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Rams coach Sean McVay and GM Les Snead return to their Atlanta roots

Rams coach Sean McVay and GM Les Snead return to their Atlanta roots
Rams coach Sean McVay, left, and general manager Les Snead. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The Rams’ path to the Super Bowl this season started in Oakland and required a final, dramatic playoff stop in New Orleans before arriving here.

For coach Sean McVay and general manager Les Snead, the trip to Atlanta represents a full circle.

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McVay attended Marist School in Brookhaven, Ga., about 15 miles from Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where Sunday he will lead the Rams against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII. Snead grew up in Alabama about a 2½-hour drive away, and spent 14 years working for the Atlanta Falcons.

“Huge place in my heart,” Snead said of the city.

Both are happy to be back, but the homecoming is a business trip.

Before the Rams departed Southern California last week, McVay joked that earning a Super Bowl trip to Atlanta meant, “I've got a lot more people bothering me about tickets.”

But that has not been a problem.

“There’s probably a lot of people that are mad at me because I kind of just put the phone away,” McVay said this week. “I’ve seen my parents and that’ll be really about it. A couple of close friends.

“The people that love and care about you the most, they know that we’re here to try and do something special with the Rams.”

McVay, 33, is the grandson of former NFL coach and executive John McVay, the architect of five Super Bowl-champion teams with the San Francisco 49ers. John McVay will be in town for the game, as well as countless friends of his grandson and his family.

But Sean McVay wasn’t sure exactly how many.

“I think my parents protected me from it so it doesn’t annoy me,” he said. “I know this: If your last name’s McVay, you’re probably going to be here. That’s a safe way to say it.”

McVay played quarterback at Marist and helped lead the War Eagles to a state championship in 2003. He remains close with his former teammates, several of whom were on hand for the Rams’ dramatic 26-23 overtime victory over the New Orleans Saints in the NFC championship game.

“To be able to achieve something with people that you care about are things you always remember,” McVay said. “That’s why, hopefully, we’ll be able to do that with this group. ... Any time you win a championship, that’s always fun.”

McVay attended Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta at the end of the 1999 season. He had turned 14 six days before.

The Rams, led by quarterback Kurt Warner, running back Marshall Faulk and offensive lineman Orlando Pace — all Hall of Famers — held off the Tennessee Titans for a victory at the Georgia Dome.

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“I was so young at the time, but I remember it was a great game,” McVay said. “I also remember it was very icy then, so it was a real problem for us to get there, but it was a great game. My grandpa got us tickets and that was a good birthday present for me.”

Tangerine Apps has created a virtual reality tour of the new Los Angeles Stadium, giving potential ticket buyers a chance to see the view from their seats and from other locations inside the venue.

It was Snead, 48, who accrued the gifted players that McVay molded into a Super Bowl team.

Snead grew up in Eufaula, Ala., and played college football at Auburn. He served as a graduate assistant for the program until 1995, when he joined the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars as a scout. The Falcons hired Snead as a scout in 1997, and he eventually oversaw pro scouting before rising to director of player personnel in 2009.

Rich McKay, the Falcons’ president and chief executive officer, was the team’s general manager from 2004 to 2008. When McKay arrived in Atlanta, Snead impressed him with work ethic, detailed reports and knowledge of the entire league.

“When I came in, getting ready for the 2004 season, Les made a really good case for a lot of the players that I would have thought about changing — and that we didn’t change,” McKay said. “And that first year we went to the NFC championship game.

“I give him and his pro department a lot of credit because I think we stayed the course because of the stance he took.”

When McKay ascended to team president in 2008, he hired Thomas Dimitroff as general manager. Dimitroff had been the Patriots’ director of scouting for the previous six years. He knew Snead, and they had bonded through the years over their passion for football, as well as fitness, wellness and diet.

In 2009, Dimitroff made Snead director of player personnel.

“It’s not until you actually work under the same roof as someone and spend a lot of time with them do you realize what their grit is, what their resiliency is, and what their work ethic is, along with their football intelligence and just general mental acuity,” Dimitroff said. “And he continued to show all of those traits.

“He was really good at taking the directive I had given him, and definitely made sure that he was very direct and expeditious with the reports for other people within the organization.”

Snead said McKay was “one of the smartest football guys I’ve ever been around in terms of teaching you the big picture.” The arrival of Dimitroff, he said, and “getting a little bit of the New England DNA, was invaluable.”

The pairing of Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith produced five consecutive winning seasons and four playoff appearances for the Falcons. Rams vice president Kevin Demoff and owner Stan Kroenke hired Snead as general manager in February 2012.

“If we don’t draft [quarterback] Matt Ryan and have those five [seasons], I’m never a Ram because that successful program is what Kevin and Stan were looking for,” Snead said.

Snead and coach Jeff Fisher could not produce a winning season in four years in St. Louis, but they did draft players such as defensive linemen Michael Brockers and Aaron Donald and running back Todd Gurley. Upon the Rams’ return to Southern California in 2016, they traded up to select quarterback Jared Goff with the No. 1 pick in the draft.

The Rams fired Fisher late in the 2016 season and hired the then-30-year-old McVay, making him the youngest head coach in modern NFL history. Although many suspected Snead’s job might have been in jeopardy too, he was retained and went on to made deal after deal to build this Super Bowl team.

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Dimitroff admires Snead’s ability to “weather the storm” during the tough years and said he was “ballsy” for making so many impact moves.

“To Les’s credit, he kept the eye on the prize and brought together the people, all very different personalities, and they seem to mesh as well as possible,” Dimitroff said.

None, it seems, more than Snead and McVay.

“There is no way to go into this league and think you’re going to be successful without a really good working and communicative relationship between the head coach and GM,” Dimitroff said. “The days of there being that gap, and being able to struggle and sort of thrive on acrimony and trying to get things done within a building, are gone.

“Our generation of GMs and coaches don’t want that. They’re looking to work together, and it is a team for sure. To me, they represent that very well.”

And now they have returned to Atlanta together.

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