To anyone who followed the Eastern Washington football team the past decade, there must have been something awfully familiar about the Los Angeles Rams’ final touchdown drive in the Super Bowl on Sunday.
Forget quarterback Matthew Stafford. It looked like Gage Gubrud or Jordan West out there, just playing catch with their good friend Cooper Kupp.
Except this wasn’t a Football Championship Subdivision playoff game, nor was it one of Eastern’s semi-usual September upsets of a Pacific-12 Conference team when perhaps a larger fan base could be forgiven for not giving Kupp his due credit. He’s just an FCS receiver after all. How good could he be?
No, this was the Super Bowl, and with the Los Angeles Rams needing a touchdown and seemingly without another player capable of getting open against the Cincinnati Bengals defense, Stafford looked to Kupp again and again and again.
Winning drives are supposed to be the domain of the quarterback, yet Super Bowl 56, which the Rams won 23-20 at home in SoFi Stadium, will be remembered for what Kupp did on that final drive, drawing multiple penalties, catching four passes for 39 yards and rushing seven more yards on a fourth-down play that kept the Rams’ hopes alive in the first place.
When Kupp caught the winning back-shoulder fade in the end zone for his second touchdown of the game, he demonstrated once more something that NFL defenses have realized but have been unable to do much about: Cooper Kupp is the sport’s most elusive and best receiver.
Kupp, who finished with 92 yards and two touchdowns on eight catches, became the ninth wide receiver to be named Super Bowl Most Valuable Player. Some of the others had more yards, but none had as many touchdowns.
Kupp’s achievement is all the more impressive considering the second-half absence of Odell Beckham Jr., whose injury allowed the Bengals to get back into a game that the Rams had to that point controlled.
Stafford seemed intent on getting the team’s other receivers involved, but down the stretch, it was clear he had no other option but to force the ball to Kupp. And the young man from Yakima did not disappoint.
So often now in sports, particularly football, fans’ appreciation of a player stems from his contributions to their fantasy teams, rather than what he does for the player’s actual team. And that allows us viewers to be tricked into thinking that a player is just a statistics generator, not someone who makes an actual difference on the football field.
They can be forgiven, too, as even the best of receivers can seem to disappear, statistically, in any given week.
But Kupp isn’t that kind of receiver. He blocks like a lineman rather than simply getting in a cornerback’s way. He runs. He even throws a little bit, as he did, unsuccessfully, once on Sunday (though that is a play EWU fans no doubt recognize from his Eagles days as well).
He also had no games with fewer than five catches or less than 61 yards, and he scored a touchdown in 11 of 17 regular-season games.
In sum, he had 145 catches, 1,947 yards and 16 touchdowns, all league-highs that made him the fourth receiver to win the NFL’s unofficial triple crown of receiving along with Jerry Rice, Sterling Sharpe and Steve Smith.
Yet none of those other three followed those magical regular seasons with a playoff run like the one Kupp put together: 33 more catches for 478 yards and six touchdowns, facing defenses that presumably knew better than anyone not to underestimate him.
Much has been written these past two weeks about how other NFL teams undervalued Kupp and let him slip to the Rams in the third round of the 2017 draft. Surely those FCS records and awards needed an asterisk. Never mind that some of his most dominant performances came against Football Bowl Subdivision programs (Washington State fans will be quick to remember one of those).
Now alongside the Walter Payton Award he earned for being the best offensive player in the FCS, Kupp has earned the distinction as the NFL’s AP Offensive Player of the Year and as a Super Bowl MVP.
Football programs are often reluctant to retire numbers, considering the sheer size of rosters. No other team sport is so constrained, and so the logic goes, all the greater an honor it is for a football team to set apart a number for all-time.
Eastern Washington retired Bob Picard’s No. 84 in 2003.
Six years later, it did the same for Michael Roos’ No. 71 and then went so far as to name its football field after the 10-year Tennessee Titans lineman.
It’s time for Eastern Washington to set aside No. 10 as well. The program has no greater ambassador.
And right now, the NFL has no greater wide receiver.
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