When Sean McVay was hired by the Los Angeles Rams to be the youngest head coach in NFL history in 2017, his first staff included two future head coaches, one current NFL offensive coordinator, and two current defensive coordinators. McVay’s reputation as a coach whisperer is easily understood, but 2023’s round of the Rams once again firing assistant coaches and a lack of premier coordinators in recent seasons should call into question the difference between being able to attract future head coaches and actually being able to identify great assistants for yourself.
Is Sean McVay actually good at hiring assistant coaches for the Rams?
The 2017 L.A. Rams staff
McVay’s first two hires at the key coordinator positions were about as simple as having the number one pick in the draft when Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck are entering the NFL. Matt LaFleur was a good friend of McVay’s and he needed to pad his resume after coaching Matt Ryan to an MVP as the Falcons quarterbacks coach. McVay needed an offensive coordinator who he could lean on but not one who needed play calling duties or who would interfere with his own plans because L.A.’s offense was going to be his thing.
That worked for one year and then LaFleur jumped to the Titans because similar to Eric Bieniemy’s current move from the Chiefs to the Commanders, he felt that he wasn’t going to get enough credit for the Rams success as long as he was there. LaFleur was destined to be an NFL offensive coordinator and head coach, with or without McVay, and the two had a mutually beneficial relationship during their lone season together in L.A..
Conversely, Wade Phillips first became an NFL defensive coordinator before McVay was born. McVay hired someone who was the polar opposite of him—defensive minded and experienced—so that he had confidence that the defense was being properly managed while he gave his focus to fixing a 32nd-ranked offense.
Both hires look like simple plug and play options for offense and defense, as they were universally agreeable and defensible. Because McVay had the power to get LaFleur (friends, opportunity to get out of Atlanta) and Phillips (out of a job and he is passionate about coaching no matter who or where), these are like stick-and-pick coordinators that helped the Rams get off the ground running.
The “wow” hire for McVay in 2017 would probably be Zac Taylor and the Rams were lucky that he had not been scooped by an NFL team in the previous year. Though he had been seen as kind of a wunderkind like McVay in his own right, mentoring Ryan Tannehill while serving as a quarterbacks coach in Miami from 2012 to 2015, Taylor had a five-game stint as the Dolphins offensive coordinator when he was only 32. When Miami cleared house in 2016, Taylor slipped through the cracks and wound up with the University of Cincinnati, which opened the door for McVay to get a “7th round steal” by hiring him as assistant receivers coach in 2017.
An opportunity that Zac Taylor would of course run straight towards:
“The joke is if you have a cup of coffee with Sean McVay, you’re going to be a head coach in the NFL. ... There’s a lot of truth to that,” Taylor quipped Monday, via Mike Petraglia of CLSN Media.
Taylor was lucky that Jon Gruden (sort of the mastermind behind all of these connections in a way) hired McVay’s first QBs coach—Greg Olson—to become the Raiders offensive coordinator in 2018. McVay didn’t waste the opportunity to have Taylor coach Jared Goff in 2018 and then in 2019, the Bengals brought Zac Taylor back to Cincinnati.
McVay’s other notable hires during his first year with the Rams include tight ends coach Shane Waldron, assistant head coach Joe Barry, offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, cornerbacks coach Aubrey Pleasant, and safeties coach Ejiro Evero.
Waldron, now the Seahawks offensive coordinator, was someone who McVay brought with him from Washington. That explains that. Barry was Washington’s defensive coordinator from 2015-2016 and was out of a job. Barry is now LaFleur’s defensive coordinator in Green Bay. Pleasant was brought over from Washington. Evero, who was the Broncos defensive coordinator in 2022 and he’s now the Panthers defensive coordinator, was off of Gruden’s coaching tree with the late-2000s Buccaneers.
Maybe the closest thing to an “out of left field hire” from 2017 who has gone onto have success in the NFL would be Zac Taylor. What can we say about McVay’s hires since then?
The 2018-2019 Rams Staffs
After losing LaFleur as “offensive coordinator”, McVay divided roles with Waldron getting “pass game coordinator” and Kromer getting “run game coordinator” in 2018. McVay also hired Jedd Fisch off of UCLA’s staff as a clock-management specialist and Liam Coen to replace Taylor as assistant receivers coach.
The Rams of course went to the Super Bowl in 2018, helping Taylor get attention for vacant head coaching positions after the season and landing with the Bengals. But no other assistant coaches really found themselves in greener pastures after that run.
In 2019, McVay did Wade a solid by hiring his son Wes as tight ends coach. Eric Henderson was scooped up from the L.A. Chargers staff to become the defensive line coach.
But after reaching the Super Bowl and then missing the playoffs the following year, McVay was “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” in his assistant coaches, who he hired, and thus started the process of hiring and firing at a much more rapid pace than his first two offseasons.
2020’s first house cleaning
In 2020, McVay parted with Phillips and special teams coordinator John Fassel, who he had simply inherited from Jeff Fisher, and hired old friend Kevin O’Connell to be the “offensive coordinator in title only” after once again plucking from people who were on Washington’s staff.
Similar to LaFleur and Taylor, McVay went out and made a “wanna be a head coach soon?” offer of the vacant defensive coordinator to Brandon Staley because it was a worst-kept secret that Staley was earmarked for a head coaching role in the near future. Another wunderkind. In fact Staley was probably too good for the job, as the Rams finished first in points and yards allowed and Staley vanished quicker than Keyser Soze.
McVay hired John Bonamego, a veteran and experienced special teams coordinator, to replace Fassel.
But how patient could McVay be with his first real dramatic decisions of hiring and firing? Because it’s easy to hire coaches for your first staff and then see some of them graduate. It’s much harder to handle the decision to now replace somebody.
2020—Okay, but not good enough
The Rams got back to the playoffs in 2020, but also came to the realization that they were probably never going to win a Super Bowl with Jared Goff as some of the key supporting cast members had gotten older and injured.
Staley was hired to become the head coach of the Chargers and McVay replaced him with another old buddy from the Bucs, Raheem Morris, who had never served as a defensive coordinator from the beginning-to-end of a season despite having previously been a head coach. But Staley-to-Morris wasn’t the only change.
McVay hired Thomas Brown, a college running backs coach as the new Rams running backs coach, and he was later promoted to assistant head coach when Barry went to the Packers. He decided not to retain Kromer in 2021 and replaced him as OL coach with Stanford’s Kevin Carberry. Waldron was hired to be Seattle’s OC and he brought along with him assistant OL coach Andy Dickerson. Coen became Kentucky’s offensive coordinator to help guide quarterback Will Levis.
Phillips was promoted to pass game coordinator to replace Waldron. On defense, Henderson was promoted to run game coordinator.
And after just one season in the role, McVay demoted Bonamego to senior coaching assistant and hired Joe DeCamillis as special teams coordinator.
The Rams did win the Super Bowl the following season. It’s worth mentioning that in addition to these coaching hires, that L.A. also traded for Matthew Stafford and Von Miller, signed Odell Beckham, Jr., and put them on a roster with Aaron Donald, Cooper Kupp, and Andrew Whitworth.
There’s no question that McVay himself is a great coach. The question today is, “Does he hire great coaches?” O’Connell and Morris did nothing to hold the Rams back from winning the Super Bowl in 2021. But did they propel them forward?
From 2021 to 2022 to 2023
O’Connell, who had essentially the same “offensive coordinator” title as LaFleur, catapulted his Super Bowl win into becoming head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. Make that another win for McVay in landing a future head coach.
Evero was hired by the Denver Broncos to become the defensive coordinator under Nathaniel Hackett, and Evero lasted longer there than Hackett himself. When Sean Payton was hired in 2023, he decided to not retain Evero and he went to Carolina to take the same job under Frank Reich. There has to be some question as to why Sean McVay didn’t identify Evero as a suitable candidate to become the Rams defensive coordinator in 2021 or even in 2023.
O’Connell brought Phillips with him to Minnesota to become the offensive coordinator.
McVay replaced O’Connell by bringing back Coen, an unmitigated disaster that resulted in Coen going back to Kentucky in 2023. McVay took Brown out of the RB coaching role and replaced him with Ra’Shaad Samples, only to fire Samples midseason and replace him with Brown.
Olson was brought back as an offensive assistant, but he is now gone again after Seattle hired him to be their new quarterbacks coach in 2023. McVay promoted Zac Robinson to pass game coordinator/QBs in 2022 and that’s a role he still retains.
Morris is still the defensive coordinator too. But there will be many more changes.
Like new special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn. That makes for four special teams coordinators in the last five years. And new offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, another buddy-buddy hire, and the third OC in the last three years. Fresh off of being fired by the Jets, will LaFleur get more or less responsibility than his predecessors?
Brown joins Reich and Evero in Carolina, as he is the Panthers new offensive coordinator and will most likely be working with Bryce Young in 2023. McVay’s new assistant head coach is Jimmy Lake, another former assistant from Gruden’s Tampa Bay teams and another attempt to pluck talent from the college ranks; Lake spent the last eight years at the University of Washington.
McVay also parted with Carberry and replaced him with Ryan Wendell, making three offensive line coaches in the last four years. The new running backs coach is Ron Gould, another college coach and another name he’s pulling out of Stanford. And McVay brought back Pleasant, now the defensive backs and defensive pass game coordinator.
Perhaps these hires will work out better than the last two or three. But while there is a lot of attention—understandably so—for the number of head coaches and coordinators who have worked for the Rams since 2017, there is maybe less being said about the sheer amount of assistant coaches turnover under McVay and the fact that there are only new names this year because there are old names that had to go.
How much longer can these offensive, defensive, and special teams coordinators last than the other ones? As it tends to do, only time will tell.