Head over to Cooper Kupp’s Pro-Football-Reference page for a moment. Scroll down to the 2021 row. Scan across. You’ll notice a trio of bold numbers. (It’s actually four, but today, the focus is on the first three). Kupp currently leads the NFL in catches, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. Considering he has never led the NFL in any major category, this is impressive. Also, Kupp has never finished in the top 10 in receiving yards, and his best finishes in the other categories are ninth in receptions and second in receiving touchdowns. Just how historic is this potential accomplishment? Quite.
In a modern context, the receiving triple crown is one of the most sought-after accomplishments at any position. Before the AFL-NFL merger, eight players combined to accomplish the feat 12 times. Don Hutson did it five times including four years in a row from 1941 to 1944. However, in this era, there were a fraction of the teams that the modern NFL has. The likes of Raymond Berry and Lance Alworth are certainly deserving Hall of Famers, but their single-season accomplishments are not quite analogous to the modern, pass-heavy NFL. With great receivers entering the NFL each season, this might be a closed group unless Kupp can maintain his ridiculous pace.
Let’s look at the legendary trio who has won the receiving triple crown.
Jerry Rice – 1990
Jerry Rice holds the career receiving triple crown as his 1,549 catches, 22,895 receiving yards, and 197 receiving touchdowns are among the NFL’s most unbreakable records. For Rice’s dominance at the receiver position, it seems strange that the G.O.A.T. only accomplished the feat once, but it sets out how diverse the skills needed are. For instance, Rice only led the NFL in catches twice: 1990 and 1996. Funnily enough, Rice had a pair of seasons that beat out both of his league-leading seasons. In 1994, Cris Carter had 10 more catches than Rice. The following year, Herman Moore had just one more catch than Rice (and Carter). To Rice’s credit, he gave himself many opportunities by leading the NFL in yards and touchdowns six times each. He did both in the same season in 1986, 1989, 1990, and 1993.
In his magical 1990 season, Rice posted 100 catches, 1,502 yards, and 13 touchdowns. Ironically, none of these seasons are in Rice’s personal top three in any category, but they happened to lead the league. Rice’s clear-cut best season came in 1995 when he had 122 catches, 1,848 yards, and 15 touchdowns. That year, the aforementioned Moore beat him out by one catch. Moreover, Carter and Carl Pickens beat him by two touchdowns. This is what makes the list special. It requires an opportunity to seize all three simultaneously. If a random player has the best season of his career, you might be out of luck.
Sterling Sharpe – 1992
It’s much of the same story for Sterling Sharpe. His triple crown season is not his unquestioned best season. He posted his second-highest total of catches and touchdowns, and he set his career-high in yards by 38. 1992 was the only time Sharpe led the NFL in yards, but he also had a trio of reception titles and a pair of touchdown titles.
Sharpe nearly had quite the breakout season in his 1989 campaign. A first-round pick in 1988, Sharper quickly adjusted to the NFL game and led the NFL in catches. Sadly for Sharpe, a certain Rice existed. Rice led the league in yards and touchdowns while Sharpe finished second in both.
In 1992, Sharpe posted 108 catches, 1,461 yards, and 13 receiving touchdowns. Sharpe beat out Andre Rison by 15 catches and two touchdowns. He also edged out Michael Irvin by 65 yards, just four per game over a full season. As an encore, Sharpe led the NFL with 112 catches in 1993 in a 112/1,274/11 masterclass of a season. Jerry Rice led the NFL in yards, with Irvin coming second, and tied for the league-lead in touchdowns (Rison). Sterling Sharpe’s 1993 feats made him one of just nine wide receivers to have a pair of 100/1,000/10 seasons. For comparison, Randy Moss and Terrell Owens combined for just two in their Hall of Fame careers.
Put Sharpe in the Hall of Fame.
Steve Smith – 2005
It takes a perfect storm to be a member of the receiving triple crown club. Unlike Rice and Sharpe, Steve Smith‘s season was a convergence of his career-highs in all three categories. Keeping the unique theme, Smith did not have an MVP-caliber quarterback throwing passes to him. Rice had Joe Montana, league MVP in 1990. Sharpe had Brett Favre in his first of 11 Pro Bowl seasons. Smith had Jake Delhomme, a one-time Pro Bowler (2005) who is perhaps more famous for throwing five interceptions in a playoff game. The Carolina Panther was stuck in an average passing offense (17th in yards) while Rice and Sharpe were in top-10 passing attacks.
2005 represented the only season during which Smith led the NFL in either catches, yards, or touchdowns, leading in all three. Furthermore, it was the only time Smith eclipsed at least 90 catches, 1,500 yards, or eight touchdowns. He is one of 30 pass catchers to have a 100/1,000/10, but it was his only season. Even those league-leading marks were close races. Smith tied with Larry Fitzgerald with 103 catches. Both Anquan Boldin (Fitzgerald’s teammate) and Torry Holt (who should be in the Hall of Fame) ended with 102 catches. Meanwhile, Smith led the NFL in receiving yards over Santana Moss by 80 yards. To wrap up the trio, Smith tied Marvin Harrison with 12 touchdowns. Since 2005, Smith’s 103 catches would not have led the NFL in any subsequent season. His 12 touchdowns would have tied for the lead in 2008 and led the NFL outright in 2019.
Cooper Kupp – 2021(?)
Through 10 games, Kupp does have a lead in all three categories. He is 10 catches ahead of Tyreek Hill (1.0 per game). For yards, Kupp leads Deebo Samuel by 162 yards. Samuel has a game in hand, but his yards per game are 5.3 yards lower than Kupp. Touchdown-wise, Kupp has a one-touchdown lead over Mike Evans (who has played a game less). Lower on the chart, Tyreek Hill and D.K. Metcalf have eight each.
Despite having seven games to go, Kupp’s odds look strong in each category. He has at least nine targets in all 10 games, four times reaching thirteen. He has nine catches in six games including 11 in the last two. Kupp also has six 100-yard games and two 150-yard explosions. He has not been the most consistent touchdown scorer, but he does have four games with two touchdowns. The Rams standout is on pace for 144.5 catches, 1,940 yards, and 17 touchdowns, but he will likely not need to keep that pace to win the receiving triple crown. If Kupp finishes with 120 catches, 1,700 yards, and 15 touchdowns, he will have a great chance to join Rice, Sharpe, and Smith. These stats could be achieved with a much more modest five catches, 80 yards, and .71 touchdowns per game rather than his current 8.5/114.1/1.0 pace.
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