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Why Sean McVay’s DC hire is not as consequential this time around

McVay has grown more involved on the defensive side of the ball in recent years

Los Angeles Rams v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Sean McVay is currently interviewing for his fourth defensive coordinator ahead of his eighth season as head coach of the Los Angeles Rams. While Raheem Morris is a significant loss from all perspectives—including schematic, leadership, and character—the stakes certainly feel lower this time around.

Part of McVay’s initial allure to the Rams was that he felt comfortable bringing in a veteran defensive coordinator, perhaps one of the best in NFL history, in Wade Phillips. It takes confidence for a first time head coach—and one that at the time was among the youngest to ever join the ranks—to hire as an assistant someone who in every single way may have been his senior. It was one of the first signs we had into McVay’s advanced staff building skills and sound judgement of talent and character.

But because McVay was so young he was effectively learning on the fly, and after the 2019 season he went looking for his schematic equal on the defensive side of the ball. He landed on Brandon Staley who had experience under Vic Fangio with both the Denver Broncos and Chicago Bears. McVay pursued this defensive style of play because it befuddled him in the 2018 Super Bowl and earlier that year when the Rams has minimal offensive production against Fangio’s Bears. This hire led to developments on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball, though it maybe contributed to the riff between McVay and then-QB Jared Goff.

Staley lasted only a single season before he was hired as head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers. Raheem Morris came in to run a continuation of Staley’s scheme—of course with his own fingerprints—even though Morris did not have roots in this coaching tree. While Morris took over the number one rated defense in the NFL, he helped them grow into a world championship unit and then also defied all odds to string together a solid defense with mostly rookies and unheralded players in 2023 en route to the playoffs.

Why Sean McVay’s DC hire is not as consequential this time around

When Phillips was in charge of the defense, McVay was largely uninvolved. The TV broadcast of games early on often showed him sitting on a Gatorade cooler rifling through the tablet on the sideline and preparing for the next offensive drive. That’s part of the appeal of hiring such a veteran defensive coordinator—you let them run the show.

That seemed to change when Staley came to town in 2020, mostly because McVay hired Staley to learn the ropes of the Fangio system. This may also help to explain why McVay felt comfortable hiring Morris to run a foreign style of defense—because he knew at the end of the day it was going to be a dual effort.

Much was made last year of how McVay’s staff was performing poorly and he spent most of the offseason retooling his assistants in a way that would allow him to delegate more. Hiring offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur was a big part of that and he now returns for his second season in the same role. While it’s always going to be McVay’s offense, if McVay has to spend more time on the defensive side of the ball they still have a perfectly competent individual with prior offensive coordinator experience over the offense.

What options are the Rams left with?

Ravens assistant Dennard Wilson interviewed with the Rams before being hired as the Tennessee Titans’ DC. Michigan’s Jesse Minter followed Jim Harbaugh to the Chargers as was expected.

The Rams have some internal options in Chris Shula (interviewing with Miami Dolphins on Thursday) and Aubrey Pleasant. They could reunite with either Staley or Ejiro Evero. The later is still under contract with the Carolina Panthers but now has coordinator experience with them and the Broncos.

There are also outside options such as Dallas Cowboys assistant Aden Durde and former Washington Commanders HC Ron Rivera. Durde was also interviewed by the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons, but both have since made their respective defensive coordinator hires.

Don’t panic if the Rams reunite with Brandon Staley

Fans understandably don’t seem expected about the idea of Staley returning as the team’s defensive coordinator in 2024. Sure, the Chargers had top talent like Joey Bosa and Derwin James on the defensive side of the ball when Staley arrived and they never seemed to pull it together—even after sizeable investments in JC Jackson, Khalil Mack, Sebastian Joseph-Day, Morgan Fox, and others.

But if Staley returns he won’t—and probably shouldn’t—have complete autonomy over the defense. The Rams simply have too much momentum to risk losing within that unit. They need to continue to build on strong rookie seasons from Kobie Turner and Byron Young. LA will likely add star talent to its defense this season to complement its young players, and McVay will be instrumental in developing that vision.