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Rams

Rams coach Sean McVay is aware of all the doubters; they don’t bother him

Rams have plenty to evaluate at the combine even without a first-round draft pick
Rams Coach Sean McVay is by far the youngest NFL coach at 31.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

It’s mostly been compliments for Sean McVay since the Rams made him the youngest coach in modern NFL history.

Team executives rave about the 31-year-old’s football knowledge. Players and personnel throughout the organization laud his leadership, teaching skills and presence.

McVay has also been the target of skepticism and doubt.

For example, former St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz recently caused a stir when he questioned McVay’s expertise as an offensive guru in published comments he made to the author of a forthcoming book.

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Through it all, McVay maintains the same self-deprecating attitude. He shakes off the praise and politely accepts the shots.

“We haven’t won a game,” he says repeatedly. “I haven’t done anything.”

McVay knows the real evaluation begins Sept. 10, when the Rams play the Indianapolis Colts in their opener at the Coliseum.

That will be the first opportunity to see how the Washington Redskins’ former offensive coordinator transitions to the full responsibilities of a head coach when it counts.

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McVay, who will call plays, took over a Rams team that finished 4-12 last season under former coach Jeff Fisher and interim coach John Fassel.

McVay hired Wade Phillips, 70, as defensive coordinator. The 40th-year NFL coaching veteran has installed the 3-4 defensive scheme that helped the Denver Broncos win the Super Bowl in the 2015 season.

Fassel was retained as special teams coordinator.

The Rams’ schedule includes games against four playoff teams from last season: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Houston Texans and Seattle Seahawks.

Last season, the Rams traveled 35,266 air miles, most in the NFL. This season, they will travel a league-high 32,600 miles, including another trip to London, where they will be the home team at Twickenham Stadium for a Week 7 game against the Arizona Cardinals.

That will be only one of the challenges for McVay as he tries to reverse the fortunes of a franchise that has not had a winning season since 2003, not made the playoffs since 2004 and not finished at least .500 since 2006.

McVay knows that questions about his age and ability to lead the Rams will continue until he proves otherwise.

“We know that it is a production-based business,” McVay said. “We’ve got a great challenge ahead of us, but what you feel good about are the coaches and players that we’re going to go on this journey with, these are the types of guys that you want to do that with. You feel like you have a chance to accomplish some things together and work through some adversity that we will inevitably face.”

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Offense

Quarterback Jared Goff, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft, is directing an offense that features components of the highly productive schemes McVay used in Washington and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur helped implement with the Atlanta Falcons.

Goff, 22, was winless in seven starts last season. Some of his struggles were self-inflicted, but he was operating in an offense that featured an inconsistent left tackle and a receiving corps that often failed to execute.

With Goff’s development paramount, the Rams made multiple offseason and preseason moves to stabilize the line and surround him with better players.

That included a near-complete rebuild of the receiving corps.

The Rams signed Robert Woods in March, drafted rookie Cooper Kupp in April and traded for veteran wideout Sammy Watkins in July.

The trio provides short, mid-range and deep-threat potential. Veteran Tavon Austin did not participate in offseason workouts while recovering from wrist surgery and was sidelined for all of training camp and the preseason because of a hamstring injury.

Running back Todd Gurley, the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year in 2015, is trying to rebound from a disappointing second season when he rushed for 885 yards in 278 carries and averaged only 3.2 yards a carry.

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The Rams signed left tackle Andrew Whitworth to anchor the line and protect Goff. The three-time Pro Bowl selection is part of a unit that includes left guard Rodger Saffold, center John Sullivan, right guard Jamon Brown and right tackle Rob Havenstein.

Rookie tight end Gerald Everett, the Rams’ second-round pick, is elusive after making catches. He and second-year pro Tyler Higbee will play important roles in McVay’s tight end-centric scheme, especially since Temarrick Hemingway suffered a broken fibula that required surgery and could sideline him eight to 10 weeks.

Defense

Phillips has coached several Hall of Famers and is renowned for improving defenses in his first season with a new team.

Much of his success with the Rams could depend on how the situation with star lineman Aaron Donald plays out. Donald has two years remaining on his contract but did not report for training camp because of a contract dispute.

During the offseason, the Rams added two players with ties to Phillips. Outside linebacker Connor Barwin played for Phillips with the Houston Texans. Cornerback Kayvon Webster played for him with the Broncos.

Robert Quinn, a two-time Pro Bowl end, shifts to outside linebacker in Phillips’ scheme. Quinn, who had back surgery after the 2015 season, is trying to come back from several injuries that slowed or sidelined him in 2016.

Webster will start opposite cornerback Trumaine Johnson, who is playing with the franchise tag for the second consecutive season.

Lamarcus Joyner moved from slot corner to free safety. Maurice Alexander is the strong safety.

Special teams

Punter Johnny Hekker was arguably the Rams’ most valuable player in 2016, when he averaged 47.8 yards a kick and earned his third Pro Bowl selection.

Kicker Greg Zuerlein is coming off a solid 2016 performance, when he made 19 of 22 field-goal attempts, including two of four from 50 yards or longer.

With Austin’s status uncertain, undrafted free agent Shakeir Ryan and second-year pro Nelson Spruce are among those competing to return punts.

Second-year pros Pharoh Cooper and Mike Thomas are competing to return kickoffs.


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