Now that Sean McVay has coached a lifetime’s worth of days and finally he saw the folly of his ways, the Los Angeles Rams are in the Super Bowl. McVay revitalized the Rams seemingly the second he came off the tarmac at LAXm and went from being “not Kyle Shanahan” to the best coach the Rams have ever had.
He won the NFC West his first year before losing in round one to the Falcons and then the next year they went 13-3 and went to the Super Bowl before getting embarrassed by the Patriots (vomit). He followed that up with a 9-7 season full of chaos and transition, and then last year had an up and down season that ultimately ended with Aaron Donald in tears as the Rams lost in Lambeau.
This year had its fair share of turmoil and it looked like McVay had been engulfed by his own ambitions, but now they’re in the Super Bowl. So how did McVay rebound from his pantsing by Bill Belichick? Well, McVay had to walk hard down life’s winding road.
Now, before breaking down how Sean McVay learned from his mistakes there is one myth that needs to be busted (there are smaller ones) and that’s this idea that Sean McVay inherited a playoff team while Kyle Shanahan built his team in a cave…WITH A BOX OF SCRAPS. That’s not true.
The Rams finished 4-12 and Jeff Fisher was fired before Christmas. Yes, they had Aaron Donald, Jared Goff, Johnny Hekker, Rob Havenstein, and Tyler Higbee on the roster. Yes, Robert Quinn was still there, but this was absolutely not a playoff team. No one picked them to finish with a winning record that season and with good reason. Outside of Donald, Quinn, and Gurley none of the aforementioned players were exactly blue-chippers.
Remember, Goff had an awful rookie year. AWFUL. He was left for dead in a ditch, hence why McVay was hired in the first place. He was brought in to salvage Goff and salvage he did. He was instrumental in the Rams drafting Cooper Kupp, signing Robert Woods, and Andrew Whitworth. He got the Rams to trade for Sammy Watkins, and while Gerald Everett over George Kittle is a tough one to swallow, he made his imprint on the team immediately.
The thing that gets lost in a lot of the coverage of the Rams is that while McVay is an offensive genius (more on that in a moment) he’s also someone that is both a great teacher and a stabilizing force. The “WE NOT ME” mantra of the team isn’t just a cliche that looks good on shirts and mugs, it’s their lifeforce. He was savvy enough to not just value talent but the talent that buys into what he’s selling.
Andrew Whitworth could’ve gone ANYWHERE in 2017 as he was one of the best tackles in the league. Sure, the Rams might have offered him more than what most would’ve offered a then 35-year-old tackle but it was about more than that. Whitworth is a natural leader and became a core locker room guy.
Robert Woods’ deal was scoffed at by everyone because his time in Buffalo didn’t light the world on fire. Some joked that he’s the most expensive blocking receiver and guess what? He was but in the best possible way. Woods went from a curiosity signing to someone who will have his number retired at SoFi.
Those two signings were foundational to McVay being able to get the incumbent players as well as the rest of their team to buy into this new culture. With each trade or signing be it Marcus Peters, Ndamukong Suh, Jalen Ramsey, Odell Beckham, etc, the foundation was always expected to crack but it never did. That is because McVay acquired so many players who were strong leaders and allowed all those “toxic assets” to feel free to buy in and most of them did.
McVay’s other smart move was hiring Wade Phillips because he knew he didn’t know defense and who better to install and lead a defense than the Son of Bum. Google the murderers’ row of defenders and argue that they were instantly going to shine (double dare you). Lamarcus Joyner was converting to safety, Mark Barron was converting to linebacker, and they had holes everywhere. Yet, Wade brought out the best in them.
His coaching hires and subsequent turnover, be it Matt Lafleur (now in Green Bay), Zac Taylor (now in Cincinnati), Brandon Staley (Chargers), Joe Barry (DC in Green Bay), Aubrey Pleasant (now in Detroit), etc, should’ve submarined him. They never did and that’s because he’s got an eye for talent and the infrastructure is strong enough to survive it and he’s extremely smart about who he hires. Every year his staff is poached (not bad for an overrated coach who fell ass-backward into success), and yet they never miss a beat. Offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell is going to be the coach of the Vikings and his secondary coach Ejiro Evero is going to be the defensive coordinator for the Bronco. McVay will once again have to keep everything moving and there’s enough evidence to suggest he will.
Staley was one of his biggest lessons. In the 2019 season, the defense was getting picked apart, no bigger than during that Monday night loss to the Ravens. McVay knew that Wade’s system wasn’t working anymore and while they traded for Jalen Ramsey the defense was not what it once was. McVay hiring Brandon Staley seemed to be out of nowhere but he took all the pieces on the defense and transformed them into the number one unit in the league.
He took Ramsey, and while the “STAR” system wasn’t a new concept he took the best corner in the league and gave him a new outlet. Suddenly, Ramsey is not only shutting down multiple targets but he’s an asset as an open-field tackler.
McVay radically changed his defense and with Staley leaving he convinced his longtime friend Raheem Morris (who employed a very young McVay in Tampa) to learn the Staley system and while fans fired him a lot over the course of the year, they by and large were glad he didn’t get poached this year despite Vic Fangio being available.
The biggest lesson McVay learned post-Super Bowl (thankfully his memory will never let him forget it) was that his system, while dynamic, needed an overhaul too. Aside from not having Cooper Kupp for the Super Bowl, the problems that befell them offensively lay completely in the foundation of the McVay system.
Todd Gurley‘s knees were ground to dust so he was ineffectual and while CJ “Cheeseburger” Anderson was able to get them to the big game he couldn’t run on that vaunted Pats’ defense. This put Jared Goff and the passing game in a tough spot. Goff was always limited as a passer and without a running game putting fear into anyone, they were screwed.
Brandin Cooks nearly pulled that game out of his ass and perhaps if he catches that pass in the endzone things are different, but, alas.
The 2019 season was spent figuring out how to solve the dreaded Cover 0. Gurley, who was resigned the previous summer was a shell and they traded up for Darrell Henderson, who had flashes, but because the offensive line was in its own transition (Rodger Saffold is still missed) the running game struggled thus the offense struggled.
The offensive line, outside of Whitworth, was comprised of young players. Even Austin Corbett whom they traded for at the deadline hadn’t had more than four years in the league. McVay called the 2019 season humbling and it was. Had one game gone differently they would’ve made the playoffs but they didn’t and it caused him to radically rethink his approach. He brought in Kevin O’Connell to give him an offensive sounding board. Yes, they rolled into the 2020 season with Goff (that extension was rough) but McVay found a better way to maximize and reign him in. He drafted Cam Akers and Van Jefferson to breathe life into the offense, and while Jefferson was initially Kupp insurance in case he left, he became the Cooks figure McVay always wanted. Despite the defense being otherworldly, the offense still struggled and they lost games they shouldn’t have (i.e. the JETS), and that ultimately cost them the proper seeding that could’ve gotten them to the Super Bowl a year ago.
The biggest lesson McVay learned was when Goff went down and he had to start the Wolf of Ball Street in John Wolford. Wolford unlocked the deep passing game McVay never could with Goff. While Goff made a herculean effort to start and win a playoff game ten days after thumb surgery, in Green Bay it wasn’t enough. McVay knew that picks and dead cap be damned (they already had Cooks and Gurley dead cap), they needed an upgrade.
Matthew Stafford was that upgrade, but even then, McVay could do whatever he wanted and the lesson came in learning how to reign himself in. The Rams went “all-in” but they also did some irresponsible drafting and moves along the way. Drafting receiver Tutu Atwell over centers Creed Humphrey or Quinn Meinerz was a big blunder (no shade to Brian Allen), and DeSean Jackson looked cool at the time, but luckily Beckham happened.
Over the course of this season, McVay was too eager to show what Stafford could do. They were struggling to figure out their run game with Akers being seemingly out for the year (luckily he came back), and McVay was all too content to go empty set every time. That worked against tomato cans like the Giants, Bears, or Texans, but against the real teams not so much. The whole enterprise appeared to unravel like many a Homer Simpson scheme in November with Stafford turning the ball over at Schaubian rate, and the offense sputtering despite bringing in Beckham. Defensively, Raheem’s defense was at their nadir and teams could run on them like they were a bull on Johnny Knoxville. All the people waiting to call McVay a one-trick pony, and the entire Rams “f**k them picks” approach to team building was as drunk and reckless as the old talking heads predicted it would be.
Even the fans were turning on him, they thought he overshot himself with Stafford and that his hubris was being exposed. He couldn’t truly develop a quarterback and perhaps maybe Gurley was the reason McVay was a success. Some wished the Rams had demoted him and had Staley be the head coach. Even with a bye-week, McVay couldn’t properly plan for a beatable Green Bay team.
Then a week later he proved he could adjust his plan and actually run the damn ball. He implemented an extra blocker in Joe Noteboom and decided that Henderson isn’t healthy enough to gain a rhythm with the line so it was time to plug in the Sony Michel Playstation. Sony might not be an extremely versatile runner but he’s an effective downhill runner. They ran effectively and that allowed the passing game to utilize more play-action and sure enough, the offense hummed. Many crossed their arms and glowered like the Burns’ Casino audience at Krusty’s late-night show because it was against the Jags.
In the face of Covid and injuries, they went into Arizona and beat the Cards setting off a rough second half of the year ending at SoFi.
The offense was able to move but Stafford was still turning the ball over. Yet, they still won. He threw picks but was able to shake it off and lead game-winning drives. McVay also surprised everyone and helped solve special teams for the first time since he allowed Coach Bones to leave. Brandon Powell emerged as a returner and suddenly that phase was no longer a liability. They had come from behind wins ugly wins again in the face of injuries and covid.
Suddenly, this soft team that refused to punch back was laying haymakers. This was stifled again in the Week 18 loss to McVay’s Lex Luthor in Kyle Shanahan. McVay’s vaunted undefeated streak at halftime was ended and the Rams blew a seventeen-point lead and lost his sixth in a row to the Niners costing them a two-seed.
Once again, the Rams were SOSAR and would flop in the playoffs. Fans again openly wondered whether the recently fired Flores should be the coach and again McVay the OC because Flores is actually a leader of men. After that gut punch, McVay learned that the team, while tough, needed to be more physical. They tore the Cards apart a week later and tore apart an injury raddled (on offense) Bucs team, but they still needed to learn how to not give games away.
McVay got his revenge in the NFC Championship against Shanahan and did it in a way no one was expecting. The Rams were physical and both outrushed the Niners and won at the line of scrimmage. Yes, there was the lone Stafford post-season pick but he shook it off. They did leave points on the board but the defense proved it was tough and wasn’t going to let the Niners run all over them. They seemed to cross the final rubicon of a championship team.
McVay has made his second Super Bowl in five years, no easy feat for any coach much less one who just turned 36. While he’s 1-6 in his last seven times against Shanahan he proved that Kyle doesn’t own him and put distance in their rivalry.
He has the most playoff wins of any Rams coach (low bar SURE) and has a record of 61-29 (6-3 playoffs) to Kyle’s 43-44 (4-2 playoffs). You can attribute that to the Rams’ aggressiveness but given how McVay has overcome staff poachings, injuries, trades, free agency, himself, and yet never had a losing season. Only Mike Tomlin can boast of having more success amidst turmoil, and unlike Tomlin, McVay has had a stable locker room.
If he can put it all together one more time and win a title he will undoubtedly be the best coach of his generation and no one can accuse McVay of falling off the turnip truck and simply coaching stars.
While Shanahan might make NFL writers squeal with his run schemes (they’re quite lovely), McVay is the superior overall coach. He organically built a culture and worked in tandem with Les Snead and Tony Pastoors to construct a roster that while having a ton of names above the marquee, they have the sixth most homegrown players that step up when they have to.
It’s a risky way to build a roster unless you have a coach at the center of everything that can balance the chaos, roll with the punches, and be a light when things get dark. Belichick made McVay look every bit the smiling hair-gelled kid he was during the first Super Bowl, and four years later, McVay walked the good walk and the hard walk and made several defensive coordinators cry. One of his best qualities has been knowing what he didn’t know and after some tough lessons, he might finally know what it feels like to have a ring. It’s been a beautiful ride and one that has been more than earned.