Los Angeles Rams receiver Cooper Kupp looks like a classic sports story: doubted, undervalued, and ultimately good enough to prove everyone wrong on his sport’s biggest stage. When Kupp graduated high school in Washington state in 2012, he did not have a single scholarship offer from the Football Bowl Subdivision, college football’s top division. He took a scholarship at Eastern Washington, which plays on a dystopian-looking, blood-red field in the next tier down, in the Football Championship Subdivision’s Big Sky Conference. Kupp dominated there and became a four-time consensus first-team all-American, something that’s almost impossible. The school said he broke 15 FCS, 11 Big Sky, and 26 EWU records. Most notable among them were his 6,464 receiving yards, 428 receptions, 73 touchdown catches, and 124.3 yards per game. Kupp torched every defense he faced, including FBS opponents like Washington State. Then the NFL called, and the Rams picked him in the third round in 2017’s draft, 69th overall.
This description undersells Kupp’s origin story by a good bit. Kupp didn’t prove anyone wrong, because he couldn’t even get most schools to notice him in the first place. Kupp called me for a story I was writing about him during his draft preparation, and he told a story that was astonishing even in the Wild West of college football recruiting. Kupp had tried to get the attention of the coaches at the University of Washington, where his grandfather played, in a region where he’d been an all-state high school player.
“We had a lot of connections there,” Kupp told me. “We couldn’t even get a reply back from them. We couldn’t get a letter back or an email back that simply said, ‘No, we’re not interested.’ We couldn’t get anything from them, so, you know, it was frustrating.”
As far as the top of college football is concerned, nobody underestimated Kupp. They simply did not estimate him, period. He was a nonentity. Nobody knew who he was. He wasn’t good enough (or bad enough, depending on your vantage point) to even be a two-star recruit. He picked EWU over Idaho State, another Big Sky team, without a whisper from the big schools.
A lot of people know Kupp now, and more today than yesterday. On Sunday, he caught 11 of 14 targets in the NFC Championship against the San Francisco 49ers, netting 142 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns in a 20–17 Rams win that punched Kupp’s ticket for the second Super Bowl appearance of his five-year career. It was a fitting almost-capper to an All-Pro season in which Kupp led the NFL with 145 catches (22 more than anyone else), 1,947 receiving yards (more than 300 clear of anyone else), and 16 receiving touchdowns (two more). He was eighth in yards per target (10.2), meaning he barely sacrificed any efficiency for all of that volume. Counting the playoffs, he was already the first 2,000-yard receiver in league history before the NFC title game. There is a fair case to be made that his 2021 is the best wideout season ever.
It is reasonable to be surprised, given where Kupp came from. But his stardom—not to this degree, but to a significant extent anyway—is a sensible byproduct of skills he’s been showing off and honing since before he ran an NFL route.
Kupp is an incredibly athletic receiver. Anyone can see that. For an amusing example, note how badly he dusted 49ers cornerback K’Waun Williams on his second touchdown on Sunday. Kupp cooked Williams so thoroughly that the cornerback gestured like he was expecting help from another defensive back. One can understand why Williams would’ve wanted that assistance:
Kupp’s other differentiator is how well he understands offense. On this particular element of his game, there were strong clues in his college career. At EWU, Kupp played in an “air raid” offense, a system characterized by a few things: shotgun snaps, offensive linemen standing far apart to force wide paths to the quarterback, only a handful of plays run out of only a handful of formations, and receivers reading the defense in real time to decide where to go for a pass.
The air raid was once a mark against NFL prospects. Until the 2010s or so, pro teams didn’t run offenses that had much in common with the scheme. Air raid college QBs routinely flopped in the league. But the NFL and college have converged in strategy in recent years. One of college’s most air-raidy coaches, Kliff Kingsbury, is now a winning NFL coach. His old quarterback at Texas Tech, Patrick Mahomes, is already one of the best NFL quarterbacks ever. And Kupp, an air raider himself, has found a home in the Rams’ decidedly non–air raid offense, in part because of the skills he gained reading defenses in his college system.
“That’s gonna be big at the next level,” Kupp told me before his draft, “as much as you are called to be able to find zones and understand what the defense is doing. There’s so many adjustments off of every route that, if you’re able to understand the defense, then you can play that much faster, because you don’t even know pre-snap, sometimes, exactly what you’re gonna need to do.”
Indeed, in the NFL, Kupp’s brain has worked like a football supercomputer. Take this touchdown he scored late in the regular season …
… and listen to him explain how his route developed at the snap, in response to the defense. You don’t have to understand everything he says to understand how quickly he processed the Jacksonville Jaguars’ blitz and turned it into 6 points:
One of Kupp’s many essential plays in the NFC Championship came down to a similar way of thinking. On a critical third down on what became the Rams’ game-winning drive, the Rams “stacked” Kupp at the snap behind fellow wideout Odell Beckham Jr., ensuring Kupp could get a free release to start the play and not be jammed up at the line of scrimmage. From there, as pointed out by high school coach and Xs-and-Os expert James Light, Kupp’s job was to assess the 49ers defense and decide to break over the middle or toward the sideline, trusting that QB Matthew Stafford would correctly figure out where he was going. Kupp made his read, Stafford found him in a small window, and the Niners’ tight coverage didn’t even give them a chance. Then Kupp’s ability to move after the catch turned it into an even bigger play:
There is a long history of football media talking up the “cerebral” traits of receivers as a throwaway euphemism for those receivers being white. It is right to be skeptical of that label as applied to Kupp. But Kupp really does appear to read defenses at an 800 level, and it makes sense, because that was a crucial part of the offense Kupp dominated in across four years at Eastern Washington. All receivers need to understand defenses, but Kupp really did.
In the Super Bowl on Feb. 13, Kupp will be the Rams’ most indispensable offensive player other than Stafford, the guy who throws him the ball. His counterpart will be the Cincinnati Bengals’ Ja’Marr Chase, who was similarly dominant at LSU. Chase played in the Southeastern Conference, which gave him a no-doubt platform to prove his brilliance to anyone watching. Chase took off the 2020 season to train for the draft and became the No. 5 pick, and if anything, this season has suggested he should’ve gone off the board even sooner.
Kupp was a little harder to figure out. He had to answer a lot of pre-draft questions about the quality of competition he faced, not just from the media but from teams. “People wanna know about it,” he said back then. “They wanna know what I think about it. I don’t know if it really matters what I think about it.” There was no level of achievement that would’ve spared him that doubting, seeing as Jerry Rice played FCS football before becoming the best wideout ever.
There are a lot of lessons in Kupp’s success, though he is not the only player who could teach them. One of them is that, sometimes, it is worth believing in what’s right in front of you, because elite athleticism and an elite understanding of a position can work just as well in the NFL as it can in the Big Sky.