In some ways one of the career highlights of Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay is also full of lowlights.
McVay is only 36 years old and has already earned his second trip to the NFL championship. The young head coach has accumulated an 87-58 record (67% win percentage) in his first five seasons with the Rams. He’s done it with two different starting quarterbacks and by turning over the majority of his roster in less than 3 full years.
Los Angeles is lucky to have such a dynamic head coach that has led his team to great success - and in many ways McVay is still developing. His growth so far can be measured by the distance between two key points: the devastating Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots in 2019 and the return of the Rams to the championship in 2022.
We’re not here to relive the painful memories of how LA fell just short of the title “World Champions” a few years ago. Instead, let’s take stock of the challenges the Rams faced that day and how they shaped McVay into the more well-rounded head coach that he is now. These lessons learned are an advantage for Los Angeles in Super Bowl LVI versus a young, inexperienced Cincinnati Bengals team. Will this be the edge that pushes the Rams over the top this time around?
Over-preparing, & paralysis by analysis
“Congratulations to the Patriots. They did a great job. You know, coach Belichick did an outstanding job. There really is no other way to put it - I’m pretty numb right now. But definitely, I got outcoached. I didn’t do enough for our football team.”
Having two weeks to prepare for the football game of a lifetime instead of the typical one week seems like a dream scenario for a young coach that is referred to as an “offensive genius”, but in 2019 McVay did not use the extra time wisely. The young coach in just his second year with the Rams over-prepared and forgot to see the forest for the trees.
While McVay and the offense were expecting the Patriots’ defense to deploy their usual man-heavy coverage schemes, New England instead played a lot of cover 4 and cover 6 with two-high safety looks. Los Angeles came into the game looking to create chunk yardage, but the Patriots’ defense was solely focused on taking that away.
The Rams showed they weren’t ready to be patient and methodically move down the field that day. Not only did McVay over-prepare his team, he gave them answers to the wrong set of questions.
It’s best to be matchup-based, not system-based
The Patriots put on a coaching clinic in the 2019 Super Bowl. In addition to the surprise defensive schemes they deployed, New England also caught the Rams off-guard with their offense.
The 2019 Rams team was woefully undersized in the middle of their defense. While they were strong against the pass, the two middle linebackers, Cory Littleton and Mark Barron, were converted safeties that struggled at times in the running game.
New England deployed tight-end heavy and jumbo sets to take advantage of Barron and Littleton on the ground, and then they went up-tempo to keep the two linebackers on the field. This approach also gave the Patriots favorable matchups in the passing game, as Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman were being covered by linebackers. The result was at least three chunk yardage plays, including a long touchdown to Gronkowski.
Patriots went heavy on the go-ahead drive, helped force matchups against Rams linebackers. All three big plays — 2 from Gronk, 1 from Edelman — were against linebackers in coverage.— Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) February 4, 2019
This particular lesson from 2019 took some time to result in noticeable changes for McVay, but it should be credited in part for the decision to swap defensive coordinators from Wade Phillips to Brandon Staley in 2020. The 2022 NFC championship game also bears this out - while the Rams had primarily played in two-high safety looks for most of the season, they deployed mostly single-high coverages against the San Francisco 49ers in order to focus on stopping the run game.
This is an example of coming full circle and not being reluctant to try something new, even if it’s “just not the way you do things”
Let players play
One of the more significant points of maturation for McVay from his second year to now is that he’s grown much more trusting in his players.
His comments post-game in 2019 hint at a “paint by numbers” style of mindset towards his players. In other words, McVay believed that he could put his team in such good positions to succeed, that all they only had to do what was asked of them. Jared Goff was the most notable example of this - and the transition to Matthew Stafford during the 2021 season provides a stark contrast.
Fair or not fair, the depiction of Goff is that McVay did all the heavy lifting - helping Goff with every aspect of playing quarterback other than actually throwing the football.
It only makes sense that when McVay had the opportunity to hand-pick a new quarterback he brought in someone that is perceived in a completely opposite way. Stafford is a gunslinger. At times it seems that the veteran quarterback is just running around in his back yard. Even when things don’t go according to plan for Stafford, he has a calmness that leads him to positive results far more often than disaster.
McVay and his team no longer feel over-engineered. When the design is not perfect or suitable to the circumstances that arise, the Rams now have players that can navigate - and are trusted to navigate - the uncertainty on their own.