The smile rarely leaves Pharoh Cooper's face.
It’s easy to smile when you have a job in the NFL. When you’re making a huge catch on a fake punt in Tampa or a touchdown reception in San Francisco. When you’re “living the life of Larry” and sitting courtside at a Suns game with teammate Larry Fitzgerald.
A smile becomes a little harder to maintain when the team you think you fit pretty well cuts you just before the regular season starts, or when the team that picks you up also decides to let you go, and you find yourself watching NFL games on Sunday from home instead of inside a stadium.
Even then, the Cardinals’ wide receiver said, he held on to his sunny disposition.
“The Cardinals released me and the Bengals released me, I still had a smile on my face but it was kind of like, when watching games I’d be like, ‘Are you serious right now? How am I not on a roster?’" Cooper said.
“But I still have a smile on my face. I’m big on confidence. I feel like I belong in the league so there was never a thought where I was down and depressed. I was always positive about it because that’s the only thing you can do is stay positive about it.”
Just seven games into his return to Arizona, Cooper already has set a career-high in receptions (16 for 157 yards and that touchdown) by making at least two receptions in all but one outing. He has solidified himself as the team’s kickoff and punt returner.
He’s done it while bringing what Fitzgerald called a “youthful exuberance” to a league and a profession that can be hard – and that has tested Cooper over the last 11 months.
“He has the right mentality to be successful in this game,” Fitzgerald said. “Things just roll off his back. You’re not going to break his spirit. There are always going to be things in this game that humble you and knock you down and get you dejected. Things like that happen to him, he keeps the positive perspective. That’s why he’s here, that’s why he’s making plays and that’s why he’s a big part of this offense.”
As the Cardinals prepare to play the Rams Sunday, Cooper is reminded that this time last season, he was still a big part of the Rams as they headed for a Super Bowl appearance. But he had been injured, losing his return jobs that made him all-pro and a Pro Bowler in 2017, and when the Rams needed a roster spot because of a rash of running back injuries, Cooper was the odd man out.
The Cardinals picked up on waivers, and he was dropped on to a roster that seemed to need his skills, especially within the offense of newly-hired coach Kliff Kingsbury.
Then the Cardinals drafted three wide receivers. No matter – Cooper continued to look good. Then, deep into training camp, the Cardinals decided to sign veteran receiver Michael Crabtree, and the roster numbers worsened.
“At first I never thought, being the player I am, I’d just be released,” Cooper said. “I don’t care who we have in the locker room. I feel I can compete with the best. I was fine until Week 4 of the preseason, and I was in the game in like the fourth quarter returning punts and kicks, I’m like, ‘OK, something is going on.’ I kind of had an idea by then.”
Kingsbury said Monday Cooper's release was “one of the more emotional (cuts) I had.”
“He made a bunch of plays in camp, and I think he knew he was a great fit for our system,” Kingsbury added. “It was tough both ways, but we had the opportunity to bring him back and he’s done nothing but make plays since we brought him back.”
The Bengals claimed Cooper, although he was cut a couple of weeks into the regular season. Meanwhile, the signing of Crabtree turned out to be a bust, and when he was released – and Christian Kirk hurt his ankle – the Cards were able to re-sign Cooper.
Cooper had never gotten a real chance to play receiver with the Rams. But he was needed there with the Cardinals, and his plays – like the fake punt catch, like the snag between two defenders in San Francisco – have underscored that he is more than just a flashy return man.
“They see Pharoh Cooper, they think, ‘That’s a return guy, he doesn’t play offense,’ ” Cooper said. “That’s frustrating. But when I catch a pass, or when on the fake punt I have to come back to make the play, for me as a receiver, that’s just pitch and catch for me. That’s doing what I do.”
Cooper smiles as he says it. Those doubting he could be effective as a pass catcher aren’t going to drag him down. And he certainly isn’t going to let his circuitous route back to the Cardinals become a dark memory.
“Larry messes with me all the time about it,” Cooper said. “Crabtree was here, yada, yada, yada. It was cool. It is what it is.
“It felt like I was injured for a couple of weeks and came back, honestly. It felt like I had never left.”