ST. JOSEPH, Mo. – Third-year pro Marcus Cooper stood alone under the trees, the sweat flowing from his face following a training camp practice.
While the shade offered an escape from the glaring sun, it didn’t prevent the inquiries the Chiefs cornerback knew awaited him.
The 6-2, 192-pound Cooper could elect to ignore the questions surrounding a 2014 campaign that resulted in a demotion just one season removed from being voted by teammates as the Chiefs’ Rookie of the Year in 2013.
But in the spirit of the position he plays, which often calls for a defender to be alone on the edge against an opponent, Cooper tackled the adversity head on.
“No excuses,” Cooper said. “Things happened and that’s just the life of the corner position. You’re not going to cut any slack, so I don’t look for it. I’m going to be hated; I’m going to be loved. You just got to take it all on the nose and keep going.”
The circumstances surrounding Cooper’s fall in 2014 weren’t gradual; they were dramatic.
Cooper went from being named the starting left cornerback; missing the regular-season opener with an ankle injury; demoted in favor of Jamell Fleming during the Week Six bye; losing playing time to then-rookie Phillip Gaines; relegated to special teams in Weeks 10-14, a five-game stretch where he failed to record a defensive snap; and then a healthy inactive the final two games of the regular season.
“It was tough,” Cooper said. “Some things happened, some injuries, some plays in a game and I got demoted. But we had some great guys that stepped in and they were able to handle business, which is really where we’re headed as a team. We get things done, so I was happy those guys stepped in and were able to get it done.”
It would have been easy for the 25-year-old Cooper, who has two years remaining on his contract, to isolate himself in the face of the second-half adversity.
But he couldn’t hide from his teammates, all of whom offered daily encouragement.
“Those guys kept their arms around me,” he said. “Every week they tried to help me get better. We’re all going to push each other to get better and hopefully bring out the best in each other.”
An established veteran cornerback, in particular, offered the strongest support.
“Sean (Smith) has been helping me since he got here,” Cooper said. “Hats off to the guy. Every young guy that comes in, he puts his arm around him and shows you things that works for him. He goes over concepts and stuff with you. My hats off to him; he’s a great man.”
Cornerbacks have an air of confidence about them with an ability to mentally block a bad play and a willingness to get in a wide receiver’s face at the line of scrimmage.
Those attributes are crucial in defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s press-man scheme, and Sutton understands a cornerback will get beat.
But it’s a matter of a cornerback not beating himself, a message Sutton offered Cooper.
“I think when you play out on that edge it’s a challenging place because you’re truly by yourself,” Sutton said. “When somebody beats you, everybody knows you got beat because you’re away from the masses. I think the one thing you have to do, you have to be very thick skinned, you have to have a really tough mentality about you and you have to be resilient out there. That’s what we told him.”
Cooper took those words to heart during the offseason, committing himself to improve technique and becoming a student of the game, which included spending hours breaking down film and learning concepts.
Cooper also received helpful advice at the end of the 2014 regular season.
“I had the opportunity to get help from Coach (Andy) Reid and (defensive assistant/secondary) Coach Al (Harris),” Cooper said. “They gave me some stuff that I could look at. They gave me some thoughts and stuff on what I should work on for the offseason and what I should do. I stayed around Kansas City. I got the opportunity to look at some film. It’s fine.”
Cooper entered OTAs and mandatory minicamp re-energized and focused to compete.
And it became clear the Chiefs haven’t given up on him, as he often took first-team repetitions at left cornerback during OTAs with Gaines sliding to the nickel cornerback position in the nickel package.
Rookie cornerback Marcus Peters has since assumed that role in the nickel package, but Cooper remains in position to contribute with second-team and special teams repetitions.
“I’m just trying to be productive with whatever the team needs,” Cooper said. “If they need me on defense or if they need me on special teams, I’m trying to do that and help the team where we’re trying to go to.”
Cooper’s willingness to put the team first has Reid’s admiration.
“I love his competitiveness,” Reid said. “We obviously love his size, and he’s very, very smart. That’s one of the things you like about him, so I have nothing but good things to say about him.”
With the support from teammates and coaches, Cooper looks forward to the upcoming season and he assumed the confident stance of his position when reflecting on the past year.
He views the 2014 season in the same vein as allowing a bad play.
More importantly, Cooper displayed the resiliency expected of a press-man cornerback by mentally shaking it off in order to prepare for the next series.
“As a corner you have to have a short memory,” Cooper said. “You learn in the offseason, you evaluate and learn from that stuff and just move forward. Everything is progress from here.”