McVay Vs Shanahan: A Rivalry With A Permanent Asterisk

Rams Head Coach Sean McVay After Joint Practice With The Chargers. Photo Credit: Ryan Dyrud | The LAFB Network

Sunday once again brings another installment in the Sean McVay vs Kyle Shanahan rivalry that pits two of the league’s best offensive minds in a battle for innovative superiority. That’s at least how it’s billed but that’s, unfortunately, something that may never actually happen. The reason being is that the Rams and Niners never clash while both are fully operational. That’s why when their head to head over the last four years was displayed both fan bases went up in arms and gave caveats to why the head to heads are so wonky.

In 2017, McVay won out because the Niners were rebuilding and hadn’t landed Jimmy Garoppolo yet, in 2018 Jimmy G tore his ACL, and in 2019 the Rams were battling injuries to their line, Todd Gurley, and were a mess on defense. In 2020, the Niners are hobbled and while they won the first encounter they were healthier than they are now.

The point is Sean McVay vs Kyle Shanahan might always be like this and the debate about who is the better coach will be annoying and neverending like the 2020 election.

What gets lost in the McVay vs Shanahan wars is that they’re two sides of the same coin. After all, McVay was the tight ends coach when Shanahan was the offensive coordinator in Washington (which McVay would become when Shanahan took the same position in Atlanta). They both got hired in 2017, Shanahan after putting on an offensive clinic with the Falcons and, yes, losing in the Super Bowl. McVay got hired after helping make Kirk Cousins look like a guy worthy of a historic contract and demonstrating to Rams’ management he too was ready to revolutionize the way offensive football was played.

They both have distinct offenses with McVay being a Mandalorian-Esque devotee to his 11 personnel sets with jet sweep motions and heavy play-action. Shanahan uses variations of a zone run scheme and quarterback option. While both offenses are very different, when they are firing on all cylinders they are absolutely incredible to watch.

Since modern fandom is a toxic hellscape (at least online) both Rams and Niners’ fams debate who took over the worst situation. The Niners’ fans believe McVay was born on third base because they had Aaron Donald, Todd Gurley, and Jared Goff in place. The Rams fans believe Shanahan was lucky to have several first-round picks and eventually the guy who was supposed to replace Tom Brady.

Shanahan did come into a situation with a hollow roster after the Niners purged damn near everyone from the Jim Harbaugh era. McVay had his own fixer-upper project. While it wasn’t outwardly the dank urine-soaked hellhole the Niners were when Shanahan and John Lynch took over it wasn’t exactly a playoff-ready roster.

Yes, McVay had Jared Goff and Todd Gurley on his roster BUT they had no offensive line or receivers. The last time they had a 1,000 yard receiver was Kenny Britt in the 2015-2016 season. Jeff Fisher developed Jared Goff about as poorly as 90% of Hollywood develops female characters. Everyone wrote him off as a bust and because the line didn’t exist Gurley couldn’t replicate his rookie season. Also, with Gurley, while he was an instant star it was always built on a house of cards because of the very real history of knee issues. And as far as the defense, yes he inherited Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn but it was when Quinn was getting hurt, they had no real linebackers, and their most proven player in the secondary was the twice tagged Trumaine Johnson. Not exactly Jalen Ramsey. And unlike Shanahan and Lynch, the Rams were without a first-round pick because of Goff. Their big offensive signings were an elder statesman at tackle in Andrew Whitworth and Robert Woods who wasn’t exactly BOBBY TREES yet. Their offense leaned heavily on a rookie third-rounder in Cooper Kupp and defensively they fell into rookie John Johnson. They weren’t exactly being touted as an NFC West champion.

Despite their respective fixer-upper situations both quickly established cultures that galvanized their respective rosters and allowed them latitude to drastically improve during their respective rebuilds. McVay hired Wade Phillips because he wanted some age on the defensive side and went with a veteran hand.

Shanahan went with an unproven first-time coordinator in Robert Saleh which proved dividends as his defense became one of the most terrifying units in 2019. Saleh was so effective that McVay decided to find his own young unproven coordinator in Brandon Staley and he too has quickly built one of the best units in the league. McVay also implemented Shanahan’s hydra style running attack after realizing Gurley wasn’t what he used to be.

They both, of course, head-coached in a Super Bowl and while Rams fans can make fun of the Niners for choking, the Niners would easily clap back by pointing out that at least they scored a touchdown, which, touche.

But what’s admirable is how they handled their respective Super Bowl hangovers. Both weren’t content to sleep it off in bed all day, instead, they willed themselves downstairs for breakfast and went to work. The Rams made it to 9-7 (and could’ve made the playoffs) despite overhauling their defense and dealing with a battered line and a diminished Gurley. This year’s Niners were hit with both the injury bug and the Covid bug and yet have remained competitive in most of their games and again beat the Rams in their first game this year.

Both teams will also look very different and that means next year both will have various periods of adjustment. The Niners will be healthy and most likely will have a new quarterback next year, while the Rams might lose Staley to one of the many teams looking for a new coach but their cap limitations mean once again they’ll have to rebuild at key positions with late-round picks because once again they are without a first.

The Niners too will need to rebuild at key positions, especially at the offensive line, and just because they’ll be healthier next year it doesn’t mean they’ll pick up right where they left off in 2019. They might also lose Saleh as he was a hot coordinator last year and hasn’t lost much steam.

It’s awesome that we have a Niners-Rams rivalry again. The Rams-Niners rivalry hadn’t been fun since the 80s and now it’s quietly one of the most fun. The only bummer is that until there is a season where both teams are at their best it’ll never be clear whose approach is the best. That’s okay because as long as McVay and Shanahan are coaching, the games will be fun and competitive but will probably contain a “yeah but” no matter who wins.