ENCINO, Calif. — Sean McVay said he’d be leaving his home for work Saturday at 4:15 a.m., Insane Standard Time. But there he was, on Coughlin Time, at 4:10, opening his Range Rover driver-side door in this silent neighborhood in the hills north of Los Angeles.
“I felt bad about you waiting out here,” said McVay, perky even two hours before dawn.
Truth is, I had no idea if he’d be on time or a half-hour early for our date, a ride to his office on the last day of Super Bowl LIII preparation at the Rams’ home base. So I got to his place at 3:30 and waited. McVay, about to be the youngest coach in Super Bowl history (he turned 33 last Thursday), is so excited about his job, it’s hard for him to sleep. On this night, he got about four-and-a-half hours. “I gotta do better,” he said. “Big week coming up.”
For the Rams, Super Bowl week is a stunning culmination of the franchise turnaround executed by the energetic McVay. But it’s no time for McVay, exactly half Bill Belichick’s age, to turn all doe-eyed about the craziness of what he and the Rams (26-9 since he got the big gig) have done. Though he is gee-whiz about it all, and you’ll hear that, plenty, in the next few minutes, you could feel a more chip-on-his-shoulder McVay when I asked him, “How do you think you guys will play next week?”
“If we continue to prepare like we have, I think we’ll play well,” he said. “Our guys have a nice confidence and respect for the Patriots. But I don’t think for a second this game will be too big for our team. I know that we don’t have a lot of the experience New England has, and I respect that. But we’re confident. The Patriots are a great team but I think we’re pretty good too.”
There’s an allegorical story that’s important to why McVay is here. It has to do with running a bit more of a democracy than some old-time coaches would be comfortable. In high school, McVay was an option quarterback at Brookhaven (Ga.) Marist School, and, as a senior in 2003, his team trailed a defensively superior team, Shaw High, 17-12, in the fourth quarter of a state quarterfinal game. Marist had the ball at the Shaw 5-yard line. Third-and-goal. Timeout. McVay went to the sidelines. Coaches wanted to call a power-run to the right. McVay’s suggestion of a naked bootleg won.
“That’s kind of a blur right now,” McVay said, eyes straight ahead on the 101. “This was one of the best defenses in the state—they’d dominated everybody they had played. And we ran a couple plays where you could feel they were pursuing hard off their edges. We just kinda had an intuition that if we just sold out to the power run … we were a power wishbone team … if I kept that ball and just hid it right on my stomach and booted it wide left, there was a chance we’d walk in. So we called it. We called ‘Fake 32 Wham Naked Left.’ Our backs did such a good job selling [the fake] that the Shaw guys tackled everybody and they were celebrating like they’d won the game right there when I was running into the opposite end of the end zone. We won 18-17.”
Moral of the story?
“Listen to players,” McVay said. “Players have the best feel for the game. Especially guys who have the right insight and the right understanding of what’s going on. Giving them that ownership, they’re likely to make it work.
“Players get an intricate feel being out there, more than I have as a coach on the sideline. There are nuances of the game that I can’t feel on the sideline.”
“Got an example? Maybe something Jared Goff felt last week in New Orleans?” I asked.
“Hundred percent,” McVay said. “So this was arguably one of Jared’s best throws, where he throws the deep out to Cooks in the third quarter.”
First down Rams, at their 37, 7:06 left in the third quarter. Saints 20, Rams 10. Goff, at the line, stepped back from center. He gathered himself, and for about two seconds, he starred at the ground like he was concentrating, maybe trying to hear something. He was trying to hear, in fact … the voice of his coach. With 21 seconds left on the play clock before coach-to-quarterback communication shut off at 15 seconds, McVay called the “Blaze Out” play. Goff yelled something and signaled to the lone receiver to the left, Cooks. Three receivers in a bunch right next to the right tackle—wideouts Robert Woods and Josh Reynolds, and tight end Gerald Everett—leaned in to get the new call.
As McVay explained: “Jared had suggested that because he felt like some of the underneath zoning defenders were making him feel like, ‘I gotta really layer this ball, and I’d rather be able to drive it to Brandin.’ Usually, Brandin runs an in-breaking route there, but I could tell from talking to Jared, he’d feel a lot better throwing an out-route to the sideline.“
Translation: In this one-by-three-receiver formation, instead of Goff aiming to throw to one of the three men in the bunch with more traffic around them, and having to “layer” the ball, or throw it with touch between the linebackers and the safeties, he preferred to throw it against the Saints’ best cover player, Marshon Lattimore, because there’d likely be no cover help on that side. Cooks, running what the Rams called a “Blaze Out,” would win that battle. If he ran inside, linebacker A.J. Klein would be there creating traffic, and Goff would have to “layer” the ball over him and under Lattimore. Not optimal.
The ball traveled with heat, and 24 yards in the air, straight to Cooks on the sideline at the Saints’ 49-yard line. Gain of 14. Perfect throw, in tight coverage. “Best throw he’s made all day,” Troy Aikman said on TV.
“So,” McVay said, “the drive before he had asked me, Can we throw the Blaze Out? I said, ‘Hey, if you feel comfortable with it, your ownership. You’re more likely to make it work.’
“That’s a level of trust right there. If he hadn’t said he wanted to throw the Blaze Out, I wouldn’t have called it.”