but it still has to time up with the quarterback.”
Knowing exactly where he wants to be and exactly when he wants to be there, but using smarts and preparation to help make critical adjustments as needed along the way.
That’s Cooper in a nutshell.
But it could also serve as a directive for his team as a whole.
SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles on February 13 for Super Bowl LVI. That’s the where and when for the 2021 Cowboys. It’s how they make the adjustments now that will determine if they get there.
That, and maybe a few more lessons from Jedi Master Cooper.