Throwing, catching and running should be the easiest football skills to practice. Two guys and a ball, and you’re good. Ten-year-olds can do it in the backyard.
It’s harder if you’re grown-up kids with the speed of Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods or the passing range of Jared Goff, if NFL practice fields are closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, and if people guarding local schoolyards don’t care that you’re L.A. Rams.
So Kupp and Woods, the Rams’ 1,000-yard receivers, spent the offseason bouncing around various high school fields and tracks near the team’s facility in Thousand Oaks, apologizing and moving on to the next school each time they got caught.
“If I jumped the fence, I wasn’t supposed to be out there, probably,” Kupp said Friday in a video chat with reporters on the fifth day of Rams training camp. “I figured if I wasn’t putting anyone in danger, I was going to ask for forgiveness instead of permission.”
“You get approval, or you might see a gate open, so you hop on the track and get your work in,” Woods said Thursday. “The next day, you may see somebody watching you on the track and they’ll say, ‘Hey, what are you doing out here?’”
All that fence-scaling will be a fitting start to the season if the Rams end up climbing back into the ranks of the league’s most efficient passing attacks in 2020.
That will require more than a well-prepared Woods and Kupp, whose attention to craft is a given.
It’ll require an improved running game to set up the passing game. Todd Gurley is gone, no longer able to carry his own contract, released and signed by Atlanta. Rookie Cam Akers and second-year Darrell Henderson are being counted on to step up.
It’ll require coach Sean McVay and new offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell finding this year’s version of what worked toward the end of last year, when a more settled offensive line gave Goff better protection and the quarterback made a comfortable connection with tight end Tyler Higbee.
And it’ll require replacing the deep-pass threat of wide receiver Brandin Cooks, who was traded to Houston, with veteran Josh Reynolds and rookie Van Jefferson.
The Rams’ passing game was prolific in 2019, when they went 9-7 and missed the playoffs, but not as efficient as the year before, when they went to the Super Bowl.
The good news was that their passing attempts and completions rose from the middle of the NFL pack in 2018 to third in the league last season, and their total passing yards stayed in the top five. The bad news was that their yards per pass fell from fourth to 14th, touchdowns through the air fell from eighth to 19th, and interceptions rose from 12th-highest to 25th-highest.
Goff’s passer rating told the story: Fourth in the NFC (101.1) in 2018, it fell to fourth in the NFC West (86.5) in 2019. Fourth in the division is last among the starting quarterbacks, behind Seattle’s Russell Wilson, San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo and Arizona’s Kyler Murray.
Or did it tell the story?
“He might not have been happy with the efficiency,” Kupp said, “but there’s a lot of things that go into that. The statistics that people would put on Jared aren’t always fair.
“The growth he’s shown, not only just as a football player, but as a leader and in his understanding of the offense, it seems like every year he’s getting better.”
It helps to throw to Woods and Kupp, whether it’s on a high school field in the offseason or at SoFi Stadium in the Rams’ scheduled season opener Sept. 13 against Dallas.
Woods, 28, entering his eighth year out of USC, comes off a season of 90 catches and 1,134 yards. The catches were a career high and the yardage might have topped his team- and career-high 1,219 of the season before if he hadn’t missed a game to tend to a family matter.
Woods said he worked this spring and early summer on leg workouts and hill running to improve his burst off the line of scrimmage and ability to break tackles.
“Being out here in Thousand Oaks (and) Woodland Hills, you find some good streets with some good incline,” Woods said.
Kupp, 27, going into his fourth year, recovered from a serious knee injury in 2018 to catch 94 passes for 1,161 yards and 10 receiving touchdowns, leading the Rams in all three categories. While Woods dropped out of the NFL Top 100, Kupp jumped into the annual list, voted by the league’s players, at No. 89.
“I feel incredibly healthy, just feel like I’m where I’m exactly where I want to be,” Kupp said. “I feel like we attacked the offseason the right way. We’ve got the right guys here, guys that are self-motivated.”
Both are playing for new contracts, Kupp because his rookie contract expires after the 2020 season and Woods because he’s underpaid in view of his production on a five-year deal that runs through 2022. Kupp said he wants to stay with the Rams, but his agent and team management haven’t started negotiations. Woods said he isn’t impatient because “there’s just a lot of bigger issues going on in the world right now.”
Both sound willing to let their performance speak for them.
“Just be able to pick up where we left off and be even more dominant, that’s the biggest goal of our whole receiving corps,” Woods said.
Rams coach Sean McVay donated $25,000 to the Play Equity Fund to purchase footballs, jump ropes and other supplies for needy students to stay active while schools and rec centers are closed. “Sadly, nearly 1 million children in Los Angeles live in poverty, and because of that, many kids don’t have access to sports and structured play,” McVay said in a statement.
Equipment will be distributed beginning this week at El Nido Family Center locations, Community Build Inc. locations such as the Watts Civic Center and the Watts/Willowbrook Boys & Girls Club in Nickerson Gardens, the Ross Snyder and Humphrey Recreation Centers, and LAUSD grab-and-go meal distribution sites.