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Commentary: Super Bowl MVP and former Eastern Washington star Cooper Kupp set apart by creativity

Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp (10) breaks a tackle past Cincinnati Bengals free safety Jessie Bates (30) during the first half of Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium on Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022, in Inglewood, California.  (Los Angeles Times)
By Mirjam Swanson Tribune News Service

IRVINE, Calif. – He wanted you to laugh. To scoff. To roll your eyes.

The undersized son and grandson of NFL players, Cooper Kupp knew at age 9 he, too, was bound for the league.

Never mind his modest stature. Forget about the fact that he had zero college scholarship offers when his final high school game ended. Or that he eventually found a home not at a Division I powerhouse, but at Eastern Washington.

Kupp was just running a different route. Naturally.

In a post-practice chat this week, he described how his approach has evolved from 2016, when late in a record-breaking college career, he maintained: “I want to set my goals laughably high.”

How high, exactly? Super Bowl champion? Super Bowl MVP? NFL Offensive Player of the Year? How about a rare receiving triple crown?

Ri·dic·u·lous adj. 1 Deserving ridicule. 2 Becoming the first receiver since Steve Smith Sr. in 2005 to lead the league in regular-season catches (145), yards (1,947) and touchdown catches (16) – and the first to do it while recording a catch percentage better than 70% (75.9%, to be precise) since the league began tracking targets in 1992.

Funny, right? Hilarious, no?

But now people aren’t laughing at the prospect, they’re arguing about those achievements, getting heated on “First Take” as the debate rages: Is Cooper Kupp a top-five WR?

For what it’s worth – and, if you’re counting at home, it was worth a $78.5 million contract extension, $75 million of which is guaranteed, more than ever allotted to wide receiver – Kupp votes no.

His top five: Davante Adams, Justin Jefferson, Stefon Diggs, Ja’Marr Chase and Odell Beckham, Jr. “Every single one of those guys is a better athlete than I am,” Kupp said recently on the I AM ATHLETE podcast.

But the 29-year-old father of two isn’t much interested in rankings anyway.

He’s bypassed concrete numbers and goals, even, and he’s chasing something less tangible. Advanced past laughable and, knowing it’s something even he’ll never catch, he’s targeting the impossible – hoping to brush up as close to perfection as it’ll let him.

“I used to be really big on goal-setting and writing them down and having it be personal goals, team goals, and having all that stuff set up,” Kupp said. “But I’ve kind of moved to this place now where there’s standards you want to live by and, at the end of the day, I just want to be able to look at film and be better than I was the year before.

“Like, at this level, what are the goals?” he continued, stroking his trademark blond beard. “The goal is to win a Super Bowl. That’s the goal. And we want to keep getting better, keep finding ways to improve and find new creative ways to win in routes.”

There’s a school of thought that Kupp, though talented, is largely a beneficiary of the Rams’ system. That other members of the NFL’s elite receiving corps would put up similarly astounding numbers if they were running the plays he gets to.

But Kupp brings a uniquely creative streak unlike few of his preternaturally gifted NFL peers ever had the opportunity to develop.

He’s so wide open so often not only because of savvy play-calling or Matthew Stafford’s dependable deliveries or his own perfectly executed routes but because of the way Kupp reads the action. Because he’s so adept at being able to see a triangle develop in real time, feeling the defensive players inside, outside and above create a pocket and knowing precisely when to fill that space, like a great drummer hitting his stride live.

That’s a skill set built on a million rehearsals, minimum. Studies he’s undertaken in a backyard football lab built for repetitions based on ideas borne of his experience as a late-bloomer.

“It comes from having to be creative when I was younger and wasn’t as strong or fast as the guys I was playing against,” Kupp said. “Being so undersized and so outmatched that you just gotta find ways to win and put yourself in a position that you can separate still and win and make things hard on a DB.

“That’s where it all comes from, from the roots of where I learned route-running, from those times, trying to find ways to win when everything said I couldn’t. That’s carried over and I just tried to continue to build on that.”

The building continued, of course, the past couple of weeks at the Rams’ training camp at UC Irvine. The NFL’s most prolific receiver warmed up for his team’s championship defense by sharpening all of the skills he’ll need once the regular season starts on Sept. 8 against Buffalo, working to become more detailed and efficient on his breaks, more intentional with each step – and, yes, to further expand his imagination.

“One of the best things about training camp is you go against the same guys over and over again,” Kupp said. “They see you run the same route over and over again, so you have to be creative. How many tools do you have? How many ways can you attack guys that know all these moves and know, when they see something, are gonna anticipate what’s coming? It’s a good time to work on all that stuff.”

So, go ahead. Exclude him from your top five receivers lists if you want.

But if you underestimate Kupp’s on-field artistry, the joke’s on you.