Column: New Rams, new Super Bowl, new QB, new chance at championship — but same scarred coach
He was the boy wonder who could do no wrong.
Until he did.
Sean McVay has yet to regain the aura that he lost three years ago when Bill Belichick flooded the line of scrimmage and shut down the previously high-scoring Rams’ offense in Super Bowl LIII.
“Definitely, I got outcoached,” McVay said after that 13-3 loss to the New England Patriots.
The coaching prodigy who was once beyond reproach suddenly came under scrutiny. The season after the Super Bowl run, the Rams missed the playoffs. The season after that, McVay’s frustrations with the offense resulted in the benching and subsequent trade of franchise quarterback Jared Goff.
Even with the Rams returning to the Super Bowl this year, the 36-year-old McVay continues to be the target of widespread criticism. The popular view now is that the high-end talent on his roster is compensating for his shortcomings.
“The criticism is just part of being in these leadership roles,” McVay said. “Definitely, you kind of get callous to it a little bit. But I also think one of the best ways is, you know, you kind of try to stay ignorant to it. You try to minimize having stuff that can put into your being that just isn’t good energy and good positive vibes.”
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Outside of the Rams’ modern-day robber baron owner Stan Kroenke, McVay has more at stake than anyone in the upcoming Super Bowl.
Made the NFL’s youngest-ever coach by the Rams when he was 30, McVay remains the youngest coach in the NFL. With 55 wins in his first five seasons, he very well could be on his way to becoming the winningest coach of all time. What he is missing is a crowning achievement.
In a short time, McVay has proved to be resilient. He is fiercely competitive, a quality that helped him recover from being schooled by Belichick on the greatest stage in American sports.
Receiver Cooper Kupp chose his words carefully when describing his coach.
“At times he walks the line between unhealthy competition and healthy competition,” Kupp said with a smile. “He wants to win at all costs. He’s aware of it.”
Kupp laughed when he was asked how McVay’s competitive streak manifests itself.
“We talk about the anger sharks here quite a bit,” Kupp said. “When the anger sharks start swimming … he’s mad. He’s not mad at people, he’s mad because he doesn’t have an answer for something yet or there’s something that’s giving him some consternation that he wants to get an answer to. I think that’s one of those things where you can see he’s not OK with not having an answer for us. If something’s putting us in a bad position, he doesn’t have time for that. I appreciate that about him.”
Kupp said McVay is a “walking embodiment” of what the Rams are about.
“I wouldn’t want anyone else to lead this team,” Kupp said. “He is consistent in his expectations for people and in the energy that he brings day in and day out. You never have to question his preparation and the work he’s able to put in.”
The intensity also can be detrimental, however.
Matthew Stafford was among the Rams who made big plays in the fourth quarter to clinch a Super Bowl bid, but Sean McVay still made some curious calls.
The breakup with Goff was clumsily handled, with McVay failing to inform the former No. 1 draft pick of his diminished standing on the team. Whatever his faults as a quarterback, Goff was a model of accountability and a willing face of the franchise. He deserved better.
Before defeating the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game, the Rams were on a six-game losing streak against their division rivals. Kyle Shanahan, the coach of the 49ers, was clearly in McVay’s head, evidenced by how defensive McVay was when asked whether that was the case.
Veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth said he shared with McVay the same perspective he shared with his teammates. Whitworth, 40, is in his 16th season.
“That’s a great thing, the passion and the energy to want to be great at everything you do, but sometimes you can allow that to become a burden and it almost weighs on you to where your expectation of yourself and how you want to do things, you start to dread that expectation, you start to dread how much is expected of you and how much criticism you get every time it doesn’t work out perfect when sometimes you’re not even in control of that,” Whitworth said. “Just making sure that you realize how blessed you are to be there and not burdened, and how much you get to do stuff and don’t have to.”
McVay encountered more criticism in recent weeks for his game management.
In the divisional round, McVay called a timeout in the last minute before a fourth and one by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With time to regroup, the Buccaneers tied the score on a run by Leonard Fournette, requiring some late-game heroics by quarterback Matthew Stafford and kicker Matt Gay.
The Rams made all moves possible for a chance to get to Super Bowl LVI in their stadium, while the Bengals were just looking for improvement after a four-win season.
In the NFC championship game, two failed challenges left the Rams without any timeouts with more than 10 minutes to play. If 49ers safety Jaquiski Tartt hadn’t dropped a pass that Stafford mistakenly threw into his hands later in the fourth quarter, the Rams very well could have lost. McVay said of the challenges: “Those decisions are my responsibility.”
But the Rams avoided the ultimate punishment in both games and McVay is now headed to his second Super Bowl.
Whitworth applauded McVay for rebuilding the team after the Super Bowl disappointment and evolving as a coach, “not just at coaching Xs and O’s but as a leader of men and understanding how to push guys and how to pull back at times and just meet people where they are.”
Reflecting on his Super Bowl failure, McVay said, “We tell our players all the time, repetition is the mother of learning and it’s no different for coaches.”
McVay chuckled when asked if he feels calmer heading into the Super Bowl than he did last time.
“I don’t think calm’s ever a word that anybody would use to describe me,” he said. “But you know what? I would say that you’re more comfortable.”
The golden boy is now a battle-scarred man. He could be ready to be a Super Bowl champion.
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