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A receiving ‘triple crown’ is of less concern to Rams’ Cooper Kupp than beating 49ers

 Rams receiver Cooper Kupp stiff-arms Seahawks cornerback Sidney Jones.
Rams receiver Cooper Kupp stiff-arms Seahawks cornerback Sidney Jones after a reception at SoFi Stadium last month.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Only three players in NFL history have achieved the feat, the last nearly two decades ago.

Rams receiver Cooper Kupp is now on the brink of becoming the fourth receiver to finish a season as the league leader in catches, yards receiving and touchdown receptions.

Jerry Rice, Sterling Sharpe and Steve Smith each accomplished the so-called triple crown.

Smith did it in 2005 with the Carolina Panthers. He is now an analyst for the NFL Network, and he is not surprised by Kupp’s success.

“I’m astonished at the volume,” he said.

Kupp leads the league with 138 catches for 1,829 yards and 15 touchdowns. He will almost certainly add more in some or all categories on Sunday when the Rams play the San Francisco 49ers in the season finale at SoFi Stadium.

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The Rams will be looking to avenge their embarrassing prime-time loss earlier this season to the San Francisco 49ers as they go for the NFC West title.

If the Rams (12-4) defeat San Francisco (9-7) they will win the NFC West and secure the No. 2 seed for the NFC playoffs. They also will win the division if the Arizona Cardinals lose to the Seattle Seahawks.

“It would be a pretty incredible thing,” Kupp said of achieving the triple crown. “There’s a lot of really good football players in this league, a lot of really good receivers I’ve got a ton of respect for.

“So, it would be very cool. The most important thing is that we win the game.”

Kupp also is within reach of eclipsing two NFL records that were set in 16-game seasons.

He needs 12 catches to break Michael Thomas’ record of 149 set in 2019. He needs 136 yards to break Calvin Johnson’s record of 1,964 set in 2012. Randy Moss’ record of 23 touchdowns is out of reach.

By adding a 17th game, the NFL made this the longest season in history. So, if he breaks 16-game records, Kupp said they would come with a caveat borne of respect.

“It wouldn’t hold the same weight to me as it does for guys that have done that in 16-game seasons and the accomplishments that those guys had, the seasons that those guys put together,” Kupp said. “Those are incredible things.”

Kupp has thrived for a star-studded Rams team that was built with a mandate to play in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium next month.

The Rams’ claim there is nothing mental about their five-game losing streak against the 49ers, but losing the turnover battles have definitely cost them.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady are leading candidates for the NFL most valuable player award. But Kupp’s performance catching passes from quarterback Matthew Stafford — he is within 171 yards of amassing 2,000 yards receiving — and blocking for Rams running backs put him in the MVP conversation.

“You look at all these yards and all the success he’s had, but what’s crazy is that it doesn’t even remotely tell the picture of what he does for us,” veteran offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth said.

Kupp, 28, grew up in Washington and played running back as a kid. He loved watching Reggie Bush. In high school, as he moved to receiver, he admired players such as Larry Fitzgerald and A.J. Green.

After Kupp’s record-setting career at Eastern Washington, the Rams selected him in the third round of the 2017 draft. In 2018, he suffered a midseason knee injury that prevented him from being part of the Rams’ run to Super LII. The next season, the only time the Rams missed the playoffs under coach Sean McVay, he amassed 1,161 yards receiving.

In 2020, Kupp suffered a knee injury in a wild-card playoff victory over the Seattle Seahawks that forced him to sit out the divisional-round loss to the Packers.

He spent much of the offseason training in Oregon with Houston Texans receiver Brandin Cooks, a former Rams teammate who has six 1,000-yard seasons.

“Being able to bounce things off a player of that caliber, to just reach out to people and just see what they’re doing … that’s really important to me,” Kupp said.

This season, Kupp broke several team records while amassing more than 100 yards receiving in 10 games.

“The best thing I could say is that I’ve seen the exact same guy I saw from the moment he stepped in here in rookie mini-camp four and a half years ago,” McVay said. “He’s just so intentional about his everyday approach, his rhythm and routine.”

Rice, a Hall of Famer, set the standard for the triple crown by catching 100 passes for 1,502 yards and 13 touchdowns for the San Francisco 49ers in 1990. Two years later, Sharpe caught 108 passes for 1,461 yards and 13 touchdowns for the Packers.

More than a decade passed before Smith’s historic season with the Panthers.

The Times’ Sam Farmer analyzes each matchup and predicts the winners of Week 18 of the 2021 NFL season.

Smith grew up in Los Angeles and played at University High and Santa Monica College before earning a scholarship to Utah.

Like Kupp, he was a third-round draft pick. And like Kupp, he chased the triple crown in his fifth NFL season.

A year after suffering a broken leg in the 2004 opener, Smith came back the next season and eclipsed 100 yards in nine games. In a victory over the Minnesota Vikings, he caught 11 passes on 11 targets for 201 yards and a touchdown. He finished the season with 103 catches for 1,563 yards and 12 touchdowns.

“I was firing on all cylinders,” he said. “I was using frontal lobe, back lobe, left lobe, right lobe of my brain. I was seeing football from a different vantage point.”

Smith, a five-time Pro Bowl selection who played 16 NFL seasons, said he met Kupp at the NFL scouting combine before the 2017 draft. Kupp understood the game at that time, “but he now knows how the game lives and breathes,” Smith said.

Kupp has benefited from Stafford as well as from McVay and Rams coaches who understand and play to Kupp’s strengths, Smith said.

“When you’re in the zone the way he’s in it, they can throw that damn ball off the moon and he’s going to go get it because that’s just how focused he is,” Smith said.

But a possible 2,000-yard season?

“That’s massive,” Smith said. “That’s crazy.”

Kupp is certain to finish the season as the league leader in catches and yards receiving. Ja’Marr Chase of the Cincinnati Bengals has 13 touchdown catches — two behind Kupp — heading into his team’s finale against the Cleveland Browns.

Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp runs with the ball after a wide-open reception.
Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp runs with the ball after a wide-open reception against the Ravens last week.
(Terrance Williams / Associated Press)

McVay has said that he would not create a game plan specifically to allow Kupp to break records, but he would “never close the door” if appropriate opportunities to call plays arise during the game.

Stafford was the Detroit Lions’ quarterback when Johnson, a Hall of Famer, set the NFL yardage record. Kupp and Johnson are similarly unselfish and put the team first, Stafford said.

“So, I’m happy that we’re winning football games as well as Cooper playing as good as he is,” Stafford said.

Receiver Odell Beckham Jr. signed with the Rams in November. It has not taken him long to appreciate Kupp.

“We’re witnessing greatness,” Beckham said. “Just hoping that it continues to set the tone for us all, lead us, and find ways to win games.”

That is Kupp’s main goal.

“Just want to do my job,” he said. “Whatever they’re asking, I just want to do my job over and over and be a part of helping this team win.”


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