The best way for a great football player to enhance his reputation is to rise to the occasion in the Super Bowl.
Three years ago, Cooper Kupp picked the worst way. He enhanced his reputation by missing the Super Bowl.
He didn’t really pick that path, of course. Kupp missed the Rams’ last nine games of the 2018 regular season and postseason after tearing his left ACL. When the Rams lost that Super Bowl to the New England Patriots, 13-3, it wasn’t the first sign but it was the most painful reminder of what the wide receiver meant to their offense.
Three years later, as Kupp gets his first chance to play in a Super Bowl on Sunday at SoFi Stadium against the Cincinnati Bengals, he’s still thinking about the one he had to watch from the Rams’ sideline in Atlanta.
“Missing that Super Bowl, that’s one of the hardest things I’ve been through,” Kupp said a few days ago. “The conflict it creates in you, when you’re both cheering and pulling for your guys, but you know that every time they do succeed it just hurts you that much more because you want to be a part of it as well.”
In 2018, Kupp was in his second season with the Rams after being drafted in the third round out of Eastern Washington, and the son and grandson of NFL players was just starting to prove himself in the pros.
He’s on a different level now. At 28, the newly minted AP Offensive Player of the Year is going into the final game of a breakout year, one of the best ever by a receiver. Setting records was practically a weekly occurrence in the second half of the regular season.
Kupp rocketed to the top of the Rams’ all-time receiving lists in the NFL’s first 17-game season: His 145 receptions are an indisputable Rams record, surpassing Isaac Bruce and Tory Holt. His 1,947 yards are a Rams record, although not as good on a per-game basis as Elroy Hirsch’s 1,495 in 12 games in 1951 and Jim Benton’s 1,067 in nine games in 1945. His 16 touchdowns are second to Hirsch’s 17 in ’51.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Bruce and Holt were stars of the Rams’ only Super Bowl-winning team, when they were the St. Louis Rams in 1999, Hirsch was a star of the Los Angeles Rams’ only NFL championship-winning team in 1951, and Benton was a star of the franchise’s first NFL championship as the Cleveland Rams in 1945.
Kupp also became the first player since the Carolina Panthers’ Steve Smith in 2005, and the 12th in NFL and AFL history, to lead a league’s receivers in catches, yards and touchdowns.
He can become the first receiving Triple Crown winner to earn a Super Bowl ring in the same season, and join Hirsch in 1951, the Green Bay Packers’ Don Hutson in 1944 and the then-Baltimore Colts’ Raymond Berry in 1959 as the only Triple Crown winners to capture a pre-Super Bowl-era NFL championship in the same season.
Part of what makes Kupp unique is that he consistently, seemingly genuinely puts a lower priority than most people do on enhancing his reputation or achieving personal glory.
As hard as it was to miss Super Bowl LIII, he says the experience taught him an enduring lesson. It’s a version of: Since the destination is uncertain, you’d better enjoy the journey.
“Not being able to play in that first Super Bowl back in 2019 offered a pretty cool perspective for me (on) the importance of enjoying the process of what this NFL season is,” Kupp said.
“I’ve really been able to take the approach this year that every single day I get to come in here (to the Rams’ training facility), being able to play alongside the guys I get to play with, the coaches that come in here, (that’s) the important thing.”
Kupp said he didn’t take lightly the chance to play for a championship, especially after missing the chance before.
“(But) the important things from that year to me was the people I got to spend that time around, and the enjoyment of the process, and coming in and spending 12, 13, 14 hours or whatever it is preparing alongside these guys to play a football game,” he said. “That’s the stuff that I really enjoyed.”
Coaches and teammates marvel at Kupp’s enthusiasm for learning about the game that was handed down to him by his father, Craig, a quarterback who got into one game for the Arizona Cardinals in 1991, and grandfather, Jake, a Pro Bowl guard who played for the New Orleans Saints and three other teams in the 1960s and ’70s.
Kupp watches game film with Matthew Stafford so he can see it through his quarterback’s eyes. He watches offensive linemen for tips on blocking, which is part of his game. He turned his knee injury to his advantage by taking his recovery time to improve pass-running techniques.
“I think the thing that probably got him there is all the work that he puts into it, and I’m glad it’s paying off for him,” Stafford said.
Kupp says his dedication comes from what he calls a “supernatural calling” to football.
“I think that really comes down to my faith,” Kupp said. “I believe God made me with a purpose. He gave me the passions and the talents to pursue a specific thing. I feel like I found that at a young age. I just felt like when I was playing football, he was well pleased with what I was doing.
“It was really about, each day, waking up and saying I want to be the best that I can possibly be for no other reason than that God has put me here and I want to honor that and respect that to the best of my abilities. So I get to come in to work with the greatest purpose, the greatest drive and the greatest goals in mind.”
As for why Kupp made the leap to his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections this season, part of the credit goes to the addition of Stafford in the offseason.
Part goes to Kupp staying healthy enough to play every game for the first time in his five NFL seasons. The 6-foot-2, 208-pound receiver showed up at training camp looking more muscular than before. (Such was the effect that reporters watching from the sidelines thought he looked taller, too.)
Now there’s one more game.
Kupp, born in 1993 – the last year the Super Bowl was played in the Los Angeles area, the Cowboys beating the Bills, 52-17, at the Rose Bowl – grew up with the Super Bowl “basically another holiday” in his family.
He dreamed, vaguely, of playing in the Super Bowl someday.
“None of those dreams were filled with any anxiety. Those dreams were always filled with the joy of the moment,” Kupp said. “I’m going to enjoy every second of playing in this game.”