The new job came with a major perk, and Eric Henderson welcomed it.
Henderson, the Rams’ defensive line coach, inherited a position group that includes Aaron Donald, two-time NFL defensive player of the year.
“I was extremely fired up,” Henderson said, chuckling. “I’m like, ‘Oh my god.’ To work with a guy like that is a dream for a coach, and it’s been awesome.”
Henderson is one of three coaches Sean McVay added to his staff since the Rams’ 13-3 Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots. Zac Robinson is the assistant quarterbacks coach, and Wes Phillips is coaching tight ends for a team regarded as a contender for another deep playoff run.
McVay hired Henderson, 36, to replace Bill Johnson based on his performance as an assistant defensive line coach for the Chargers. Henderson got a strong recommendation from Chargers defensive line coach Giff Smith, whom McVay has known for years.
“You get in front of him, you interview him, you get out on the field where you’re demonstrating some different things with him — and you talk about an unbelievably high level of competency with the defensive line position,” McVay said of Henderson. “A great passion, a good juice and energy that makes guys want to compete for him.”
Henderson, a former defensive lineman for the Cincinnati Bengals, has experience coaching elite pass rushers. With the Chargers, he worked with Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa.
So he was a good fit for the Rams and a line that includes Donald and Michael Brockers, Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said.
“He’s been around those guys before and he can coach those guys, so I don’t think it will be a bump in the road for him at all,” Lynn said during the NFL owners meetings last spring.
Henderson employs a hands-on approach. At the Rams’ training camp facility at UC Irvine, he used a small, separate field to actively instruct his position group. The defensive linemen have a range of experience, from a seven-year veteran such as Brockers to rookie Greg Gaines.
“I can’t give enough credit to the leaders,” Henderson said of Brockers and Donald. “If you can coach those guys hard, you can coach anybody hard. ... Their willingness to get better has been nothing short of phenomenal.
“When you have guys like that, it makes it fun.”
Henderson, Donald said, is young, hungry and adept at teaching and breaking down film.
“He’s telling me my weaknesses and things I need to clean up, and trying to teach me things that I can do better and work better that can help my game,” Donald said. “When you’ve got a coach like that, you just sit and listen and you try to keep what you’ve been doing, but also add what he’s trying to teach me and make me that much better.”
Robinson, 32, played quarterback at Oklahoma State and was selected in the seventh round of the 2010 draft by the Patriots. He was waived before the season and spent time with the Seattle Seahawks, Detroit Lions and Bengals.
After his playing career ended, he began coaching quarterbacks as they prepared for the NFL scouting combine and the draft. For the last three years, he worked as a senior analyst for Pro Football Focus.
“He’s a future star in this league, as far as a coach,” McVay said.
Robinson spent the last few years analyzing quarterbacks and offenses and defenses throughout the NFL. Robinson said his experience as a player, coupled with the broad perspective he got as an analyst, has helped him working with Rams coaches — McVay is the de facto quarterbacks coach and Shane Waldron the passing game coordinator — and with Jared Goff, Blake Bortles and other Rams quarterbacks.
“I just try to take each piece of what I’ve learned the past couple years and apply it any way I can,” he said.
Phillips, son of Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, has coached in the NFL for 12 seasons. He coached with his father on the Dallas Cowboys staff and with McVay on the Washington Redskins staff.
“Sometimes, even when you’re in a coordinator role or a head coach, you need to have people that’ll be able to challenge you in a good way,” McVay said. “Wes has always done that where we’ve been able to kind of positively push each other.”
McVay welcomes the interaction, Phillips said.
“You don’t want yes men,” he said. “You want people who can communicate but can also tell you when they think you’re wrong or they have a different opinion. ...
“We see things a lot the same way as far as scheme-wise and game-planning. When we don’t, he’ll tell me, certainly, and he knows that he’s going to get my honest opinion.”