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Sean McVay’s Second Half Struggles

There may be no more overused sports movie trope than the halftime speech. The good guy team is down, nearly out. In the midst of it all, the coach calls everyone to attention and delivers words that inspire and miraculously heal. It turns the tide and leads the team to victory. 

Words like “No one. And I mean no one comes into our house and pushes us around” and “When the roosters are crowing and the cows are spinning circles in the pasture. Ducks Fly Together!”

There is something about a comeback win that encapsulates what is great about sports and about fandom. Comeback wins are also something that Rams fans don’t have much experience with.

A big tenet of the McVay offense is getting up early on teams. Which is a good strategy. Football teams that win the first half overwhelmingly win the game and McVay is the very best at doing this. He is 41-0 when winning at half time. Of course, McVay has also lost some games in his 74 regular season games of head coaching; 24 loses to be exact. (He has also won three and lost six games when tied at halftime.) So for those of you doing the math, that leaves just six regular season games that Sean McVay has won when the Rams have been trailing at half time. 

McVay is a great coach that has already accomplished more at the age of 35 than nearly any coach, ever. He leads current head coaches in winning percentage, he already has an impressive coaching tree, fielded a playoff roster three times, and took one of those playoff teams to the Super Bowl. (That game is another he lost when trailing at halftime.)

While halftime speeches may be what works in movies, what works in the locker rooms of actual football stadiums are adjustments. At halftime, coaches rapidly absorb statlines and rework the play sheet accordingly within the first few minutes. The changes are then disseminated among players via their position coaches. This leaves just a few moments for a rousing huddle up, but nothing like Coach Devine or Bombay would prefer. McVay would likely excel if this were all that was needed. They guy is a constant ball of energy that excretes positivity and that can-do-it spirit. 

But, McVay has lost 18 of 24 times when losing after the first half because he isn’t making the right adjustments. And it seems to be getting worse. 13 of these losses occurred in 2019 and 2020. In 2019, the Rams were 1-6 when trailing at the half and in 2020 they were 1-5. In 2017 and 2018 they were 3-4 when trailing at the midpoint. This includes the McVay era’s biggest halftime deficit comeback. The Rams came back to beat the Cowboys after being down 24-16 at halftime in 2017. 

So far this season, the Rams have trailed at the half four times and three of those games have been lost. The Rams overcame a four point deficit to beat the Seahawks. Although, it should be mentioned that Russell Wilson missed the second half with a broken finger. That Seahawks lead is the second largest McVay’s Rams have been able to surmount. 

It isn’t that the adjustments that McVay is making are the wrong ones, it is more that he isn’t being aggressive enough in the changes that he makes. Not just in conservative play calling, but also in the variety of calls that he is making. 

The Rams run 11 personnel the most in the league. They trot out one running back and one tight end at an 87 percent clip. In weeks in which they lost, that percentage jumps to 96. In the third and fourth quarter of those games, it accounts for 100 percent of plays. 11 usually works for McVay.

According to Sharpfootballstats.com the personnel grouping is successful 57 percent of the time, and in losses, the rate of success only drops three points. But when dissecting it a bit further, McVay tendencies are on full display. 

On third down this season, McVay essentially calls the same plays whether winning or losing. And it isn’t just plays he typically leans on on third down, but they are the plays he leans on on first and second down. So later in the game defenders have become familiar with the plays and whatsmore they know where the ball is going, especially on third down. Overwhelmingly, it’s a pass play to Robert Woods or Cooper Kupp. This is a successful connection, except in the four games they have been trailing at the half. In losses, the success rate in 11 personnel drops to 44 percent in the third and fourth quarter. And in those instances, Stafford has only targeted Tyler Higbee and Kupp. 

Essentially when push comes to shove, McVay opts to use a tried and true play even if everyone else knows exactly what is coming. He doubles down on those plays because they usually work. They are safe calls. This is what gives a team like the 49ers an advantage. They are so familiar with this tendency, they can exploit it and other smart teams do the same. 

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In these games, McVay’s play calling on third down in the second half is conservative and predictable. Which is odd on two counts. One: He is successful in the first half because he is aggressive and less predictable. Which is why he has that impressive 41-0 record. Two: He doesn’t seem to realize that he has one of the great comeback quarterbacks of all time. Stafford is tied for sixth most fourth quarter comebacks in NFL history. 

McVay now has a quarterback that he can rely on in the second half and therefore he should be as aggressive as he is in the first half of games. Generally, if the Rams are down heading into the half, that means that Stafford hasn’t found his rhythm or he has committed turnovers. McVay’s response has been to scale back the aggressiveness and try to make the game “easy” for Stafford, again relying on the tried and true rather than giving Stafford the chance to go out and win the game, which he has done repeatedly.

In recent years, Jared Goff proved that he was unable to run the true breadth of the McVay system. This didn’t allow McVay to inject high-risk-high momentum-shifting game-winning plays when the team desperately needed them. Which is the entire reason that the Rams traded for Stafford. Stafford has been able to open several of the valves in this offense. Kupp’s performance is evidence, but so far McVay has tried to put Goff’s training wheels on Stafford. 

The first half of the Rams schedule has already been eye opening and the rest will continue to test McVay’s ability to claw his way back. They play several offenses that can put up points early. They play in Green Bay after the bye. Then they have their second games with Seattle and Arizona. They play a feisty Vikings offense, then they face Lamar Jackson in Baltimore. Then they finish the season against the 49ers. All these teams have dynamic offenses, most with brutal rushing attacks that can gash the Rams on the second level and force the defense to free up vertical space. It’s proved to be a dangerous one-two punch 

Most, if not all, of these games will be close games as the second quarter closes and McVay’s halftime adjustments will determine which way this season rounds out. McVay needs to prove he can coach his team out of a hole. That ability is what stands between the greats and the legends.

Ryan Anderson

Author Ryan Anderson

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  • Noel says:

    Therein lies his weakness, his Achilles heel if you will. That stubborn reliance on his “intelligence” to the point of a certain delusional belief that negates his need to adapt to a situation despite the “ it’s not working “ reality of the moment. I love this guy as a Ram coach for what he’s done for this organization, but I hate the outcome and results of his being out coached simply BECAUSE we have the feeling that he IS intelligent enough to have placed the team in a better situation to have won those losses.

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