From Greatest Show to a Cooper Kupp/OBJ combo


LOS ANGELES — By the time Les Snead took over as general manager in 2012, the Rams had gone more than half a decade without a difference-making wide receiver.

It didn’t get much better in Snead’s first five seasons on the job, either. Between 2007 and 2016, no Rams wideout even reached 800 yards. For a fan base that associates Rams success with top-tier wideout production — Tom Fears, Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, Henry Ellard, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt — it wasn’t close to enough. The demand wasn’t just for better, it was for elite.

“Now thinking of it like that, I can’t believe they didn’t burn my house down considering you go from those receivers to what we were doing,” Snead said, laughing.

Snead can chuckle now because the Rams have reversed course at wide receiver, a position that has been integral any time they’ve reached the Super Bowl.

As Los Angeles prepares to face the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI on Sunday at SoFi Stadium (6:30 p.m. ET, NBC), it’s no coincidence the Rams’ return to football’s grandest stage has aligned with the resurgence of a once-dormant receiver corps.

In 2021, led by triple crown winner Cooper Kupp as well as Van Jefferson and Odell Beckham Jr., Rams receivers were first in yards (3,964), receptions (286) and touchdowns (32).

Dating to their 1999, 2001 and 2018 Super Bowl seasons, the Rams finished no worse than third in receiving yards, fifth in receptions and seventh in receiving touchdowns in any of those seasons.

The connection between winning and receiver production is not lost on Kupp. He maintains contact with Bruce and Holt — Bruce even congratulated Kupp on breaking his franchise single-season receptions record — and wants to do right by them.

“I grew up with my high school coach talking a lot about having respect for the guys who came before you, having respect for the position and the standard that has been set because of the guys who have come before you,” Kupp said. “I have a lot of respect for those guys and what they were able to accomplish and glad that we’re able to put a good product on the field respecting those guys.”

What has happened this year is a far cry from, say, 2015, when Rams wideouts struggled for a combined 137 catches, 1,635 yards and eight touchdowns. That year, Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones nearly topped them in receptions (136), dwarfed them in receiving yards (1,871) and tied them in touchdowns.

“The Rams have a very long legacy with wide receivers,” Bruce said. “Just to see the group struggle the way we did and really not have that No. 1 receiver … we’re not used to seeing that. We’re used to seeing guys on the perimeter for the Rams constantly and consistently mentioned with the best receivers in the National Football League.”

Finding the next Greatest Show on Turf

Bruce was something of a one-man band at first. In 1995, his second season, he broke out with 1,781 receiving yards — a franchise record but one largely lost during the team’s 7-9 finish.

Bruce continued to put up big numbers when healthy, but victories didn’t follow. Bruce and Rams coach Dick Vermeil knew they needed more options, particularly on the perimeter.

“I don’t think I’m naïve or, let’s just be real, dumb enough to say I don’t need help or accept help,” Bruce said. “No, bring these guys on.”

When the Rams added receivers Az-Zahir Hakim and Ricky Proehl in 1998 and Holt in 1999, Bruce didn’t bat an eye. Same for when the team traded for running back Marshall Faulk, who wasn’t technically a wideout but had more receiving yards in 1999 (1,048) than any Ram from 2008 to 2017.

As part of a team dubbed The Greatest Show on Turf, Bruce and Holt would each have 1,000-plus receiving yards in five seasons and the Rams won Super Bowl XXXIV.

“They all go out on the snap of the ball and you can’t cover them all,” Vermeil said. “When you put a package together like we did, there was nobody there that they couldn’t beat one-on-one. … All those guys, you could say, were not coverable.”

Snead aspired to something akin to that when he took the reins in 2012 as a first-time GM. He and then-coach Jeff Fisher believed they had the right quarterback in Sam Bradford but needed the supporting cast to make it all work.

Over the next five drafts, the Rams used seven picks on receivers, ranging from No. 8 overall (Tavon Austin) to No. 206 (Mike Thomas), and they tried to improve their corps via free agency as well.

Looking back, Snead says he “wasn’t good enough at my job yet” to really understand what to look for at the position and believes he did Bradford a “disservice” with the inability to get the position right.

“If I were to see Sam today, I would apologize for those early days,” Snead said. “He had talent. He deserved precise receivers. He deserved a Robert Woods. I’m not saying you can find Robert Woods or Cooper Kupp every draft; that doesn’t happen, but he deserved precise receivers.”

When Sean McVay arrived as coach in 2017, he wasted no time identifying receiver as a weakness that needed upgrading. He went to Snead and quickly helped erase any evaluation gray areas.

For each of the receiver positions, McVay was clear with what he wanted: versatility, adaptability, willingness to block and competitiveness.

The process that previously put a premium on height, weight and speed was discarded in favor of a more simplistic approach. Can the player be where he’s supposed to be when he’s supposed to be there? Can he get open? Can he catch the ball?

The first player the Rams signed in 2017 was Woods. They followed by selecting Kupp in the third round of that year’s draft. Both fit the ethos that emphasized what Snead calls “skill over talent.”

“They went in that wide receiver room, and ever since then, they’ve set the standard,” Snead said. “The culture in that room is probably as unique and rare as any wide receiver room in the NFL.”

The Rams’ commitment to the position hasn’t wavered. Even after landing Woods and Kupp, they traded for Sammy Watkins and, when Watkins departed in free agency the following offseason, they acquired Brandin Cooks. Just before Woods suffered a season-ending ACL tear in November, the Rams signed Beckham.

Since McVay arrived, the Rams have spent $137,810,910 on receivers. Perhaps not coincidentally, only the Bengals have had a bigger cash outlay at the position during that span.

The results speak for themselves. From 2008 to 2016, Rams receivers were 27th in receiving yards, 32nd in yards per reception and 30th in touchdowns. Since 2017, Rams wideouts are second in yards, 12th in yards per reception and sixth in touchdowns.

“You want to almost have complementary pieces of one another similar to a basketball team,” McVay said. “They’re great competitors who love football and you are checking the box with all those guys that we have.”

‘Spreading the wealth’

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The Fantasy Focus crew unanimously agree Cooper Kupp is this season’s fantasy MVP.

None of it works if you don’t also have players like Bruce, who was willing to share the wealth. It’s why Snead enjoys relaying the story of how Beckham ended up in Los Angeles.

After cornerback Jalen Ramsey got the ball rolling on recruiting Beckham, the Rams were right in the mix, but Beckham wanted to talk to Kupp, Woods and Jefferson to ensure he would be welcome. Without hesitation, Kupp & Co. signed off, and Beckham embraced a role that quickly gained importance after Woods’ injury.

What that has created is a receivers room that loves to compete, whether it’s catching passes, blocking or running “cheese” routes — routes not designed to end with the ball going to route runner. There’s an ongoing competition among the wideouts on who can log the fastest time on the GPS tracker on those routes.

All of it is part of getting the Rams’ receiver corps back to its previous lofty heights. And it probably will play a significant role in how the Super Bowl plays out.

The last time the Rams won the Lombardi trophy, Bruce and Holt became the second pair of teammates at the position with 100 receiving yards and a touchdown in the Super Bowl. Those 1999 Rams remain the only Super Bowl champion to be held under 50 rushing yards (29).

If the Rams are to raise the Lombardi again, it very well could come down to the position that got them on the doorstep in the first place. The key could be Kupp. It could be Beckham. It could be Jefferson. It could be a combination of the three or maybe even someone else.

Regardless, it won’t be by accident.

“I feel like there’s more greatness in a player who is willing to concede some numbers for the sake of the team,” Bruce said. “You’re still that great player and if need be, if you need to take over a game, you need to take over a quarter, you can do that, but at the same time, just spreading the wealth and making sure everybody is eating. Making sure other guys are full. That only bodes well. That’s what pushes teams into Super Bowl success.”



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