Sean McVay might have changed the way NFL teams look at head coaches forever. When the Los Angeles Rams named him their head coach less than one year ago, there was legitimate shock in some league circles. Not as much in that other teams around the NFL didn’t believe in McVay’s talent, but rather there was feeling that the Rams had the guts to make a move — hiring a head coach who had not yet turned 31 years old — that few other teams would.
McVay not only was young, but he also had limited play-calling experience in Washington the season prior. Many wondered whether the wunderkind was ready to take on an entire locker room and command respect — especially from players who in some cases were older than he was.
Wonder no more. The Rams were one of the NFL’s great pleasant surprises this season, winning the NFC West with an 11-5 record. That was more than enough in the eyes of our 18-member panel of voters for McVay to be named Pro Football Weekly’s 2017 Coach of the Year, over second-place finisher Mike Zimmer of the Minnesota Vikings.
McVay’s accomplishments in Year 1 must start with his overseeing a stunning turnaround on offense. The Rams became the first NFL team to go from dead last in the league in points scored one season to first the next. There were serious questions about the development of Jared Goff, the regression of Todd Gurley, the state of the offensive line and the concern about the playmakers, but almost every one of these ended up unquestioned strengths.
“I think the thing you're most proud of is it starts with being able to surround yourself with great people,” McVay said this week, following the Rams’ playoff loss to the Atlanta Falcons. “I think the way that we put the coaching staff together and how it all came together, being able to have the foresight of great leaders, great experienced guys that you can lean on, some younger coaches that are getting their first opportunity … but you know are going to do it the right way.”
The biggest and most fascinating hire to McVay’s staff had to be Wade Phillips. The master defensive coordinator had been a head coach (and an interim coach three times) previously, and some wondered how the 31-year-old McVay and the 60-year-old Phillips would coexist. Turns out, they were a tremendous match.
The Rams’ staff also was one of the biggest in the NFL, with more than 20 assistants, and we can’t ignore the work of the rest of them, including offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur and special-teams coordinator Jim Fassel (the team’s interim head coach when Jeff Fisher was fired last season).
The season could have gotten off track early in Week 2 when McVay’s former Washington squad, the one he knew so intimately, finished off the Rams with a late touchdown and a Goff pick to end it. But the Rams fought back with a short-week shootout win in Week 3 and an 11-point comeback on the road against the Dallas Cowboys, Phillips’ former team. McVay gave his defensive coordinator the game ball following a dominant second half on defense.
Those were part of a stunning run of 10 wins, five of them by 16 points or more, in a 13-game stretch. The 42-7 shellacking of the Seattle Seahawks, who had dominated the NFC West the past several seasons, in Week 15 at CenturyLink Field was among the more stunning results of the entire 2017 season at the time.
But perhaps it should not have been. The Rams were balanced, confident and dangerous and went 7-1 on the road (8-1 if you count the “home” London game) en route to the team’s first division title since the 2003 season and the first since moving back to L.A.
The playoff loss left a bad taste in their mouths, but the Rams flourished under McVay in Year 1 of this fascinating experiment that looks like a home run right now. It didn't hurt that his communication skills were exceptional and that McVay was willing and humble enough to surround himself and his players with some really savvy, veteran coaching acumen.
“I think we positively pushed each other to kind of continue to improve as coaches and then to try to get the most out of our players,” McVay said. “The three L's that we talk about — listen, learn and lead. You continue to try to do a great job listening, learning and then leading the right way and be consistent with that approach.
“But overall just the team, too — I love the mental toughness of this team, I love the football character that we display. So happy for these guys that they were able to win a division championship.”
But McVay is not resting on his first-year success. He freely admits that the Rams did catch a few breaks this past season — and that there’s a lot of work ahead for the young gun and his team to take the proverbial next step.
“I think one of the things that you do want to be mindful of is the fact that we were so fortunate with the injures this year,” McVay said. “So you look at it, all right let's just anticipate and let's just say you don't have that work out in your favor [in 2018]. Where are the areas that you want to continue to establish and build that depth, where are some of the positions?”
“… I think we've got a good foundation in place that we can build on, but by no means does that mean that you win games automatically next year. While we did some good things this year, you still have to earn everything. Overall, just pleased with having the foresight to surround yourself with good people and what that does for you."
There is no grace period in the NFL, and McVay has raised the bar with his tremendous debut. But the more you hear him talk, the more you understand that it's what he expects every year from here on out.