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Cooper Kupp Is This Season’s NFL Catch King

The Rams receiver is a master technician who is always willing to show the work he puts into his craft

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Cooper Kupp loves talking ball and never hesitates to share the nuances of his craft. Back in July, Kupp explained his approach to football, asking reporters whether they were familiar with “OODA loop,” an acronym for a strategic military concept that incorporates a four-step decision-making process.

“That’s football,” Kupp said while motioning his finger in a circle. “Observe, orient, decide and act, over, and over, and over again. The quicker you can do these things, the better you’re going to be. The slower the game is going to be [mentally], the better you’re going to be.”

Perhaps Kupp’s greatest attribute is his ability to diagnose situations in real time. On one play during a Week 13 win over the Jaguars, Kupp lined up in the slot. He ran an option route and read his incoming defender’s leverage. At the top of his pattern, he broke inside, caught Matthew Stafford’s throw, and sprinted away for the score—at one point reaching 20.05 mph, his second-highest speed on a catch this season. Kupp described the play in painstaking detail after the game, offering a nuanced explanation for how he processed information as the play developed.

If OODA loop sounds like a roller-coaster ride, that’s because, from a mental standpoint, it is. ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky needed two minutes to break down the variables involved in Kupp’s touchdown catch against the Jaguars—the play itself lasted seven seconds.

There are numerous factors that explain Kupp’s incredible output this season, but his ability to process information quickly on a snap-by-snap basis is the most significant. On Sunday, he had seven catches for 118 yards and one touchdown and finished the regular season with the second-most receptions (145) and second-most receiving yards (1,947 yards) in a single season in NFL history. He also led all receivers with 16 touchdowns.

Kupp was the NFL’s best receiver in 2021. He might even be the league’s most valuable player. He’s the NFL’s first triple-crown receiver (leading the league in receptions, yards, and touchdowns) since the Panthers’ Steve Smith in 2005 and the fifth since 1966, and he’s the first modern-era triple-crown receiver without a previous Pro Bowl appearance. (The Rams’ Elroy Hirsch in 1951 was the last receiver to earn that distinction.) He’s only the fourth wideout in NFL history with 100 catches, 1,500 yards, and 15 touchdowns (joining Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison, and Randy Moss).

Even if the 2021 regular season had concluded in Week 17, Kupp would have still led the NFL in catches, receiving yards, and receiving scores. His 16-game outputs in catches (138) and yards (1,829) would have ranked third- and fifth-best ever in those single-year categories, respectively. The former Eastern Washington star has developed himself into a dynamic focal point in one of the NFL’s most exciting passing attacks, and he’s a mainstay who’s helped the Rams reach their fourth playoff appearance since he joined the team in 2017. The Rams finished 12-5 as winners of the NFC West and will host the Cardinals in the wild-card round on Sunday.

“He is the epitome of a pro,” Rams coach Sean McVay said last week. “And it’s why he’s an All-Pro player and is mentioned as MVP, offensive MVP, Player of the Year–type of stuff, because of what he’s done. And it’s such a joy. I’m just so happy for Cooper, but I’m not surprised.”

Kupp’s road to the record books started in the offseason. Back home in Oregon, where Kupp lives during the offseason, he linked up with his friend and former Rams teammate Brandin Cooks. The Texans receiver is responsible for getting Kupp in touch with two integral figures in his offseason training regimen: EForce Sports Performance’s Erik Jernstrom and Headquarters Physical Therapy’s Ryan Baugus. The duo’s programs work in tandem; Baugus focuses on recovery and physical therapy treatments, while Jernstrom focuses on movement and conditioning.

“We simplify things and distill it down to what’s gonna get us the most bang for our buck,” Baugus said. “Time is of the essence. We need to do things that we know are going to have a positive or gonna lead to positive adaptation.”

Baugus has worked with Kupp since 2018, but Jernstrom first started training Kupp this past offseason. Jernstrom’s training method includes four areas of development: technical, tactical, physical, and psychological. He’s the one who introduced the OODA loop method to Kupp and explained the importance of quickly assessing an environment.

“The OODA loop happens in split-second times,” Jernstrom said. “And so the person who enclosed the OODA loop the fastest, and the most frequently, is the one who’s gonna win the route, who’s gonna win the game.”

In addition to exquisite technique, Kupp excels at finding space within the timing of a play. His feel allows him to have a diverse route tree and align both out wide and in the slot. As a result, his weekly route charts are a work of art.

“You gotta distribute the field the right way,” Kupp said. “I don’t think it takes too long [to develop spatial awareness] as much as it does take a conscious effort and intentionality. Especially in practice, you don’t wanna be thinking a ton during a game, you want to just be feeling the game.”

It’s cliché to say that a player has a high football IQ, but Kupp earns the reputation. His Rams coaches and teammates, as well as his offseason trainers, laud his coach-like knowledge and obsession with learning.

“I think the most special thing about him is he plays the game through the eyes and almost in the lens of the quarterback,” Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell said. “He understands coverage. He understands alignment just by how we build formations for him in certain ways where he can look out and see the intent of the defense, and then adjust his route accordingly, but do it in a way that allows the quarterback to naturally feel what’s happening, what space he’s gonna go attack what matchup leverage wise is a win against.”

The Rams overhauled their offense in 2021 after Stafford’s arrival. They adjusted during the season after losing Robert Woods to a season-ending injury and adding Odell Beckham Jr. midseason. Kupp consistently shined throughout. He praised the adaptability of McVay’s offense this season, noting how much he enjoys the problem-solving aspect of game-planning. “A fun thing about football is being able to come in week after week, and prepare,” he said. “There’s always something on the table you’ve got to take care of.”

Scouts knocked Kupp’s speed before he entered the league. His 2017 combine performance left scouts underwhelmed when he clocked a 4.62-second 40-yard dash (13th percentile among receivers) and his time caused him to slip to the third round of the draft. This season, Kupp registered some of the fastest times of any player in the NFL, according to Next Gen Stats; during a 43-yard catch-and-run in Indianapolis, he hit a season-high 20.07 mph.

“I think he does this really good job of kind of managing this juxtaposition between being an artist and athlete on the field,” Jernstrom said, “by abiding by these scientific and physiological rules and principles of skill acquisition and motor learning that we’ve talked about in intimate detail through this offseason process.”

Kupp leads the league in yards after catch, and according to Next Gen Stats, he’s tied for 14th among receivers in yards of separation per catch (3.6) and is tied for 21st in YAC per catch over expected (plus-1.3).

“He’s wired, physically, to be able to separate,” McVay said. “He knows how to work edges on people, he’s got as good short space quickness and lateral agility movement as any receiver I’ve ever been around.”

“I think he’s probably one of the more underrated guys in the league after the catch,” Stafford said. “He doesn’t have a lot of 80-yarders on tape where he’s running away from everybody, but the first guy is rarely ever bringing him down.”

That physical toughness has aided Kupp in the trenches. The Rams offense frequently incorporates Kupp in blocking concepts. To get a better understanding of competing along the line of scrimmage, he picked the brains of tackles Rob Havenstein and Andrew Whitworth, as well as tight end Tyler Higbee.

“It is an extremely detailed position,” Kupp said. “It’s not a bunch of meatheads just banging heads against each other play after play. They have very detailed and specific rules and steps and everything that they’re doing, it has to be choreographed together perfectly. And so I appreciate what those guys do.”

In one Rams series late in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s loss to the 49ers, Kupp displayed his entire offensive skill set. On the opening play of the drive, he took a handoff and rushed for 18 yards. On another play, he outraced his defender off the line of scrimmage, getting open down the left sideline as Stafford dropped in a perfect 30-yard completion. Then, on third-and-goal, Kupp navigated traffic and made a spectacular go-ahead touchdown snag in the back corner of the end zone.

Ultimately, Kupp came four catches and 18 yards shy of breaking the single-season records for either category. More disappointing was losing Sunday’s game after building a 17-point lead.

For Kupp, the goal wasn’t to become a record-setter. “I just want to do my job,” he said last week. “Whatever they’re asking, that’s when I do my job over and over again, and be a part of helping this team win.” The individual accolades aren’t the goal—they only serve as confirmation of the work that’s been put in.

“Cooper and I joke about this all the time,” Baugus explained, “where I’m like, ‘Dude, what you do for work is so weird.’ And he’s like, ‘It’s pretty weird! I put on pads and I try and get a leather ball into an end zone. And I’ve got these big guys trying to like, tackle me and stop me.’ We’re like, ‘… Yeah, at the end of the day, this is like a really weird thing that we’re preparing for.’ And yet it means so much to so many people.”

As Kupp fielded questions from reporters after Sunday’s game, not once did he mention his pursuit of history; his mind was already on the Cardinals.

“You obviously don’t want to take for granted the difficulty of winning a division title,” Kupp said. “But at the same time, a loss never feels good. Our focus is really on getting ready for next week, just being able to respond from this thing.”