From 4-12 to Super Bowl LIII This Rams turnaround is on Sean McVay


NEW ORLEANS — If you’re looking for “the next Sean McVay,” it’s worth looking at — and listening to — what the actual Sean McVay did in Sunday’s 26-23 overtime win.

Let’s start with the fake punt call, because that’s the part of coaching everybody sees — the in-game decision-making. That’s the stuff that gets you praised or ripped, depending on the outcome. So let’s start there, Rams ball on fourth-and-5 at their own 30, down 13-0 early in the second quarter of an NFC Championship Game that felt as if it was being played inside of a jet engine.

The Rams, to that point, did not have a first down in the game. The Saints had seven and were rolling. The Superdome crowd was so loud, the building was shaking. Rams quarterback Jared Goff put tape over the earholes on his helmet to give him a chance to hear anything. His coach, Sean McVay, sent the punting unit out onto the field with instructions not to punt.

“It goes back to the confidence in the players,” McVay said later. “At that point, I felt like we needed a little bit of momentum.”

Punter Johnny Hekker completed a 12-yard pass to cornerback Sam Shields (no typos there, that’s what actually happened), and something in the game shifted. The Rams would pick up three more first downs on that drive, which ultimately resulted in a field goal and L.A.’s first points of the game.

“He’s a coach that knows his team,” Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “He knew we needed to do something to get things going our way, and he believed his team could get it done. That sounds simple, but it’s actually huge.”

A coach can’t coach if he doesn’t know his team, and McVay knows his. Two years into a head-coaching career that began at the inconceivable age of 30, McVay is completely in tune with the roster he’s already coached to 26 wins and a conference title. In his short time there, he’s helped transform the Rams from a 4-12 mess to a juggernaut. While all of these teams are out here trying to find the “next Sean McVay,” the actual Sean McVay is going to the Super Bowl.

“Certainly, when we hired him, getting to this part of the mountaintop this soon, that wasn’t something you could imagine,” Rams GM Les Snead said after the game. “The idea was for him to come in and help us create a winning environment, and to create an environment for Jared to succeed. There’s a lot more than goes into a being a head coach than just being a quarterback guru, and obviously we believed he had those qualities.”

The money phrase is “create an environment.” It doesn’t matter whether you’re 32, 52, 72, whatever… if you’re to be a successful head coach in the NFL, your job is to create and maintain an environment and a foundation from which your team can thrive whether things are going well or poorly.

McVay’s Rams have experienced a lot of success in a short period of time, but it hasn’t all been smooth. Atlanta broke their hearts in last year’s playoffs, and after an acquisition-intensive offseason they entered 2018 as a popular Super Bowl favorite. But along the way they’ve dealt with significant injuries to wide receiver Cooper Kupp, cornerback Aqib Talib, even running back Todd Gurley, who still doesn’t look all the way right. They dealt with southern California wildfires that threatened their homes, a mass shooting that took place in the community in which they train, the difficult travel schedule that West Coast teams endure.

Sunday, they were confronted with a 13-point deficit in one of the league’s most difficult places to play, and they never lost their confidence.

“A lot of things have happened to our team,” Whitworth said. “We feel battle-tested.”

So it was that Goff, who when McVay found him was a jittery former No. 1 overall pick that had yet to really get out of the garage, taped over his earholes when things looked bleak Sunday and went to work on his huddle. With supreme confidence, teammates say, Goff took charge and told each individual player what was to happen, because he knew they weren’t going to be able to hear him once they all got to the line. What impressed Goff’s teammates wasn’t just his command of the material McVay was sending in but his obvious faith that it would all be successful.

“He knew we needed to do something to get things going our way, and he believed his team could get it done. That sounds simple, but it’s actually huge.”

Andrew Whitworth on Sean McVay

“I’m always confident,” Goff said. “We’re a good group. We’ve hung together all year. We believe we’re stronger together. That’s a great team we played, and this place was LOUD. But we overcame it. I guess it wasn’t loud enough.”

Let’s finish there, with Goff, because he’s one of McVay’s signature accomplishments. Two years ago, the idea of this dude commanding the huddle in a game like this, leading a comeback in a game like this and taking a press-conference jab at the opposing team’s fans after the game was over was inconceivable. McVay and his staff didn’t know what they had in Goff when they got their hands on him. His raw talent is undeniable. But where McVay & Co. have shined is in getting Goff to believe he’s as good as any other quarterback in the league on any given day. Instill and cultivate that belief, and you end up with a quarterback who doesn’t think anything’s too much to overcome.

“There’s no one I’d rather have as my quarterback,” McVay said. “I love Jared Goff. And when you do these things with people that you care about, that’s what’s special about sports.”

McVay could give you a week’s worth of X’s and O’s breakdowns on what Goff does well and why he’s thriving in his third season, but the key nuggets are the parts about love and caring. McVay’s players know he cares about them. They feel it. And that’s what helps build a foundation, create an environment, that leads to success.

And that success has upended the league’s coaching landscape. McVay’s 2017 offensive coordinator, Matt LaFleur, is now the head coach of the Green Bay Packers. His 2018 quarterbacks coach, Zac Taylor, is expected to be named the new head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals after the Super Bowl. The Arizona Cardinals made sure to mention in their press release announcing the hire of new head coach Kliff Kingsbury that he and McVay are friends.

“I don’t blame people for trying to replicate it, because I think they’re looking at we were a 4-12 team with a young quarterback that needed somebody who could build him up,” Snead said. “So I can see why people would want to copy that. I’m just glad I’m not going through it again.”

No, the Rams are the one team that doesn’t need to worry about finding the next Sean McVay. They have the original. And the next game he’ll coach for them will be the Super Bowl.

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