2017 McVay talk offers 2022 insight

by Mike Waldner

Rams Coach Sean McVay’s struggles have been public following the two seasons while he has wrestled with what to do with his life. Once again this year, two weeks shy of his 37th birthday on January 24, he was talking about walking away from a dream job because it is consuming him.

It’s a classic story of how a strength can become a weakness.

McVay was generous with his time on June 16, 2017 before he coached a game with the Rams. He was the featured speaker that day at a South Bay Athletic Club  (SBAC) lunch; Rams general manager Les Snead, at the time a Manhattan Beach resident, rode shotgun with him in a show of support. SBAC meets Ridays at noon at H.T. Grill in Redondo Beach.

McVay spoke for almost 45 minutes, rarely pausing to take a breath. 

It was quickly clear this young man, only 30 the day he was hired, the youngest NFL coach in the modern era, is wired. To say he is loaded with positive energy is an understatement.

That’s a plus in his profession.

It also can be a negative when the coach cannot turn it off, when intense becomes tense.

One of the many things McVay talked about during his visit was his foundation as a coach starting with his grandfather John McVay and Bill Walsh. They built the old 49er dynasty together, McVay in the front office and Walsh as coach. Those teams won five Super Bowls, from 1982 to 1995. For the record, Walsh was at the helm for the first three championships followed by George Siefert for the last two.

Asked how much of what he does comes from them, young McVay said, “A lot. My grandfather has been a huge influence on me. I didn’t spend a lot of time with Bill personally, but (I’ve read his books) and I’m a big believer, and supporter of what he’s done, the way he led and approached the game. So he’s been a big part of that and that’s mainly headlined by my grandfather’s influence on me.”

Walsh could be as intense as any coach. A reminder to McVay that must have been mentioned in one of those books involves what happened in 1982 when the 49ers arrived at their hotel prior to the Super Bowl. Walsh got there early, put on a bellhop uniform and went to work. 

The players broke up laughing when they figured out who was carrying their suitcases. It was Walsh’s way of helping them loosen up, ok chill, as they prepared to play the Cincinnati Bengals. The 49ers won the game, 26-21.

When McVay talked that day about what would be the Rams approach he did not make it all about himself.

“With Les and (Rams chief operating officer) Kevin Demoff it starts with a process and what we say our process is,” he said.

It stood out that he said “our process” rather than “my process,” indicating they were on the same page.

“We got this from Coach Walsh,” McVay said. “He said, “If you focus on the process instead of the results the score will take care of itself.”

Friday, at the SBAC meeting at H.T. Grill in Redondo Beach, El Camino College football coach Gifford Lindheim provided perspective at about the same time McVay announced his decision to remain on the job. Lindheim’s coaching resume begins in 1995 when he was an assistant at University High in West Los Angeles. McVay was all of nine years old.

Lindheim prefaced his take with an “I have no inside information” disclaimer. But the veteran coach definitely understands the dynamics. He pointed to disruption caused by the injuries, the departure via free agency of edge rusher Von Miller, and the defection of an army of assistant coaches who moved on to become head coaches and coordinators. Add the retirement of left tackle Andrew Whitworth.

Although Donald on defense and Kupp on offense are the lead stars of the Rams, Stafford cannot be ignored when you look at the prospects of the 2023 team. There is no better measure of the value of the quarterback than Bill Belichick’s record. His winning percentage was .774 with Tom Brady and is .475 without Brady.

Stafford was acquired from the Detroit Lions for a ransom price of Jared Goff, the quarterback who got McVay to his first Super Bowl, plus two first-round draft picks and a third-round selection. He produced the Super Bowl victory and then missed eight games during the past season with what was called a neck injury.

Football people are more concerned with his gimpy elbow. At his age, he’ll be 35 next season, sore elbows do not heal quickly if at all.

“If that elbow isn’t right then all bets are off,” Lindheim cautioned.

Before you panic and decide McKay should not have given up on Goff, who had a very nice 2022 season with Detroit and at 28 has a lot of good football in his future, it helps to know the Randy Johnson story.

The pitcher out of USC had won a Cy Young award when he began to have back problems. One night at Dodger Stadium, a major league advance scout told several fellow scouts and a reporter that Johnson was done. Johnson went on to win the Cy Young award four more times.

So do not count Stafford out. But do keep an eye on how much velocity he has when throwing the 15 to 20-yard cross-field out next season.

Has McVay remained with the Rams because he has been assured by doctors Stafford will once again be able to throw lasers to Kupp and associates?

Has McVay remained with the Rams because he is an incurable optimist who has convinced himself Stafford will be fine?

Has his family or a trusted advisor convinced him to remain on the job?

Or did he sit back and figure out how fortunate he was to land with the Rams, with Snead, Demoff, and owner Stan Kroenke one of only a handful of NFL franchises where a coach has a better than average chance to be a success?

While there will be speculation, and speculation of all sorts is part of the package a coach deals with, we will not know unless McVay decides to pull a Prince Harry and open up.

The oft-overlooked churn of assistant coaches — the Rams employ 20 —  resonates with Lindheim.

“When you have a new coach (or in this case new coaches) you have to teach how you want things done,” he said. “Continuity is helpful, and he hasn’t had continuity.”

Injuries and departures created a situation above and beyond the normal stress of the job.

“He’s been successful with pretty much everything he’s touched,” Lindheim said.

Two Super Bowls, a loss and then victory, in your first five years as a coach before hitting the slippery slope last season, that is success by any measure.

“He looks emotionally exhausted,” Lindheim said of what he sees during games when television cameras zoom in on McVay. “The amount of pressure those ‘A’ personalities deal with every single day, it weighs on you.

“And it’s not even the outside pressures. As a coach, I can tell you everything we do is under scrutiny and the spotlight. My job performance is on display for everybody to judge on Saturday night.”

This said, it was time to, well chill.

“And then I’ve got to go home and hear my wife’s comments,” he said.

It came so fast, and seemingly so easy for McKay.  

Fast, as in he went directly from undergraduate football at Miami of Ohio to a slot on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2008 as an offensive assistant. His entire coaching career, with the exception of one season as wide receivers coach with the Florida Tuskers of the short-lived (2009-2012) United Football League, his entire coaching career has been in the NFL. 

Another point of perspective is provided by a study of Hall of Fame coaches Vince Lombardi and Walsh. Lombardi was 46 when he coached his first NFL game; Walsh was 47.

Winning as much as McVay did at such a young age could not have provided him with the sense of balance TCU coach Sonny Dykes has, having spent early years as a coach getting humbled at Cal, one of the tougher jobs in Power Five Conference football.

“As a coach … you think you’ve got the magic touch,” Lindheim said.

He knows from experience, having enjoyed an undefeated season in 2014 at Santa Monica College. Coaches tell one another not to expect it to be that smooth every season.

“It’s humbling,” he said, alluding to McVay’s experience as well as his own situation. “For the first time in his life he’s dealing with adversity, true adversity, with the fact that maybe I don’t have that (magic touch).”

One of the measures of a coach is building a winner, hitting the skids and then climbing back to the top of the mountain.

McVay now faces this test.

“He’ll figure it out (because) he’s a helluva coach,” Lindheim said.


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