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Is Cooper Kupp’s dominance a symptom of every flaw that plagues the 2021 LA Rams?

Kupp could finish with single-season records in catches and yards, but is that an overall good thing for the Rams?

Jacksonville Jaguars v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Cooper Kupp has had one of the most dominant seasons in franchise history—and there are still five games left on the schedule. Kupp is only 20 catches shy of breaking Isaac Bruce’s Rams record for receptions in a season, and 416 yards away from dethroning Bruce as the all-time single-season leader in yards. Based on the NFC standings and the remaining five-game slate, we can safely assume that if healthy, Kupp will be getting as many opportunities in near future as he’s had for the previous three months and that means that he could set the NFL record for catches and yards.

There are multiple reasons that Cooper Kupp is in this position and none of them are nearly as important as this one: Cooper Kupp is the NFL’s best wide receiver right now.

Whether you’re talking about route running, blocking, separation, release, football IQ, broken tackles, etc., Kupp—whose only issue this year may be a few too many drops—has a bit of Deebo Samuel, a little Tyreek Hill, some Davante Adams, and a touch of Chris Godwin.

Cooper Kupp could win this season’s Offensive Player of the Year award (also known as “What happens based on the public’s fear of a non-QB winning MVP”) and he would be deserving of such an honor; it’s rare to see any player have 14 catches and 157 yards more than second place at this point in the season, as well as leading the league in touchdowns. Kupp is also the NFL’s leader in yards after catch, an increasingly competitive category given the rare open field talents of players like Hill and Samuel.

But there’s another side to Kupp’s dominance this season and it’s one that should not be ignored when making an evaluation that is far more important to way more Rams fans than winning awards and breaking records: Is Cooper Kupp’s season stat line also a byproduct of all the team’s flaws?

Could Cooper Kupp really have 100 catches for 1,366 yards through 12 games if the Rams were having the type of season that Sean McVay was hoping for three months ago?

We will need to talk about what those flaws are, how Kupp got to these numbers, and whether or not they’re fixable. But first, let’s look back at the previous record-holders and see what that tells us about historically dominant receivers.

Calvin Johnson and the 2012 Detroit Lions

This is not Matthew Stafford’s first rodeo with a season like Kupp’s at wide receiver. It was nine years ago that the entire NFL world was on board for the premise that “Calvin Johnson is the best receiver—if not best football player—on the planet.”

But his dominance—most of it anyway—didn’t start until the second half of the season.

Through eight games, Johnson caught 48 passes for 767 yards and he had one touchdown. The Lions were also 4-4 and competing to get back to the playoffs after going 10-6 under Jim Schwartz the year before.

The best version of Detroit that season was the one in which Calvin Johnson was clearly the top receiver in the league but not one who was going to smash every record.

Then the Lions faced the Vikings and fell behind 16-3 late in the third quarter. At that point in the game, Johnson had caught four passes for 36 yards. Stafford then turned Megatron “mega-on” and Johnson caught eight passes for 171 yards in the final 18 minutes.

Vikings 34, Lions 24 was the final score.

Calvin Johnson would never stop running after he posted those 12 catches for 207 yards in a 10-point loss to Minnesota: he had at least 118 yards in each of next six games, capped off by 224 yards in a 31-18 loss to the Falcons.

Over the final eight games, Calvin Johnson caught 74 passes for 1,197 yards. And the Lions went 0-8. Detroit was plagued by blown leads in the second half of the season, but the final three games were all blowouts. But Johnson finished with an NFL record: 1,964 receiving yards. How did it happen?

There were at least two important factors:

  1. Calvin Johnson is a Hall of Fame talent unlike any we’ve ever seen
  2. Bad team

Due to losing and trailing in games so often, Detroit finished first in passing attempts and 25th in rushing attempts. Running back Mikel Leshoure was mostly a non-factor and number two back Joique Bell had more receiving yards (485) than rushing (414).

Johnson was targeted 204 times that season, exactly twice as many opportunities as number two choice Brandon Pettigrew, a tight end. Pettigrew, tight end Tony Scheffler, and Bell ranked second, third, and fourth in targets, meaning that Titus Young was the next-best receiver on the Lions that season.

Expected number two Nate Burleson missed all but six games.

The Lions also ranked 27th in turnovers, 27th in takeaways, and 27th in points allowed, meaning that the offense wasn’t doing the defense and favors; the defense wasn’t doing the offense any favors; and the only person being favored on the entire team that year was Calvin Johnson.

Hence, 1,964 receiving yards.

Pointing this out doesn’t do anything to disparage Johnson’s talent as a receiver. Just as it doesn’t disparage Mike Evans to say that he might have “only” had 1,006 yards for the Buccaneers last season because Tampa Bay never had to lean on him like the Lions had to lean on Johnson.

Would Evans prefer to go back to 2018, when he had 1,524 yards for a 5-11 team that had Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback?

Fortunately, the Rams and Kupp do not have to worry about a losing record. At 8-4, Los Angeles remains in the hunt for the NFC West and potentially the number one seed. But if the Rams are going to be the hottest team in December and January, the focus may also need to shift to players other than Kupp.

What TEAM flaws could be leading to Cooper Kupp’s dominance?

As previously noted—but I’m going to keep repeating it in an effort to avoid anyone claiming that this is disparaging to Kupp—Cooper Kupp is the main person responsible for Cooper Kupp leading the NFL in every category. Cooper Kupp is awesome.

But Sean McVay would of course rather see more of the 2018 Rams in this team than he would like to see the 2012 Lions.

Injuries and lack of receiving talent

In 2018, Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks were neck-and-neck for the team lead in receptions and yards, with Todd Gurley ranking third, and Kupp finishing in fourth because he was out for half of the season. Tyler Higbee, Gerald Everett, and Josh Reynolds represented respectable depth.

The Rams opened the 2021 season with DeSean Jackson and Tutu Atwell as the fourth and fifth receivers, but now Jackson is on the Raiders and Atwell is on IR. Woods is also out for the year with a torn ACL.

As of now, Odell Beckham, Jr., Van Jefferson, and Ben Skowronek represent 2-3-4 on the receiving depth chart, while Higbee is backed up by non-factors in Brycen Hopkins and Kendall Blanton.

What has this resulted in? Similar to Johnson in 2012, Kupp has nearly twice as many targets as number two: 136 opportunities for Kupp, 70 for Jefferson.

With Woods (69 targets) out of the equation, Higbee, OBJ, and Skowronek represent the other receiving options for Stafford. That wasn’t in the plan.

In 2020, Kupp was targeted 10 or more times on three different occasions.

In 2021, Kupp has been targeted 10 or more times in 11 of 12 games, and he’s been targeted at least nine times in every contest this season. That’s because Kupp is great, but also because the other options are not.

In the final five games and playoffs, OBJ, Jefferson, and Higbee are going to need to do everything in their power to be better receiving options for Stafford to spread the ball around to and Stafford is going to have to do a better job of finding them and not locking onto Kupp.

Lack of defense

Last season, the Rams ranked first in points allowed, yards allowed, points per drive allowed, yards per drive allowed, first downs allowed, net yards per pass attempt allowed, and time of possession allowed. They were 10th in takeaways, third in yards per carry allowed, and third in plays per drive allowed.

I believe that a better defense leads to less offensive prowess, and a worse defense leads to a necessity for more offense.

The Rams had a great defense in 2020 and Kupp wasn’t called on as often.

The Rams have a mediocre defense in 2021 and that has led to more shootouts and a higher percentage of large deficits, moments that have turned into 90+ yard games for Kupp despite those weeks feeling hollow because LA was dominated by a better team.

Here are some Cooper Kupp splits:

When the Rams are leading: 37 catches, 49 targets, 568 yards, 6 TD

When the Rams are trailing: 45 catches, 63 targets, 625 yards, 3 TD

When the Rams are tied: 18 catches, 24 targets, 173 yards, 2 TD

The Rams have held a lead for 335 plays this season compared to 290 plays when trailing. That means that Kupp has been targeted once every 6.8 plays when the LA Rams are ahead, but once every 4.6 plays when the LA Rams are behind. He is targeted once every 5.3 plays when the game is tied.

Kupp gets significantly more opportunities when the Rams are losing and all four losses this season have included considerable point deficits.

If the Rams had as good of a defense this season as they had last year, there just isn’t any chance that Cooper Kupp would lead the league in every category. That would be bad news for his All-Pro chances, but great news for McVay and the Rams.

Because...ya know...better defense.

Right now, the 2021 Rams don’t rank first in anything. Instead: 16th in points allowed, 12th in yards, 15th in yards per drive, ninth in points per drive, 27th in plays allowed per drive, and 12th in takeaways.

The team is hoping that the addition of Von Miller, improved play by Greg Gaines and Ernest Jones, and perhaps a turnaround by Darious Williams will lead to better defense over the course of the rest of the season. Facing Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins, Lamar Jackson, and the 49ers over the final five games means that they will need it as much as ever, but that could also mean that Cooper Kupp is headed for 2,000 yards.

No Todd Gurley—or even a Cam Akers

I’m not here to compare any running back to Todd Gurley. It’s just an unavoidable fact that one of the differences, perhaps the main difference, between Rams of old and Rams of today is the absence of an elite running back. Not to take anything away from Darrell Henderson or Sony Michel as quality backs in the modern game, but if LA had a force at the position that they could rely on more often every week then of course there would be fewer passing attempts.

I believe McVay had every intention of feeding the ball to Cam Akers this season and that he just does not have those same feelings for Henderson or Michel.

They are fine players but in part because that is their ceiling, “fine”, Cooper Kupp has been targeted 136 times.

Eating meaningless yards

During the LA Rams’ three-game losing streak, Cooper Kupp had 29 catches for 313 yards with no touchdowns. He had at least 95 yards each time but I honestly had no feelings—positive or negative—about Kupp’s participation in those games. He was a non-factor during the key moments of the game and when he finally got going, the Rams were already trailing by double-digits.

Each time.

Even on Sunday against Jacksonville, Kupp was an afterthought. He didn’t catch his first pass until 2:00 remaining in the first half and he only had three catches for 22 yards at halftime.

Kupp then had two catches for 72 yards on LA’s first drive of the third quarter. Because, you know, he’s great and now the Rams have a quarterback who can push the ball down the field at will.

But a week earlier against the Green Bay Packers, Kupp wasn’t even targeted until 2:56 remaining in the first half and 55 of his 96 yards came in the fourth quarter, when the Rams were already behind by 11 points and desperate. Ideally, the Rams would be in Green Bay’s situation more often: holding a lead against an NFC playoff team.

Against the 49ers in the game before that, Kupp was targeted seven times in the fourth quarter alone, catching six of those passes for 72 yards.

The Rams lost 31-10.

And against the Titans, LA was trailing 21-6 when Stafford finally reaffirmed his relationship with Cooper Kupp: seven catches for 65 yards in the final 20 minutes of the game, all when Tennessee was well out of reach.

This is not a testament to Stafford and Kupp padding their stats as much as it is a reality that the Rams are facing deficits that a team with Super Bowl aspirations should not be facing so often.

Cooper Kupp is great. But the Rams need to be better so that he doesn’t need to be so great.

Or at least, not so obvious about it.