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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Why the New York Jets deserve the controversy, dysfunction surrounding them

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1. I think the Jets architecture job is not the one to take if you want to run a franchise, Peyton Manning. To be charitable, the Jets are not close to contention.

2. I think I won’t be the first to use this rationale for my opinion about what happened when Mike Maccagnan got dismissed the other day as Jets GM, but it’s the first thing that occurred to me: The Jets truly deserve this controversy. A few points:

• I have no sympathy for Maccagnan, who lorded over a 14-35 team since New Year’s Day 2016. Only Cleveland and San Francisco have won fewer games since then. But by my math, Maccagnan just spent $235 million in free agency this offseason, a gargantuan sum. He just had the keys to the draft and, apparently with minimal input from the head coach, made Quinnen Williams the third overall pick in the draft. He was fired 19 days after the draft. What owner in his right mind allows a GM he figures he may well fire run a crucial off-season? Christopher Johnson, that’s who.

• Adam Gase is going to have a major say on who becomes the next GM of the Jets. Gase was 23-26 in his three-year stint coaching the Dolphins, and, though the quarterback position was plagued by injuries while he was there, he’s supposed to be a quarterback guru, and the Dolphins, again, are starting from scratch at the position after firing Gase four-and-a-half months ago. I like Gase well enough. But what exactly has he done, first, to earn a head-coaching job after his three years in Miami … and, second, to play a significant role in picking the architect of the new Jets?

• I assume the reports of Gase not wanting Le’Veon Bell for $13.5 million a year are true. (I don’t blame him.) But the leaks in that building are never-ending, and in this case, the leaks could drive a wedge between a guy who doesn’t seem very happy to be a Jet in the first place, Bell, and the guy who’s going to be calling his number this fall. Gase better figure a way to tamp that down. I don’t know if he can.

• How do you have faith in the Jets to get this GM thing right now? And what smart GM-candidate type (Joe Douglas or Louis Riddick or Daniel Jeremiah) would want to take his one shot—because most GMs get one shot at running a team—working for Christopher Johnson?

• If I were Mike Greenberg, I’d be burying my head in my hands this morning, wondering why oh why did I get stuck loving this franchise? How can season-ticket-holders send in their money this year thinking they’re going to see the turnaround season of a team that’s won 5, 5, and 4 games the past three years?

• Sam Darnold doesn’t coach.

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The lessons Chris Long learned from playing with Patriots, Eagles, Rams

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Chris Long, who retired over the weekend after an 11-year NFL career that ended with two Super Bowl rings (in 2016 with New England and 2017 with Philadelphia), and an NFL Man of the Year Award (in 2018) for his work in U.S. social justice and building fresh-water wells for thousands in Africa, on the lessons he takes with him into retirement:

“I learned to never make a decision based on just one thing. The decision to retire was complicated. It was based on health, which is still very good, and family, we have two small children, and football fit, which includes a chance to win and my role and geography. Philadelphia is where I wanted to play a couple more years. I love Philadelphia. But as a player I learned the most important thing to me is Sunday, and having a chance to be a big part of it. It seemed like player-coach was kind of the role that was going to be carved out for me—maybe playing 10, 12, 15 plays a game. I’m a rhythm player. I need to set people up, I need to be in the flow of the game. If I sit on the bench for three series, I can’t get rhythm, and I’ll get cold and maybe I’ll hurt myself. Some people think that’s great—play less and you won’t get hurt. Man, I want to play ball. In Philadelphia, it didn’t seem there was much of a chance to compete there. But they were honest with me the whole time. I appreciate the honesty. I’ll always love Philadelphia and the Eagles, but I didn’t want Week 4, 5, to come around and people think, Whoa, where’s Chris? Did Chris retire? I’d rather do it this way than just fade out. And I didn’t want to start over again across the country somewhere.

“I learned so much in my career. Getting drafted second overall, and going to St. Louis, and the fact that we were losing, I just thought, I am not gonna fold. I am not a loser. I am gonna be a bright spot. I am gonna give these fans, who I deeply appreciate for their dedication, the respect they deserve . Anyone playing in that era in St. Louis knows how bad it was at times. It was carnage, in so many ways. It was a test of my will. Do I get irritated by the no-Pro Bowl thing, never making a Pro Bowl? Yeah, I do. Fifty sacks in the first six years, with no one watching, on a bad team. I just felt the narrative should be, That kid panned out. But that’s okay—it was a labor of love. I have zero regrets.

“In New England, I learned so much about football. I always thought I was a smart player, even though I never thought about anything but the six inches in front of my face. In New England, I was forced to learn so many schematic concepts. In my career playing football, nobody asked me to do as much as Bill Belichick did. I might be 3-technique, or a linebacker, or a linebacker dropping into coverage more than ever, or playing inside more than ever. I’ll always remember how much I learned watching Bill in practice. He can coach any position as good as any position coach in league. He can walk around the field and stop drills and coach each position—at the highest level. And the quality of the dudes. Solid men. The right kind of people.

“Tom Brady blew me away. Who’s the most famous athlete of our generation: Tom Brady? LeBron? Messi? Ronaldo? Serena Williams? Maybe I haven’t been around enough to know how the biggest stars really act. But Brady is a normal guy. When I got there, here comes Tom. ‘Hey Chris, I’m Tom, nice to meet you.’ Well, yeah, I know you’re Tom. A lot of people want to hate him for all the success, and I understand how you can dislike the Patriots, but I cannot understand how you can dislike Tom.

“That Super Bowl against Atlanta … when we were way behind, I’m thinking, ‘I waited my whole life to be here, and this is a nightmare. This is the worst nightmare I have ever had.’ If we lost that night, I very possibly would have retired a bitter man. But winning it breathed life into me.

“Going to Philadelphia, I felt I found a home. Best sports city in America. But how different my situation was. I went from team captain with the Rams two years before that to winning the Super Bowl in New England to starting on the bottom in Philly. I was an average Joe. I was challenged. I learned how much being a team, being together, really means. We were a case study for whatever you believe. Either we were an anomaly or we proved you could do good things and win in pro sports. We happened to have guys who were good players who cared. I remember winning a Monday Night Football game, falling asleep at 4 or 5 o’clock, and waking up for a train to Harrisburg to work with state legislators on policies. It just showed how much we could make changes in things that matter, and play really good football too. You can be a football player and a citizen. It’s gratifying when young players come up and say they’re inspired to do more because of things that Malcolm Jenkins or Torrey Smith have done, or me.

“I’ve always tried to be me first and a football player second. When I came into football, I didn’t want to be this piece of wreckage who couldn’t move or have a normal life. But I learned you can’t predict the future. I thought I’d play eight years. I thought I’d retire at 30. But I played 11, and now I’m 34.

“NFL Man of the Year … I never felt deserving of it. I am not the best person in the NFL. I never want to get up there promoting myself as some infallible person. I was very honored. But I was also conflicted that people saw me as this community service guy, not a player. Nobody saw me as the player I was in my prime. I don’t want to be known as Community Service Guy; I want to be known as a guy who busted his ass for 11 years at his craft. But I do appreciate the fact that people saw that I played for free for one year, that I was part of a group that built 61 wells for people to get fresh water in Africa, and that we’ve got 220,000 people drinking from our wells. I will not downplay that stuff. But I am not some angel, believe me. I don’t have a brand. My brand is me.

“Retirement is interesting. It is something I feared for a long time. It is an existential crisis. I’ve been doing something since high school, working toward a goal. I fantasize about crossing the threshold, but at the same time it’s something you can be deathly afraid of.

“I am excited about the next phase of life. I’m launching a digital media company. I will have my own pod. I’m just excited about being able to control the narrative. I like to create. Maybe I’ll work at a network. Whatever I do, I’ll be me.”

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