Rams coach Sean McVay reveals secrets to coaching success

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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.”

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NFL Week 13 awards: Nick Bosa, defenses steal show

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Offensive Players of the Week

Joe Burrow, quarterback, Cincinnati. What a show of cool-under-pressure excellence by Burrow. He was unshakeable, hitting 25 of 31 for 286 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. His most impressive moment came with less than two minutes left, as the Bengals had third-and-11 at the Kansas City 28 with a three-point lead, hoping to hang onto the ball and run out the clock rather than kick a field goal and give Mahomes an entire minute to drive for six points. Burrow was in the pocket for about two seconds when Chiefs DE Mike Danna broke through the line on the strong side. When Danna hesitated for a half-second (appearing to make sure Burrow still had the ball), Burrow took advantage to thread a perfect ball to a closely-covered Tee Higgins, hitting him in stride for a first down to ice the game. Burrow moves to 3-0 against Mahomes – all in this calendar year. Honorable mentions to Jonah Williams, Cordell Volson, Ted Karras, Alex Cappa, and La’el Collins on the offensive line who, less than a year after Burrow endured 20 sacks in the postseason, have held two of his tormenters (Tennessee and Kansas City) to one sack each in consecutive weeks.

A.J. Brown, wide receiver, Philadelphia. This was the game Brown had circled on his mental calendar—the Titans coming to Philadelphia seven months after the Titans traded Brown to Philadelphia—and the drama did not disappoint. Brown’s 40-yard TD pass from good friend Jalen Hurts in the second quarter put the Eagles ahead for good, 14-7, and Brown’s well-covered 29-yard TD catch in third quarter gave the Eagles all the insurance they’d need. For the game, Brown caught eight balls for 119 yards and those two scores as the Eagles routed the AFC South leaders.

 

Defensive Players of the Week

Bobby Wagner, linebacker, L.A. Rams. Ahead of this game Wagner, who spent the first 10 seasons of his career with Seattle, downplayed the significance of facing his former team for the first time, calling it “just another game,” in classic unruffled veteran speak. But Wagner’s performance Sunday was fit for a revenge game, including two sacks, two QB hits, three tackles for loss and a gritty, momentum-shifting interception in the third quarter when he muscled the ball out of the grip of Seattle’s Tony Jones. The Seahawks came away with the win, but Wagner was everywhere Sunday, reminding his former team of the impact player he can be.

Nick Bosa, edge, San Francisco. The definition of a valuable player is one who’s at his best when moments are the biggest. Bosa sacked Tua Tagovailoa twice when the game was in the balance, and when times were desperate at the two-minute warning of the fourth quarter, Bosa strip-sacked Tagovailoa, and the fumble was returned for a rub-it-in late TD. When Bosa is in form, the Niners can win games with their D. They did Sunday.

Chandler Jones, defensive end, Las Vegas. It was a breakout night for Jones, one that will go at least part of the way to quieting critics of the mismatch between his $51 million contract signed this offseason and his impact on the field so far in 2022. Jones entered the day with just a half-sack on the season but brought down Justin Herbert three times, part of relentless pressure that also yielded him five QB hits and a pass defended in the Raiders’ 27-20 win over the Chargers.

Jalen Pitre, strong safety, Houston. The second-round rookie from Baylor, who has been a bright spot in a terrible season for the Texans, saved his best for the Deshaun Watson return to Houston Sunday. Pitre had an NFL-best 16 tackles in Week 13, and he added an interception that, at the time, was crucial—he picked off Watson three yards deep in the end zone on a bad decision by the quarterback. The Texans have a lot of holes to fill for 2023, but strong safety isn’t one of them.

 

Special teams players of the week

Donovan Peoples-Jones, receiver/returner, Cleveland. While Deshaun Watson struggled mightily in his first game back, Peoples-Jones saved the Browns from eternal first-half damnation. Down 5-0 with four minutes left in the second quarter, Peoples-Jones took a punt at the Cleveland 24-yard line, got hit by three Texans, weaved to the right sideline and won a footrace for a 76-yard TD. Boy, did the Browns need that.

Greg Zuerlein, kicker, N.Y. Jets. Scored 12 straight points between late in the second quarter and midway through the fourth, almost enough to lift the Jets to an upset of the Vikings in Minnesota. His five field goals—from 48, 60, 36, 30 and 26 yards—in five tries made this day reminiscent of some of the biggest Greg the Leg games.

 

Coach of the Week

Lou Anarumo, defensive coordinator, Cincinnati. This was a huge win for the Bengals, their fourth straight, against a powerhouse Chiefs squad. Today, the “Big Play Bengals” moniker was a perfect fit for Anarumo’s defense, including two key plays in the final quarter. It’s rare we see Travis Kelce lose the ball – in fact, Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt was responsible for Kelce’s first lost fumble of the season, halting the Chiefs’ first drive of the quarter and keeping the game within reach. Then, with Cincy up 27-24 in the final five minutes, Joseph Ossai sacked Patrick Mahomes on third and three to force a 55-yard Harrison Butker field goal attempt that sailed wide right, and just like that, the Bengals are 8-4. Anarumo interviewed for the Giants vacancy last season, and he’s rumored to be a head-coach candidate again this year. Neutralizing Kelce and helping the Bengals keep pace with the Ravens in the North can’t hurt his chances for a big job.

 

Goat of the week

Matt Patricia, assistant coach, Patriots. Not because Mac Jones yelled either at him or out of frustration Thursday night in the 24-10 loss to the Bills, or because offensive players subtly questioned Patricia’s play-calling after the game. But because the Patriots have developed zero downfield passing game, with nobody remotely threatening the secondary. Against the Bills, just seven of Mac Jones’ 36 passes went 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage or farther. You could argue that Jones—who completed just one of those seven throws—didn’t play well enough to deserve the trust of Patricia to throw to intermediate and deep areas. What I would say is Jones, the previous week against Minnesota, had completions of 26, 34, 16, 14, 37 and 40 yards on throws 10 yards or more past the line of scrimmage. The Buffalo game was a regression of major proportions. Patricia needed to build on the Minnesota game and did not.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column

Joe Burrow giving Cincinnati Bengals edge in AFC

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I’m fascinated by the pennant race in the AFC North. Baltimore and Cincinnati are tied for the top spot at 8-4. The Ravens have the tiebreaker with a win over the Bengals in Week Five; they have a rematch at Cincinnati Week 18. Their comparative schedules give the Ravens a slight edge, mostly because Cincinnati has a dangerous Monday night game against Buffalo at home in Week 17.

Baltimore: at Pittsburgh, at Cleveland, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, at Cincinnati.

Cincinnati: Cleveland, at Tampa Bay, at New England, Buffalo, Baltimore.

But the quarterback gives the Bengals a big edge:

Baltimore: Lamar Jackson suffered a knee injury that will sideline him for an undetermined amount of time. Tyler Huntley, a nice backup, will hold the fort.

Cincinnati: Joe Burrow’s last seven weeks: 6-1, NFL-best 118.1 rating, 74.7 percent accuracy.

In the last two weeks, Burrow has beaten Tennessee and Kansas City in one-score games, playing his best when the best was required. The throw that blew me away watching the highlights of this game was a throw that was next-to-impossible to execute, at a time when the stakes of the game were high.

The situation: Cincinnati led 27-24 with 1:59 left in the game and had third-and-11 at the KC 28-. Kansas City had no timeouts left. If the Bengals converted here, they could run out the clock with two or three kneeldowns. If they were stopped here, Evan McPherson would be called on to try a field goal to stretch the lead to six points. So this third-down snap was everything.

Per NFL Next Gen Stats, here are the odds Burrow faced:

Next Gen had that Chris Jones, Mike Danna and Frank Clark all crossed the line of scrimmage faster than what’s considered the league’s above-average get-off time of .75 seconds. Danna, who came across in six-tenths of a second, was bearing down on Burrow as he readied to throw in a hurry.

The receiver, Tee Higgins, running a post route, never had more than two yards of separation from Kansas City cornerback Joshua Williams. Watching the replay, Williams looked like he was velcroed to Higgins.

Burrow threw the ball a split-second before getting hit by Danna. At the time of the throw, Williams was 18 inches from Higgins. In his shirt, in other words. When the ball gets to Higgins, he is contacted immediately (and maybe a tick before the ball gets there) by Williams. Burrow got hit. Higgins caught the ball. Gain of 14. Game over.

“You know the quarterback they have over there,” Burrow said. “We can’t settle for a field goal there or else [Patrick Mahomes] goes down the field and wins the game. We had to find a way to get that conversion, and Tee Higgins made a big play, just like he did in the AFC Championship.”

A few things come to mind about this Cincinnati team:

The offensive line is better. Shredded last year in the playoffs and early this year while the group was getting experience together, the five men up front are giving Burrow championship protection. In the last four games, Burrow has been sacked five times—including one each by Tennessee and KC in the last two games. Those two teams bedeviled Burrow in the playoffs last year. The leadership of free-agent center Ted Karras has been important.

They’re superb when games are tight. I attribute much of this to Burrow, who has a cool gene, the way great ones in the clutch have had. Each of their three playoff wins last January was a one-score game; Cincinnati’s last three wins have come by 7, 4 and 3 over the Steelers, Titans and Chiefs. His throw to Higgins and his clinical explanation for it illustrate why he and Mahomes might be the two quarterbacks with the best clutch play late in games right now.

The defense is not just along for the ride. In the last four weeks, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s unit has allowed an average of 318 yards with opposing passers completing just 60.1 percent. Mahomes was good Sunday (223 yards, one TD) but not dominant. Anarumo’s going to be a popular head-coach interview come the post-season for teams trying to figure how to beat Kansas City; he’s 3-0 against KC since January.

Even if the Bengals have to play road games through the playoffs, I doubt it’d bother them after winning in Nashville and Kansas City last year. That Week 18 game against the Ravens could determine everything, which is why I think it has the best chance of being game 272—the Sunday night game of the last weekend. It could have the most at stake of any final game. My money’s on Burrow if that happens.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column