INGLEWOOD, Calif. – The story we’ve been told about the Los Angeles Rams is that they “went all-in” to win this particular Super Bowl. That they were willing to mortgage their future for it. That what defines their team-building approach is the fact that they continually trade away first-round picks for win-now helpers, risk be damned.
But when they were about to lose the Super Bowl to the Cincinnati Bengals, the guy who saved the Rams was the receiver they drafted out of Eastern Washington in the third round five years ago. And the guy who sealed the win was a first-round pick they made themselves in 2014.
Cooper Kupp caught eight passes for 92 yards and two touchdowns to win Super Bowl MVP honors, as the Rams came back in the fourth quarter and beat the Bengals on Sunday night. Four of those catches, 39 of those yards and one of those touchdowns came on the 15-play fourth-quarter drive that turned a 20-16 Cincinnati lead into a 23-20 Rams victory.
It was the signature drive in the career of quarterback Matthew Stafford, who has had 45 career game-winning drives and who himself was one of those “all-in” moves the Rams made to win this year. But it was unquestionably Kupp who saved them. His biggest play on the drive wasn’t even a catch at all — it was a seven-yard run play from his own 30-yard line on 4th-and-1 with five minutes left in the game. LA almost surely loses the game if they don’t get that yard. They couldn’t run the ball all night. So they put it in the hands of their best offensive player, and he delivered.
“Whatever’s asked of me, whatever my job is going to be on a given play, in a given game, I just want to do it to the best of my ability,” Kupp said. “We went a little up-tempo on that last drive, which kept [the Bengals] in some zone calls, and that allowed Matthew and I to kind of find some soft spots in there.”
Kupp was the man to whom Stafford looked over and over again, all season long when he had to have a play. What kind of year did Kupp have, exactly? Well, he led the NFL in catches (145), receiving yards (1,947) and receiving touchdowns (16) for the wide receiver “Triple Crown.” He was named Offensive Player of the Year. And he capped it with a Super Bowl MVP award. Only one other player — Jerry Rice, maybe you’ve heard of him — has ever done all three of those things in a career. Kupp just did them all in one season.
“You guys hear me talk about ‘competitive greatness’ until I’m blue in the face,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “But that was on display tonight.”
Make no mistake: The Rams were in trouble. They had a 13-10 halftime lead, but it didn’t last long. Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow found Tee Higgins for a 75-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the second half. Then on the Rams’ first offensive play of the second half, Stafford threw his second interception of the game, and the Bengals turned that into a field goal. Cincinnati, who’d shown as much toughness as any team in this NFL postseason, suddenly had a 20-13 lead and was stifling the Rams’ offense with its defensive line.
Los Angeles lost wideout Odell Beckham Jr. (another “win-now” pickup they made in November after the Rams cut him) to a second-quarter knee injury. Star wideout Robert Woods has been out since November with a torn ACL. Starting tight end Tyler Higbee was inactive due to a knee injury suffered in the NFC Championship Game. The Rams ran for 43 yards on 23 carries in the game. They went three-and-out on three straight possessions after the field goal that cut the lead to 20-16. The Rams couldn’t run it, and with basically no other options in the passing game, the Bengals were able to focus all of their attention on Kupp.
Matthew Stafford connects with Cooper Kupp for an 11-yard touchdown to pad the Rams’ lead.
“They made it really difficult,” McVay said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for that Bengal defense. Once we got down in the tight [red-zone] area, it felt like it was about 60 plays for us to be able to finally get that one in on the fade. Cooper Kupp is the man.”
“It was tough,” Stafford said. “But he’s an unbelievable player, and I’m just so proud of him.”
Oh, it was tough. The Rams had to out-tough the Bengals to win this one, and they toughened up in the right spots. Six of their seven sacks of Burrow came in the second half, including two by Von Miller and two by Aaron Donald, whose pressure of Burrow on the Bengals’ final 4th-and-1 play helped force an incompletion and seal the Rams’ championship.
Miller was also one of the Rams’ win-now moves. They sent a second-and third-round pick to the Denver Broncos for him at the trade deadline, and he absolutely made a difference. Miller had nine sacks over the Rams’ final eight games (four regular-season and four postseason), and LA won seven of those games. Miller augmented the pass-rush in a fearsome way, but he also gave the Rams’ locker room a player who’d done this before. He was a Super Bowl MVP with a dominating performance against Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers just six years ago, and a team that believed itself to be very good was able to elevate to great with the help of someone with direct experience in this very arena .
But for every sparkly new acquisition, the Rams have a foundational player who’s their own. Donald was the Rams’ No. 12 overall pick in 2014 at a time when they still used to pick that high in the round. The Rams don’t win this Super Bowl without Donald taking over in the second half.
“Guys like Aaron are why you coach,” McVay said. “He has elevated everybody. I think the epitome of greatness is making everybody that you’re around, and every situation that you’re a part of, better. That’s exactly what Aaron does. He’s the effin’ man.”
Donald was a first-round pick in 2014. Kupp a third-rounder in 2017. Taylor Rapp, David Long Jr., Greg Gaines … all key defensive players, all 2019 Rams draft picks. Brycen Hopkins, a fourth-rounder in 2020 who had to fill in for the injured Higbee, had four catches for 47 yards in the Super Bowl. Prior to Sunday, he had one catch, total, in his NFL career.
So yes, for all the talk of “pushing all of their chips in,” these Rams owe this title just as much to the players they’ve drafted and developed as they do to the ones who just showed up. While they haven’t made a first-round pick since McVay got there in 2017 (and they don’t have one this year either), they’ve made 45 picks in Rounds 2-7, more than any team over the past five years besides Minnesota. Their current roster has 29 of their own draft picks on it, a figure that ranks in the top 10 in the league. Their roster-building strategy is a lot more nuanced than “they trade away all of their picks for veterans.”
What they do is trade late-first-round picks for guys who can help them now. As late as the Rams usually pick in the first round, they’re not going to be getting players on whom they have first-round grades anyway. So why not use those picks instead to get a Matthew Stafford or a Jalen Ramsey to help push you over the top?
“I’m really proud to be associated with a group that’s not afraid to shoot their shot,” McVay said.
What they don’t tell you about that approach, though, is that your team has to be good already in order for it to work. Do you think the Buccaneers won last year’s Super Bowl just because they signed Tom Brady, Leonard Fournette and Antonio Brown? The Bucs had already built the foundation of a strong roster before those guys ever got there. Heck, that’s the main reason Brady went there at all.
The Rams, by the time they dealt for Stafford last winter, were already quite good. They lost the Super Bowl just three years ago, have made the playoffs in four of McVay’s five years and finished over .500 in all five of them. They made the move for Stafford because they felt like it would take them from very good to championship-caliber, and the results will show that it did.
But Stafford doesn’t pull this off without Kupp there to reel in his passes. Kupp caught 33 passes in four games this postseason, the most in NFL history. After finishing the regular season with the second-most receiving yards ever, he collected the second-most receiving yards anyone has ever had in a single postseason: 478, behind only Larry Fitzgerald. His six touchdown catches tied for the second-most ever in a single postseason. And his 22 total touchdowns this year, regular and postseason, are the second-most ever behind Randy Moss’ 24 in 2007.
Kupp is the emblem of who the Rams are and what they were before the “all-in” moves that got all the attention. He was hurt three years ago and missed his team’s Super Bowl loss to the Rams, but he said Sunday night that he’d had a vision after that game that he would be on the winning end of the Super Bowl at some point. Sunday, he made that vision come true.
“I just feel so undeserving of all these awards and accolades,” Kupp said. “I’m able to play from a place of freedom, and I have great teammates around me.”
They are all, now, champions together. The ringers who came in for this year, and the long-timers like Kupp and Donald, who built a strong enough foundation for those moves to pay off. These Rams may have been “all-in” for this year, but don’t be surprised to see them right back on top again sometime soon. What McVay & Co. have built here in LA is no flash in the pan. It’s one of the best, most consistent franchises the NFL has right now. And on Sunday night, he became a Super Bowl champion.