Indirectly, Sean McVay is responsible for USC’s latest humiliation.
Because almost every NFL team wants its own version of the Rams coach.
The Arizona Cardinals named McVay’s friend Kliff Kingsbury as their head coach, costing a crumbling USC program the offensive coordinator whose recent appointment tempered calls for Clay Helton to be fired.
One of McVay’s former assistants, Matt LaFleur, is the new coach of the Green Bay Packers. A couple of coaches on McVay’s current staff, Zac Taylor and Shane Waldron, also have interviewed for head coaching positions.
When his influence was mentioned to him, the 32-year-old McVay joked, “I’m too young to have a coaching tree.”
What McVay didn’t say was that he also hasn’t won. He has won in the regular season, but not when it really counts. He hasn’t won in the postseason.
The regular-season victories are important. So is his guidance of quarterback Jared Goff, who has transformed from a potential bust to a two-time Pro Bowler under his watch. A coach’s worth, however, is measured by how his teams perform at this time of the year.
McVay has collected 24 victories and two division titles in his two seasons as a head coach. He is also winless in the postseason.
The playoffs are why Bill Walsh became a mythological figure. They made Jimmy Johnson a celebrity who transcended football. They are what distinguish Bill Belichick from everyone else in the profession.
If McVay is to remain the subject of widespread adoration, if he is to continue to be regarded as a visionary, he has to win in the postseason.
A victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday would be a start.
McVay is a year removed from his postseason failure last season, theoretically now a year wiser and a year more prepared.
“We just know our players better, our coaches,” McVay said. “We’ve got better continuity. I think there’s a better understanding of how we as a coaching staff can put our players in spots to maximize their abilities.”
In the wild-card round last year, the visiting Atlanta Falcons controlled the clock, dominated possession and sent the Rams crashing to a 26-13 defeat. McVay couldn’t replicate his regular-season magic on the postseason stage.
“Like anything else, I think we’ve done a good job of learning from our experiences, both good and bad, and that’s what’s allowed us to feel like we’ve improved,” he said.
McVay will have to deal with a unique set of circumstances that extend beyond the opponent. His most important offensive player, running back Todd Gurley, hasn’t played since Dec. 16 because of a knee injury.
“What I think’s really good for our football team is we were able to … show that we could use some of those losses as a chance to harden ourselves, really learn from it, respond the right way like we had anticipated and be able to cap the season off with two tough division wins against two teams that we have a lot of respect for,” McVay said.
But there’s a possibility the resurgence of Goff and the Rams offense was a mirage. The Cardinals, who the Rams defeated in Week 16, won only three games. The San Francisco 49ers, who the Rams downed in the regular-season finale, won four.
The Rams completed the regular season with 13 wins, nine more than they had in their last season under Jeff Fisher. The increase in wins is only one reason other teams are searching for a coach like him. How he did it is equally important. The NFL has become a passing league.
“This is a reflection, I think, more than anything, of the culture that’s created by the people that are here, and that’s coaches, players, our staff, and I think that’s what’s flattering about it,” McVay said. “I think it would be naïve to think that any of this is about one person. That certainly isn’t the case at all.
“If the last two years have taught me anything being in this role, it’s you better surround yourself with a lot of people that are better than you so you can learn every day and not feel like you have to have the answers to things that you don’t just based on your experiences.”
Football etiquette won’t allow McVay to say it, but he’s as close to be being on top of the sport without actually having reached its summit. This isn’t a place he can remain forever. At some point, he will have to win in the postseason. Failure to do so will send teams scrambling for coaches in the mold of someone else.