ATLANTA — To miss a Super Bowl because of an injury is bad enough. To have it happen in your first Super Bowl seems especially cruel. In the case of Cooper Kupp, the standout slot receiver for the Los Angeles Rams, it’s hard to say whether the anguish this weekend will be greater for him or for his team.
Kupp, 25, entered his second season as one of the Rams’ top three wide receivers, alongside Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods, but in the team’s 5-0 start he emerged as the one quarterback Jared Goff would look for when things got particularly difficult. Kupp earned that trust by catching 75 percent of the passes thrown his way and scoring five touchdowns in those five games.
But on Sunday, as the Rams try to beat the New England Patriots and win the franchise’s first championship since the 1999 season, Kupp will be reduced to a spectator. A knee sprain cost him most of Weeks 6 through 8 and a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, which he sustained in Week 10, ended his season. Several high-profile players, like Carson Wentz, Von Miller and Jeremy Shockey, have found themselves in the same position in recent years, all feeling a deep sense of loss even as they tried to share their teammates’ joy.
Kupp, a third-generation N.F.L. player — his grandfather, Jake, was a guard in the 1960s and 1970s, and his father, Craig, a backup quarterback in the early 1990s — has plenty of emotional support, and he is with the team this Super Bowl week, which is not always a given for injured players. But there is no getting around what the team lost when Kupp went down for the season.
The numbers are fairly stark. Goff had completed 68.4 percent of his passes through Week 10 and had a passer rating of 113. In the six regular-season games Goff played after Kupp’s injury, those numbers were reduced to 59.8 percent and 83.9.
Cooks and Woods remained viable threats, but the shuffling of roles created some disarray, and Josh Reynolds, who stepped in as the third receiver, could not match Kupp’s reliability. There was a sense that without Kupp, the Rams went from invincible to merely great.
Coach Sean McVay put things fairly bluntly to reporters shortly after Kupp’s injury. “Anytime you lose a player of Cooper’s caliber and what he’s meant to our offense, you don’t replace guys like that,” McVay said.
But the Rams are in the Super Bowl anyway. Woods, who has largely assumed Kupp’s role in the offense, said he felt it was important for Kupp to be included in everything leading up the game because he is a big reason the team got this far. Woods has a fairly simple idea about how the Rams can make up for the frustration that Kupp undoubtedly feels: “We’ve got to get him a ring.”
Players miss the Super Bowl as a result of injuries every year. Some stars have made it back to the big game; other have not. Here is a look at some other high-profile players who had to deal with being sidelined in their first shot at the sport’s ultimate honor.
Super Bowl LII
Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles’ run to a Super Bowl victory over the Patriots last year was fueled by outrage about being declared underdogs, in large part because Wentz, the Philadelphia quarterback and a candidate for the N.F.L.’s Most Valuable Player Award, was lost for the season after he tore a knee ligament in Week 13. With Wentz, the Eagles had been considered a favorite to win the championship.
In the weeks leading up to the Eagles’ 41-33 triumph over New England, the players and coaches rallied around the backup quarterback, Nick Foles, wearing rubber dog masks and relishing the idea that no one believed in them. Wentz did his best to project happiness for his teammates’ Cinderella story, while not attempting to hide his own frustration.
“Every time the offense comes on the field on Sunday, it’s tough,” Wentz said of the games he missed. “It hits me a little bit. But then I’m in it. I love these guys, and I’m a part of this team as much as anybody else.”
The assumption was that Wentz would step back into his role as the team’s starting quarterback this season and that Philadelphia could be even stronger. Instead, the Eagles slipped into the playoffs behind Foles, not Wentz, who was sidelined by a fractured vertebra after Week 14. Foles and the team lost in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Eagles have emphatically committed to Wentz going forward, but his absence from a second playoff run muddied the waters somewhat for the team’s fans.
Super Bowl XLVIII
Von Miller, Denver Broncos
That Miller’s career survived the 2013 season is still a thing of wonder. The No. 2 pick in the 2011 draft, Miller was phenomenal in his first two seasons, totaling 30 sacks. The outside linebacker began his third season under suspension after violating the N.F.L.’s substance abuse policy and ended it by tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in Week 16. He was regularly accused of being a distraction, and he had to watch from the sidelines as his teammates were trounced by the Seahawks, 43-8, in the Super Bowl.
Plenty of players have had their careers derailed by similar issues, but Miller, with support from his family and his team, found a way to get back on track.
It took Miller just two seasons to get another shot at the Super Bowl.
“It’s another chance at greatness,” he said of his team making it to Super Bowl 50 against the Carolina Panthers three years ago. “It doesn’t come around often. We got another chance.”
Super Bowl XLV
Maurkice Pouncey, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers had won two Super Bowls in the previous five seasons and were looking like something of a dynasty. Drafting 18th in 2010, the team selected Pouncey, a center who stepped in as a starter from Day 1 and earned a Pro Bowl spot for his exceptional play.
Pouncey, who was just 21 at the time, was on track to become one of the youngest starters in Super Bowl history, but he injured an ankle in Pittsburgh’s win over the Jets in the A.F.C. championship game, forcing the Steelers to scramble to replace him.
“I say we have two weeks to maybe try and fool everybody and get Maurkice’s brother in here and no one would know,” Ben Roethlisberger said in reference to Maurkice’s twin brother, Mike, also an N.F.L. lineman. Roethlisberger added, “I don’t think that’s going to work.”
The Steelers ultimately lost the Super Bowl, 31-25, to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, and Pouncey, despite a nine-year career that has included two first-team All-Pro selections and seven Pro Bowl selections, has yet to get another chance at the big game.
“That guy, he put his heart and soul into the organization for a long time,” Kiwanuka said. “He was a vocal leader, an energy guy, and he was kind of the face and voice of this team for a long time. So for guys to say, and people here to say, we are better off without him as a player, it stings a lot, especially when you play as hard as he did.”
Shockey never played for the Giants again. The team traded him to the New Orleans Saints in the off-season. Things turned out fine for both sides: Shockey caught a touchdown pass for the Saints in their Super Bowl XLIV win, and the Giants upset the Patriots again in Super Bowl XLVI.