Jenkins’ contact forced Kupp to the ground.
A brief hush fell over the fans who stretched the field on bleachers, as they waited to see if Kupp would stand up. Seconds later, cheers of “Cooooop” broke out, and Kupp climbed to his feet.
“It honestly felt good,” Kupp said afterward. “First time really getting knocked down to the ground and popped back up.”
It’s been 8 1/2 months since Kupp tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, a non-contact injury, in a Week 10 matchup against the Seattle Seahawks and underwent reconstructive knee surgery. Despite apparent strides in his rehabilitation throughout the offseason program, which included workouts on the sideline and participation in limited team drills at jog-through speed, questions remained when training camp opened whether the third-year pro would return to form and be ready to play in a season opener against the Carolina Panthers.
After knocking off some initial rust, but otherwise making it through a week of training camp that included participating in one of two joint practices against the Chargers, those questions no longer linger.
“I felt free to do whatever I wanted to do,” said Kupp, whose knee is not aided by a brace. “And really was kind of excited about that aspect of the day, being able to hit the ground and have to pop back up a few times.”
Kupp’s return is crucial as the Rams attempt to put a disappointing 13-3 loss to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII behind them. After Kupp’s injury last season, coach Sean McVay’s high-powered offense never appeared to recover, as Robert Woods moved into Kupp’s role and Josh Reynolds was inserted on the outside.
Before his injury, Kupp was on pace to tally 1,000 receiving yards, but instead finished with 40 receptions for 566 yards and six touchdowns.
With Kupp’s return, Woods dubbed the Rams’ receivers a “four-headed monster,” given Kupp’s elusiveness inside, the development of Reynolds, and the return of sixth-year pro Brandin Cooks.
“We have a lot of receivers making key plays,” said Woods, who broke for a 52-yard touchdown reception in combined practice against the Chargers. “Cause Josh has been making plays, but just to get Cooper back in it … four different styles of receivers and four different ways to attack your defense.”
Last season, Woods caught 86 passes for 1,219 yards and six touchdowns and Cooks caught 80 passes for 1,204 yards and five touchdowns. In eight starts, Reynolds finished with 29 receptions for 402 yards and five touchdowns.
This season, the challenge for McVay could be finding ways to get all four involved.
Last season, when the Rams finished second in the NFL in scoring and produced 32.9 points per game, McVay relied almost exclusively on an 11-personnel package, which includes one running back, one tight end and three receivers. He rarely used substitutes, except in injury situations.
However, Reynolds emergence as a starting-caliber receiver provides McVay with options.
“You don’t know, you never know,” said Woods, a seventh-year pro, when asked if the scheme this season would evolve to allow for different personnel groupings. “Whether it’s a rotation or whether it’s an injury. … You never know who it’s going to be, and at this point it doesn’t matter who it’s going to be.”
“We’re just trying to build off what we did last year,” Reynolds said. “I’m trying my best to get in that rotation, but ultimately we’re here to win.”
Kupp’s return undoubtedly will aid in a repeat playoff run, as the Rams seek to win a third consecutive division title and return to the Super Bowl.
On the first day of training camp, Kupp did not hold back. Goff found Kupp over the middle, as Kupp leaped to make a difficult catch. Afterward, Goff asked Kupp, “‘Hey, you’re glad you got that one, huh?”
Kupp responded, “Yeah, it felt good.”
Three days later, when the team practiced for the first time in full pads, Kupp stood out again. During a team scrimmage, which pitted the starting offense against the starting defense, Kupp blew past the defensive backs to catch a deep pass from Goff in stride.
“It sounds crazy,” McVay said afterward, “but he looks more explosive than he was before.”