“Everybody knows where he is at every single point in every down,” Jackson said. “They move him around so he’s not in the same place, so that you can’t game-plan for him. But there is no hiding him. Everybody knows who he is, and everybody’s quite aware.”
After a breakout season with the Los Angeles Rams, Kupp has emerged as the centerpiece of their offense and their run to Super Bowl LVI. But the son of an NFL quarterback (Craig Kupp) and grandson of an NFL offensive lineman (Jake Kupp) has taken an unlikely path to becoming one of the league’s premier players.
Cooper Kupp didn’t have a single college scholarship offer when his senior season of high school ended in Yakima, Wash. He was unrefined and lacked the chart-topping measurables. But he was smart, and what he didn’t know then he’d soon master through study and reps.
Kupp left Eastern Washington University as the all-time leader in receiving yards at any level of college football (6,464 yards), was taken in the third round of the 2017 draft by the Rams and is now the gold standard for his position — a consensus first-team all-pro whose game inspires his fellow elite. While Kupp doesn’t have the imposing size or blazing speed typical of great receivers, what he does have is far more dangerous: the mind of a quarterback and the savvy of a coach — with deceptive athleticism.
“Cooper Kupp’s game is like magic, man,” Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase said. “The way he plays, the way he gets in and out of his cuts, the way he sets defenders up — it’s crazy. … Cooper Kupp’s at another level.”
It took 13 seconds for Kupp to let the world in on how he saw the game. In the third quarter of the Rams’ blowout win over the Jaguars in Week 13, Kupp turned an option route from the slot into a 29-yard touchdown. But it was his explanation of the play in a postgame interview that went viral.
“Yeah, they just had a little three-deep fire zone,” he said. “Brought the nickel off the edge, safety dropped down. They didn’t look like they were doing a replacement fire zone, so I knew with the back away, we were going to get three pushing through. I had all three to kind of run in there if I could beat my guy, just had to beat the safety to the end zone.”
The simple version is the Jaguars gave a look of man coverage. Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford moved his running back, Sony Michel, to his left so the Rams would have three receivers on one side, which would push the linebacker their way. So when the slot corner in front of Kupp blitzed, the safeties had to rotate, leaving safety Andrew Wingard on Kupp and the middle of the field wide open. Kupp slipped inside for a clear lane to the end zone as Wingard watched from the ground.
“Cooper, he’s a big-picture thinker,” said Bengals Coach Zac Taylor, who coached the Rams’ receivers and then their quarterbacks from 2017 to 2018. “So he really understands the structure of the defenses, the nuances of the route running, and he cares about the run game as well. There’s oftentimes he would screenshot pictures of defenses with run thoughts. You’d wake up the next morning to a midnight text from Cooper Kupp with thoughts on things that could help the offense.”
He’d chat with his defensive teammates, too. Kupp picks the brains of safeties and cornerbacks about formations. “When I line up here, [where] do you think I’m going to go?” Taylor recalled Kupp saying. “He understands the defense’s approach.”
Rams coaches describe Kupp and injured wide receiver Robert Woods as coaches themselves. Both arrived in 2017, one as a rookie, the other as a veteran free agent, but both see the game from a wider lens — a lens often wider than the actual coaches.
When they make suggestions about the game plan, Sean McVay’s staff listens.
“They want to know the whole game plan, and when you got guys like that who want to know the whole game plan, you know they have something special in the making,” Rams receivers coach Eric Yarber said. “A lot of times they even know what the linemen are supposed to do, where they point [to] the linemen: ‘Oh, no, no, no. The Mike is 55. You’re here. … Push it out here to this nickel, 24.’ You see stuff like that in practice, you say, ‘Oh, these two guys get it.’
“I’m just glad Cooper or Robert don’t need a job right now, because Coach McVay would hire both of them right now over me.”
Kupp, meanwhile, views himself as a lifelong student. He knows enough now to teach, but when he talks about the broader concepts of the game — of the various schemes, of the blended systems, of the evolution of defenses — his eyes light up.
“Like learning about the Tampa 2,” he says. “Things start off playing cover-two, you start running seams against it. Down there in Tampa, they start having this Mike run through to take away some of those seam-runners, and now the offense has to adjust and find ways to attack Tampa 2. Just a give and take. It’s a beautiful thing, this game.”
Nick Edwards, Kupp’s former receivers coach at Eastern Washington, remembers Kupp as an unpolished rookie who every year set out to master another layer of his game. He was always looking for that extra edge. So by Year 3 he was studying offensive and defensive linemen.
“Because D-line and O-line are similar to DBs and receivers,” Edwards explained. “He was studying the D-lines’ pass-rush moves just so he can get another advantage.”
Edwards was a senior when Kupp took his recruiting trip to Eastern Washington. Instead of going out at 11 p.m., they watched game film and caught tennis balls, and soon Edwards’s meticulous routine was taken to a maniacal level by Kupp.
“He strives for perfection. He’s always trying to better himself,” Yarber said. “After every season, I’m trying to get rest, maybe a two- or three-week break after a season is done, but no, Cooper Kupp’s coming in. ‘Yarbs, you got my point-of-attack tape ready?’ ”
Mastery of the details is what makes Kupp almost impossible to defend.
Every route looks the same presnap, allowing him to disguise his plan of attack. It has become a hallmark of Kupp’s game, but to develop it he turned to one of the most basic teachings he received at a young age.
“You’re taught from the very first time you learn to run routes [that] everything is supposed to look like a go ball and then everything comes off of that,” he said. “So I think that’s kind of the root of where this whole thing comes from — trying to make everything look like the same thing and then being able to build off that.”
Every move and every second have a purpose for Kupp. A delayed release can create yards of separation. One quick step can turn a safety around 180 degrees.
But two of Kupp’s greatest skills are ones that can’t be quantified — and are ones younger players often struggle to grasp. Kupp has both spatial awareness and play awareness.
“He’s smart enough to know where he is in the progressions and how to get open at the time the quarterback’s looking at him, because he’s not always the first receiver; he may be the second or third,” said Wade Phillips, the former Rams defensive coordinator. “A lot of guys run out and they just try to get open on their route. Well, they get open, but the quarterback’s not looking that way. Kupp has that dimension that a lot of them don’t have, is his ability to get open at the right time.”
The physical skill
Sometimes numbers can lie. At the combine in 2017, Kupp ran a 4.62-second 40-yard dash, a time that pales in comparison to those of many of today’s top wide receivers.
Yet Kupp could never be regarded as slow.
“He’s got deceiving speed,” Taylor said. “I think people think he’s not the fastest guy in the league, and they get fooled by that, and he runs right by them.”
Whatever Kupp lacks in straight-line speed, he more than compensates in lateral quickness and change-of-direction speed, allowing him to cut inside or break out to create cushion with a defender.
“Speed is a luxury. Quickness is a necessity,” Kupp said. “ … There are certainly guys that can get by without it. Guys that have great catch radius and are able to make contested catches consistently. There’s certainly ways around that. But quickness is something that I’ve tried to develop as early as I can remember. It was always a point in the offseasons of developing quickness and then also being able to maintain it based on all the different cuts that you do.”
Don’t be fooled by looks either. Despite his slender frame, Kupp is one of the more difficult receivers to bring down. He led the league with 29 forced missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus — which helped him lead the league with 846 yards after the catch.
“He’s got great body control, so on his choice routes — they love to run choice routes with him — he does a great job of keeping his feet underneath him and breaking DBs off,” Taylor said. “He’s had a lot of success doing that, 130 times to be exact.”
Sometimes it just takes the right quarterback and right system. Edwards still remembers the conversation he had with Kupp shortly after the Rams traded for Stafford last January.
“He was like, ‘This is the first time in my career that I’m with a quarterback that has more knowledge than me,’ ” Edwards said. “When you look back at it in his career, that’s true. No disrespect to Jared [Goff]. … Cooper has the work ethic as a quarterback, and he developed that knowledge to where he saw a check before Jared saw the check.”
Nine years after Stafford helped Calvin Johnson set the single-season receiving yards record (1,964) with the Detroit Lions, he’s helping Kupp come within inches of the record and on the brink of single-season playoff records in catches, yards and touchdowns.
Though it can often take a receiver and his quarterback more than a full season to find a rhythm and chemistry, Cooper and Stafford made the transition appear seamless on game days. All the heavy lifting was done behind the scenes.
“I have to get here at 5:15, 5 o’clock [in the morning] to beat him and Matt to the office,” Yarber said. “ … They’re putting the work in for hours. Just going over film, studying situational, third downs, red zone, two-minute. They know exactly what they’re going to see when they hit the field.”
Both Kupp and Stafford have the eyes of a quarterback. So their interpretation of coverages and fronts, and their plan to exploit them, are almost always aligned — a necessity in any offense but especially McVay’s.
The system is heavy on bunch formations and choice routes that provide Kupp the option to break in, break out or blow by his defender, depending on his read. McVay likes to move around Kupp so he can run the same route from outside, in the slot, at the No. 2 position in a bunch formation or even lined up in the backfield.
“Sean does a great job of putting us in great positions all the time,” Kupp said. “But for the few times that it’s not the perfect play, for us to be able to find ways to make it come to life and give a wide range of successful outcomes. No matter what we’re going to see, it kind of allows us to live in that world.”
The two lived in that world in the final minute of their divisional-round playoff game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, when Stafford hit Kupp on a 44-yard go route from the slot against a six-man rush. The catch set up the Rams game-winning field goal.
They lived it again in the NFC championship game against the San Francisco 49ers. Kupp scored two touchdowns and gained 142 yards, and he had a couple of third-down completions late to set up the game-winning kick.
San Francisco Coach Kyle Shanahan admitted afterward that the 49ers tried to slow the Rams, with those choice routes and big third-down plays, but said, “That’s what they’ve been doing all year.”
He knew what every other coach in the league knows all too well: There’s no hiding Cooper Kupp.