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Sean McVay almost never became Washington’s TE coach

A twist of Pac-12 fate that helped put McVay on a path towards NFL stardom

Washington Redskins v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Nobody deserves more credit for Sean McVay’s success than Sean McVay. Because of McVay’s success, it’s also safe to say that McVay himself would pass off the credit to everyone who helped him get to his position with the L.A. Rams, and everyone within the organization that has worked to get the franchise to two Super Bowls in four years.

McVay was first hired in the NFL by Jon Gruden in 2008, in part thanks to decades-long ties between the two football families. McVay called Gruden a mentor prior to a 2018 meeting between the Rams and Raiders:

“I’m just so appreciative of what Coach Gruden has meant to me and to my family,” McVay said, “and how much he has kind of put his arm around me and been a huge mentor of mine. I’ve got so much respect for him, and I’m looking forward to getting a chance to go play our second preseason game.”

There was only so much Gruden could do for McVay after the Buccaneers fired the head coach in 2009, and after a one year stint in the United Football League, McVay popped back up in the league with the Washington Teams. This only happens thanks to the fact that the Teams made one of the strangest hires of 2008, Jim Zorn, and then replaced him with one of the “safest” by hiring Mike Shanahan.

On January 2, 2010, a little known Twitter account by the handle of @AdamSchefter tweeted out this minor piece of football news, the LEDE of which being that Washington was retaining safeties coach Steve Jackson. The throw-in news being that someone named “Sean McVay” was hired as an offensive assistant.

Shanahan’s first offensive staff in 2010 included his son Kyle as offensive coordinator, Matt LaFleur at quarterbacks, Chris Foerster at offensive line, Keenan McCardell at wide receivers, and Jon Embree would be coaching tight ends. McVay was added only thanks to the random connection that he had with defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, himself a former NFL coach (including 2006-2008 with the Rams) reinventing himself with the Florida Tuskers in 2009.

We know the famous graphics at this point of all the people who would eventually make a stop under Shanahan in Washington but there’s a longer list of relatively anonymous names. Like Embree.

A native of Los Angeles who played college football at Compton Community College and then Colorado, before being selected in the sixth round of the 1987 NFL Draft by the L.A. Rams.

Embree was 28 when he became the tight ends coach at the University of Colorado. One of his players, Christian Fauria, would turn into a second round pick of the Seahawks and a two-time Super Bowl champion with the Patriots.

In 2006, Embree got his first NFL job, where he got the chance to teach—or perhaps more accurately, learn from—the greatest tight end of all-time: Tony Gonzalez and the Kansas City Chiefs. But despite Gonzalez being a first-team All-Pro in 2008, the Chiefs went 2-14 and Herm Edwards, just like Gruden at the same time, was fired along with his staff.

Both Embree and McVay re-emerged in the NFL in 2010 with Washington but understandably McVay would be sitting behind the veteran coach and waiting for his time.

It didn’t take that long.

Go back to 2006 again. Colorado hired Dan Hawkins to be their next head coach, a massive get because Hawkins had led Boise State to 12-1, 13-1, and 11-1 records from 2002 to 2004, eventually setting the stage for Chris Petersen’s historic run with the Broncos. But Hawkins, like Petersen, would find the Pac-12 to be much more difficult than the WAC or Mountain West.

Hawkins went 19-39 over five seasons, getting fired in the middle of 2010 after Colorado had lost five straight games.

Therefore, the Buffs needed a new head coach at the end of 2010 and they happened to know a guy who was both an alumni and a successful NFL tight ends coach. They hired Jon Embree and he didn’t hesitate to restart his new life back in the college ranks. Therefore, Washington needed a new tight ends coach in the middle of the season and though he had yet to turn 25, McVay was already there and maybe it would give him a chance to learn the ropes—even if he had to go back to being an offensive assistant in a month.

Believe it or not, that was essentially Shanahan’s plan when he actively chose not to officially promote Sean McVay to tight ends coach in December of 2010: It was only meant to be for four games. It turned into a permanent gig a month later.

As noted by several Teams reporters at the time, Mike Shanahan made it clear that promoting Sean McVay was not the plan prior to actually promoting McVay.

I would say it is improbable that anything specific happened over those four games to help McVay gain the title of tight ends coach by 2011, but it is safe to argue that it was one of the most important positions on Washington’s roster at the time. The team had Chris Cooley already, then drafted Fred Davis in the second round in 2008, and they were also developing Logan Paulsen into a pretty decent option as well, a player who had worked for one season with Embree at UCLA in 2005.

Sean McVay has a lot of people to thank for helping him become the youngest head coach in NFL history, including Gruden, Haslett, Shanahan, and Embree, but as usual it is a twist of fate and good luck that he managed to advance through the ranks so quickly.

As for Embree, his return to Colorado was not what anyone had hoped for as the Buffs went 4-21 during his short two-year tenure and he was a coach free agent again in 2013. He landed with the Cleveland Browns for one season, hopped over to the Bucs for three, and has spent the last four years as Kyle Shanahan’s assistant head coach/George Kittle’s tight ends coach in San Francisco.

He will now carry that same title under Mike McDaniel with the Miami Dolphins. McDaniel, as you know from the graphics, took over McVay’s role as an offensive assistant under Shanahan in Washington in 2011.

You just never know how or when your break is going to happen.