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The Importance of Keeping Riley Cooper

Statistics and combine times don't win Super Bowls. Team chemistry does.

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the NFL Combine's statistical orgy is over, let's remember what wins Super Bowls. It's not your 40 speed or vertical jump, or even the 3 cone.

Teams put together players to fit the various needs on a roster, and the Eagles are clearly in the gap-filling stage. But they're already a playoff team, and you don't win the Lombardi Trophy by spackling. A different kicker or a dominating nose tackle may have defeated New Orleans, but it wouldn't have gotten the Birds past San Francisco or Seattle.

The final competition is between teams without major gaps. The one that wins is the one with that X-factor, the whole that's greater than the sum of its parts. Specifically, team chemistry.

You can't build this by spending money, as the Eagles found out in 2011. The high-priced free agents often hurt as much as they help, because of their attitude. Players who find their talent and their niche on your team are the best bet for building a superior franchise.

That's how Seattle won a ring with so many UDFAs and low draft picks. They're like a girlfriend who doesn't realize how pretty she is, except that they make themselves pretty through hard work and emotional growth.

The Eagles are probably a couple of years away from scaring Pete Carroll, but they're on the right track. And that's why it's so important that they keep free agent wide receiver Riley Cooper.

Nick Foles and Riley Cooper are two unheralded players who just came into their own under the new coach, Chip Kelly. As many have noted, they have that chemistry between them. And who would have predicted it?

Foles was a third round pick who had, let's face it, a very rough rookie year filling in for the injured Michael Vick. Cooper was considered a third-rate talent even before his disastrous racial incident. He was very lucky to even stay in the league. Chip Kelly saw something there and did what was needed to keep Riley on the team. That effort turned out to be, in many ways, the key to this year's success.

A lot of people are skeptical about this much-discussed chemistry between Foles and Cooper. You can be analytical and say that Foles knows how to throw Cooper open, or that Riley anticipates Nick's progressions. Hell, maybe they meet before games and plan it all out with diagrams and memorized moves. As long as they connect on passes that DBs can't predict, I'll take it.

I think it's a true intuitive connection though, like that between Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey and Terry Porter -- three unheralded NBA players who found their talents together on the Portland Trailblazers team that beat Michael Jordan's Bulls in Chicago in the 1992 NBA finals. In game two, anyway. OK, it went bad after that, but still.

Think back to the Snow Bowl last year against the Detroit. Philadelphia was down 14-0 deep into the third, and nothing was working. All plans were out the window. If there was ever a game where you needed intuition and chemistry, this was it.

Coach Kelly decided to take Cary Williams' advice on the difficulty of defending deep passes. With five minutes left in the third period, Foles basically hucked the ball up 44 yards into the raging blizzard, and Riley Cooper pulled it in out of the void. That wasn't luck -- it was the connection that they showed all year.

Cooper didn't even score a touchdown in the game, though he did catch a 2-point conversion, and the Birds' first TD was aimed at him -- but went over his head, right into DeSean Jackson's hands.

But that first reception swung the whole momentum of the game, and Philadelphia ended up scoring 34 points in the game's final 20 minutes.

Now maybe Jeremy Maclin, or Mike Evans or Brandin Cooks will connect with Foles the same way. But we have no way of knowing that without spending a draft pick or a lot of money for those players, and there are no refunds if it doesn't work. That's why the Eagles need to make sure Cooper stays on the team. And at 6'3", Riley is only an inch shorter than Oregon's self-declared free agent Colt Lyerla, who would bring a different kind of chemistry to the team.

That early 90s Blazer team went to the Finals twice, but never got a ring. They had the team chemistry among their big three, but never quite filled the gap at center, and lost to two great teams -- Isaiah Thomas' Pistons and Michael Jordan's Bulls.

The Eagles have a great start on filling their gaps, and also have a solid core of chemistry with Foles, Cooper, DeSean and Shady on offense, and the front line, Barwin and Boykin on D. Obviously they need to add a couple more pieces.

But it's just as important that they don't throw away the extra spark that brings it all home. With Cooper and Foles, it fell into their lap in a way no one could have predicted -- and that makes it all the more important to hang onto it.

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