Amongst online maelstrom following the Rams soul-crushing loss to Kyle Shanahan and the Niners, there was an actual discussion as to whether or not Sean McVay is the guy. A month ago it looked as though it was the Niner fans that turned on Shanahan judging by how few of them were still calling him by his first name. How quickly things have changed. That’s not to say Sean McVay hasn’t earned some ire after the last two weeks and while most of the rage goes towards Raheem Morris, McVay has now found himself under the microscope. This bye-week represents the most important bye-week of Sean McVay’s career because he’s been punched in the mouth twice and his stubbornness is largely to blame.
A recurring theme in Rams’ losses is that the offense becomes too predictable. Monday night represented the nadir of that as they only called eight-run plays. EIGHT! Yes, they fell behind early but the reason they fell behind early was twofold. One, defensively they allowed the Niners to run down the field at will which kept the offense off the field, and two, when the offense was on the field they tried too hard to force the big play.
McVay succeeded with both Jared Goff and Matthew Stafford by running the ball and utilizing play-action. For several weeks, McVay has opted to run the empty set type of packages Stafford had to run in Detroit because they had no running game. Part of this is McVay being impatient when they fall behind early; part of it is McVay having a new QB and telling the NFL “Look NFL I have a new QB”. There is one element that does appear to have him a little stumped.
Going into the season, there was chatter that they constructed the offensive line to suit Cam Akers skill set. The problem is that on one dark July morn, they lost him to a torn Achilles. Yes, there’s Arnie Pie in the Sky hope he can come back in the playoffs but that’s asking A LOT. So perhaps some of the issues are that despite Darrell Henderson being the ninth top rusher in the league, McVay doesn’t trust him to be the back Akers is. There is some fairness to that as Henderson has been dinged up several times, and while trading for Sony Michel was to give them a downhill runner, the two haven’t formed a solid tandem. That doesn’t absolve Sean McVay from abandoning the run but perhaps that’s why he’d rather just throw it so they can be up early and not have to rely on the run.
Further complicating matters for him perhaps, is the loss of Tight End Johnny Mundt who may not be taken in a fantasy draft let alone the waiver wire but his skills as a blocker have yet to be replaced. Those injuries, on top of losing Robert Woods, will perhaps force McVay to recalibrate his offense.
Sean McVay’s play-calling needs to adjust and reflect for these changes. It isn’t yet clear how he’ll integrate Odell Beckham Jr. and Ben Skowronek into the offense along with Cooper Kupp and Tyler Higbee. What is clear is that running the empty set every play isn’t working, especially if Higbee and Kupp start dropping balls. He needs to get back to establishing the play-action and not forcing Stafford into situations where he’s risking a pick every time. That’s not what they traded for him to do and that’s not what he wanted to come to LA to do.
Stafford needs to be better as well. He needs to get rid of the ball sooner, be patient and allow the play to develop rather than force throws, and he needs to calm down in the pocket. That said, Sean McVay’s play-calling could make life easier for Stafford.
The other thing McVay needs to fix is his own hesitation to go for it when needed. The Tennessee game could’ve been salvageable if McVay hadn’t been afraid to go for it a little more often rather than settle for field goals. He tried it against the Niners but it was the wrong time and the wrong play. Even if the fake field goal had worked they would’ve needed a touchdown IMMEDIATELY to justify it as it was at the end of the half. If he’s going to be aggressive he can’t half-ass it.
He wanted a quarterback he can trust when the going got tough and he needs to act like he has one, because he does. Fun fact, Safford has 31 fourth-quarter comebacks, two of which were this season. He can’t be afraid to go for it and he also can’t be afraid to utilize more than Kupp or a tight end screen on fourth-down. He’s become too predictable as a play-caller and it’s put too much pressure on the defense and the offensive line. It isn’t clear what input Kevin O’Connell has in play-calling but Sean McVay needs to empower him more because Sean’s autonomy over the offense is becoming a detriment.
Speaking of the defense, while he won’t fire Raheem Morris (sorry Rams twitter) right now because it’s Week 11 and they’re not going to all of a sudden bring in a new guy. He could however push Raheem to adjust more. It was absolutely asinine that they didn’t bother to notice that Shanahan would’ve been content to run the entire game. The Rams’ defense flourishes when it forces teams to make a big play but what teams have done since the playoff game in Green Bay to beat their defense (besides hope they have a damaged Aaron Donald) is kill them with a thousand little cuts ala Itchy in “Last Traction Hero”.
Shanahan exacerbated this by exposing a Rams defense that couldn’t make tackles. This, in turn, causes the defense to stay on the field more, and thus, they’re worn out quicker and of course, the offense stays on the field. The point is, McVay needs to be more assertive in telling his defensive coordinator to not wait for the other team to stop cutting them. Also, and this applies on both sides of the ball, but the penalties have to stop.
Another thing, McVay needs to solve is their godawful special teams. Ever since John Fassel AKA Coach Bones left that unit has REGRESSED. They still don’t have a reliable returner and often are too charitable with field position to the other team which further exacerbates the aforementioned issues. Special teams nearly cost them a win against the Colts and it nearly got them upset by the Lions. This unit has been seemingly neglected the last two years and while they finally found a reliable kicker in Matt Gay, the rest of it has been dicey at best.
All coaches have weaknesses; Andy Reid with his clock management for instance, and Sean McVay’s biggest weakness is stubbornness. He is a great offensive coach and he has definitely built a culture in Los Angeles. He took a team that was a project and five years later people think he just fell off the turnip truck and wandered into a winning situation. That is ABSOLUTELY not true. Go back and look at the roster he inherited and look at the draft picks they had in the wake of the Jared Goff trade. No one had them winning more than four games.
Even when they added volatile stars such as Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters, Ndamukong Suh, Jalen Ramsey, Odell Beckham Jr., etc, none of those supposed locker room cancers ever metastasized into a tumor. McVay instilled the “WE NOT ME” ethos into the team and everyone has bought in. Jalen Ramsey is the chief example of this. He is constantly trying to make the team better and recruit Von Miller and Beckham and whomever else to the team, and he wouldn’t do that if Sean McVay weren’t someone worth believing in.
That said, McVay’s genius can also be a detriment to him. He’s been accused of overthinking it when it comes to Kyle Shanahan and trying too hard to prove he’s a genius which is part of what befell him in the Super Bowl. He has a Marilu Henner level of total recall and can remember EVERYTHING and yet he often seems like he’s learned nothing. It’s baffling but perhaps that’s one of the unfortunate byproducts of his youth. He’s wise beyond his years in terms of schematics and leadership but he still needs to learn the ability to let go and not be afraid to deviate from the things that he’d like to do.
He’s occasionally learned this lesson. Following an embarrassing loss to Dallas in 2019 he came out against Seattle and ran 12 personnel and it worked. Last year, he got embarrassed against the Niners and Dolphins in consecutive weeks and then came out and coached a balanced game against Tampa and won. He’s capable of changing his strategy but he often changes it until the heat dies down and then reverts back to what he wants to do and not what he needs to do.
These last two losses have really shone an unflattering spotlight on the Rams, and despite being on his way to five consecutive winning seasons and a .500 playoff record, his worst moments always shine in a primetime/game of the week moment and that causes people to doubt him. He’s not likely to fix all his problems in two weeks but if he just goes back to basics and has a disciplined approach going forward a lot of those issues will fix themselves.
He has a great locker room. Despite Ramsey seemingly chewing out Raheem Morris, and or David Long, they aren’t divided. There’s enough leadership on and off the field to expect them to come out strong. McVay said they will come out swinging after the bye and that’s all well and good but it’s not about taking the biggest swing but taking the right swings.
McVay needs to do a little soul searching and be honest with his staff, his players, and ultimately himself. He’ll still have issues throughout the season and his career, but if he is honest about what those issues are he can at least restrain himself from succumbing to his worst impulses. He is by no means on the hot seat but he does need to prove he can truly learn from his mistakes and prove he knows what to do take a talented team and make them a championship team. Sean McVay is a genius and now he needs to figure out how to get out of his own way.