Why Cooper Kupp is the NFL MVP
Why a slot receiver is the league’s most valuable player
Let me be clear. Kupp’s not just a slot receiver. He lines up at wideout, in the slot, as a tight end, at half back, at full back. Hell, he’s probably even lined up under center a couple times. But in all seriousness, Kupp has had one of the most explosive seasons of any player of all time. And he’s broken out of the mold of just being a slot receiver. He’s done so much for his team, and shredded defenses all year long. Many think he should be the Offensive Player of the Year. I tend to agree. But I think he should also be MVP. Here’s why.
First, I should define what I mean by MVP. It’s a title without a solid definition so I’ll try my best. When I say MVP, I mean the player who contributed to the largest proportion of his team’s success. And not only that, but also that his team had success at all. That’s to say that just because a player is the the number 1 guy on his team and leads the league in every imaginable statistic, it means nothing if his team goes 0–17. So for context, Christian McCaffrey’s record breaking season where he became the first ever player to have over 1000 yards in both the rushing and receiving categories would not suffice, or even come close to an MVP campaign according to this definition. He had a ridiculous season, yes. He may have even been the best player in the league. But his contributions were all for naught since his team didn’t just fail to make the playoffs; they went a dismal 5–11. Kupp’s team has not just made the playoffs; they’re currently in the NFC Championship after phenomenal offensive showings in their two playoff games thus far. And he has a massive part to do with that.
Let’s start with the easy stuff. He has the triple crown. He led the league in the regular season with 1947 receiving yards, 145 catches, and 16 touchdowns. He just posted the second most receiving yards of all time, the second most catches of all time, and scored nearly a touchdown every game. Those on their own are insane numbers, and should count for something. But admittedly, that’s not enough. Calvin Johnson didn’t win the MVP on the merits of an insane statistical season; nor did Derrick Henry, and I don’t think they should have. So, it seems that counting statistics alone aren’t enough. But let’s break it down further.
In 5 of the 6 games that Kupp had just one touchdown, the Rams won. And in 2 of those 5 games, the Rams won by one score. In 5 of the 5 games that Kupp had two touchdowns (yes, there were five of them), the Rams won. And they didn’t just win, they won by a margin of two scores or less in four of those games. That’s to say that if we removed Kupp’s contributions from those games, the Rams would have lost those games, and would have gone 5–12 in the regular season. You might say that I’m just grasping at straws, that he was just another target, that the Rams would have scored anyway; it might have taken them a few extra downs here and there, but they would have scored with a different receiver. And fair point. There’s no real way of determining how the games would have played out if Kupp wasn’t on the field. But, there’s a reason that he had so many touchdowns in key situations. It’s because he’s so damn reliable. In all but 6 games, he had at least one touchdown. And he had less than 90 yards in only one game. Only one. And in that one game he still had 64 yards on 5 receptions, which isn’t shabby whatsoever. That’s an absolutely phenomenal level of consistency. He showed up big time in every single regular season game.
You might at this point say “Well, that’s all well and good, Nitin. He had an amazing season with an elite level of consistency. But all you’re doing is making a case for Matthew Stafford. Yes, Kupp was amazing, but his quarterback succeeded on every play that he did, and more.”
This is probably the trickiest hurdle to get over in trying to make a Kupp MVP case. There’s a reason quarterbacks usually win. It’s because, by design, they typically have the largest influence on their offense’s play, significantly more than any skill position. And Stafford didn’t have a bad season by any stretch of the imagination. He threw 41 touchdowns to 17 interceptions while slinging it for 4886 yards all season. For reference, he finished second in passing touchdowns and third in passing yards. However, that does not paint the full picture. Stafford, while having a great touchdown and yards count, tied Trevor Lawrence for the most interceptions in the league. Not only that, but those interceptions came at incredibly costly moments in games that essentially resulted in the Rams losing many key matchups. Stafford by no means had nearly the same level of consistency that Kupp had. But, again, it’s very easy to attribute that consistency to Stafford. Yes, Stafford had many bad moments, but every good moment that Kupp had still should at least be partly credited to Stafford.
Not so fast. This is going to be the most radical claim I’ll make in this article, but bear with me. Stafford really didn’t have all that much to do with Kupp’s success. Yes, they have amazing chemistry, but I’m skeptical of the idea that Kupp couldn’t have put up the same, or similar numbers, with a different, less skilled quarterback. Let me cite some nitty-gritty statistics.
Of the top 25 receivers in the league, Cooper Kupp was #1, tied with Tyreek Hill, for average separation on targets, as he averaged 3.6 yards. That’s a lot. Imagine having 3.6 yards, or around 11 feet between you and the closest defender. That was the average margin that Stafford had to deal with when targeting Kupp. And unlike Hill, Kupp was superb after the catch. Of all receivers with at least 75 receptions, Kupp was #5 in terms of average yards after the catch, which is very high, considering he’s being compared against players like Deebo Samuel and Ja’marr Chase whose blistering speed created many long touchdowns that skew both of their average YAC quite a lot. He averaged 6.2 yards after the catch, 1.3 more than his expected number, a fairly sizable margin. And for more context on how Kupp made Stafford’s life easier, Stafford had a 75.9% completion percentage when targeting Kupp, and had a 63.2% completion percentage when targeting every other receiver. Meanwhile, Stafford threw for more yards when targeting Kupp on average, with 13.2 yards per completion, while he only averaged 12.1 yards per completion overall. For reference, even the absolute freak of nature that is Calvin Johnson did not improve Stafford’s game by that much of a margin. In his record breaking 1964 receiving-yard campaign, Calvin Johnson offered no benefit in terms of completion percentage to Stafford. His completion percentage was the same throwing to Johnson, and overall, at 59.8%. Granted, the Lions were a much worse team, which meant Stafford would have to throw to Johnson under pretty awful circumstances. Calvin Johnson’s averaged 9.6 yards per target that season, while Kupp averaged 10.2 yards per target this past regular season. That means Stafford was more efficient throwing to Kupp than he was to Johnson. You might argue that such a figure is more of a testament to how much Stafford has improved, but I don’t think so. In the five seasons between Johnson and Kupp, he never once threw for 30 or more touchdowns, and only had a passer rating over 100 once. Compare that to this season where he has 41 touchdowns, around 40% of which were thrown to Kupp, and a passer rating of 102.1. It’s hard to say that Kupp isn’t the reason that Stafford has experienced such a severe uptick in performance.
I think that’s a fair enough refutation of the Stafford over Kupp argument. But you still might question how on earth I think a skill player, and not just a skill player, but a wide receiver is the 2021 MVP. Well first, I’m changing the time period to evaluate the MVP. I think it’s nonsensical that the MVP is voted on before the playoffs start. The playoffs are exactly when the so-called most valuable player in the league would show up, and show up big time. So, I’m including Kupp and the Rams’ playoff status and performances when making this claim. And Kupp has shown up. Not so much in the Wild Card game, when he had 61 yards in five receptions. But I needn’t remind you that the Rams blew out the Cardinals 34–11, so he didn’t even have to show up. The Divisional Round is a different story, though. He caught 9 receptions for 183 yards and a touchdown. And in the dying seconds of the game, he did a number on the Bucs secondary on not just one, but two back-to-back plays, setting up the game winning field goal for the Rams. That’s what an MVP does. Not throw away an absolute behemoth of a second-half defensive performance like Tom Brady did, or not show up at all in your biggest game all season like Aaron Rodgers did. Not to mention, Jonathan Taylor, the only other skill position player who was in the running for MVP, didn’t even make the playoffs.
But still, Rodgers and Brady were just too good in the regular season, right? Well, yes and no. I’m not going to say Rodgers doesn’t deserve MVP because of the vaccine fiasco; I think he was excellent in the regular season, and is the regular season MVP. But that’s not what I consider the MVP to be. Like I said, Rodgers didn’t show up at all in the divisional game against the 49ers. Meanwhile, what to say about Brady. A quarterback with a top 3 O-Line and three elite receivers, four if you count Gronk. For him to not put up those numbers would have been an absolute travesty. And it showed in the game against the Rams when he had no Godwin or AB. He struggled, big time. Yes, they almost came back from 27–3 down. But rewatch that game and honestly tell yourself that it’s to Brady’s credit that they almost came back. It’s simply not. The Bucs defense forced four fumbles. FOUR FUMBLES. And during that “comeback”, Brady turned the ball over on downs twice, and lost a fumble. Not what an MVP does.
None of this even does justice to how much Kupp does in the blocking game. There have been countless plays where Kupp has lined up at Tight End, chipping and in many cases full on blocking defensive ends and outside linebackers, doing a pretty decent job at it, mind you.
It’s indisputable that Kupp has had a phenomenal season, but no one has seriously considered him as MVP. He won’t win the award, I’m sure. But he should. And I think the AP should change the period of time that they consider when voting on the MVP. His record breaking season, unlike McCaffrey’s or Megatron’s or Henry’s, has not been in vain. I hope by the end of it all, it still won’t be. I hope the Rams sustain this momentum into the Super Bowl, for Kupp’s sake. It’s a real shame he won’t actually win it, but let’s hope he at least wins Offensive Player of the Year.
All statistics were taken from NFL Next-Gen Stats and Pro Football Reference.