He may be the youngest coach in NFL history, but the Rams’ new head man is in unquestioned command of his team. Word for the wise—no daydreaming in meetings!
This is the fourth installment of The MMQB’s “24 Hours” series, inside-inside, multimedia stories for the 2017 NFL season, chronicling a day in the life of an important figure in pro football.
After seven years in Washington, the last three as Jay Gruden’s offensive coordinator, a soon-to-be 31-year-old Sean McVay took over the Los Angeles Rams in January, becoming the youngest head coach in NFL history (modern era). It’s been a whirlwind first off-season, though if you observe McVay running the team, you’d think he’s been at it for a decade. In May, during the Rams’ third OTA session (which meant full days with the players and live practices), McVay welcomed us behind the curtain.
* * *
Los Angeles, Calif.
May 24, 2017
9:43 p.m. PT
Sean McVay answers the door to his contemporary-style house in Encino Hills, a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley northwest of downtown L.A. He moved in a few weeks earlier. His mother, an interior designer in Atlanta, has been furnishing the place. She’s off to a strong—and, to McVay’s occasional astonishment, expensive—start. But her work is far from done. About half of the home’s 4,660 square feet remain bare. McVay lives here with his girlfriend, Veronica, who moved with him from Virginia.
After McVay, the former offensive coordinator in Washington, got the Rams job on Jan. 12, he planned on returning to his Reston, Va., townhouse to gather his things. But there was too much to do in California. So Veronica and a few friends took care of clearing the townhouse, and it sold in a day. McVay never made it back.
He’s wearing his usual: shorts, t-shirt and running shoes. “Come in, make yourself at home,” he says.
* * *
McVay toured six houses when he got to L.A. The fourth felt like the winner. But then he saw this one. It overlooks Burbank and has an enormous open patio. The bells and whistles abound: a gas fire table near the edge of the balcony; a miniature balcony overlooking the pool; floodlights—remarkably powerful floodlights; surround sound inside and outside; an Alexa system that controls the lights on command. (“Alexa, turn all off.”) And a glass wall that slides open at the push of a button, converting the living room into essentially a fancy covered patio.
“Pretty cool, huh?” McVay says as he reveals each nook and cranny. He’s too earnestly impressed to be bragging. He grabs a beer and takes a seat near the gas fire table, only to discover that the cushions of his new patio furniture are damp. Oh well. He’s calling it a night soon anyway. The youngest head coach in NFL history explains that the consequence of waking up early is going to bed at the hour of an old man.
* * *
The alarm was set for 3:45 a.m. And now he’s ready for work. The plan was to leave a little after 4:00. The camera crew following him today was to arrive at 4:10. They show up at 4:06. McVay is welcoming but clearly eager to go. The day is already slipping away.
* * *
McVay winds his black BMW 750i through nearly two miles of his Encino Hills neighborhood to the freeway. His commute to the Rams’ temporary football offices at Cal Lutheran in Thousand Oaks is 28 to 30 minutes at this hour, depending on how you hit the lights. Some mornings McVay will listen to an audiobook. (Lately it’s been Extreme Ownership: How Navy SEALs lead and win.) Other mornings he’ll call people back east. He can catch his parents at this hour. Today he just chats with the camera crew, as hip-hop plays quietly in the background.
* * *
McVay’s office is sparse. There’s a large oak L-shaped desk and cabinet, and four screens: two computer monitors, a laptop and a large flat-screen, which displays the contents of McVay’s main computer. On the wall is a blowup picture of Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree leading a huddle. That’s it. There’s also a blowup of running back Todd Gurley and a painting of Eric Dickerson, but they’re yet to be hung. The room comfortably fits two large leather arm chairs, a small leather sofa and a round table with three chairs. On the table is a list of hour-by-hour daily schedules covering all the way through August. In the back is a one-man locker room equipped with a shower and toilet.
McVay, drinking black coffee and a sparkling water (Rams general manager Les Snead got him on it), is at his desk watching clips of plays from Atlanta and Washington that he’ll be installing today for his young Rams offense. It’s Day 3 of the third OTA session. Practice is from noon to 2:00, but players will arrive for meetings at 8:00 a.m. McVay wants to show examples of how these new designs play out against different defensive looks. “One thing about going through all these clips,” he says with a smile, “is you gain a real appreciation for how good some of your former players were.”
* * *
He’s still watching clips. The only break is for a bowl of cereal, which he takes back to his desk. Today it’s Frosted Flakes; the cafeteria was out of Frosted Mini-Wheats. He eats with a plastic spoon out of a small paper bowl. Distractions keep popping up, and he winds up barely finishing half. It’s all McVay will consume for the next eight hours.
* * *
Offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur pops into the office. McVay and LaFleur have been friends since 2011, when they worked together on Washington’s staff. They discuss a wide receiver screen play.
“I think it’s so hit-or-miss for a running back to block this defender when he’s offset,” McVay says, pointing to an example on the video.
“So you want me to switch it out?” LaFleur asks.
“Well, I’m asking your opinion here, too.”
“Yeah, I think it just depends. If you do have the running back aligned there, you have to have other plays off of that.”
The discussion continues for several minutes. They go over which plays to install today and which to hold until next week. There’s a fine line here, because in the NFL you don’t have plays per se; you have variations of concepts. It all must tie together.
* * *
Tight ends coach Shane Waldron stops in. McVay also solicits his opinion as well on whether to put in the package he discussed with LaFleur. It directly affects Waldron’s players, and he’d prefer to wait until next week. “If you don’t mind,” Waldron says.
“Not at all,” McVay says. “That’s why I’m asking.”
* * *
Now it’s Rams head trainer Reggie Scott who drops by. He has injury updates. McVay asks him which player so far has run the most total yards in OTAs. (The Rams track this data with a GPS program.) McVay guesses wide receiver Mike Thomas, and he’s correct. (Naturally; wide receivers run farther downfield on each snap than any other player, plus they must jog to and from the huddle.) McVay also guesses Todd Gurley is near the top because of the way he continues to run through the whistle. Scott’s polite tone suggests this guess is close but not spot on. “Yeah, he’s top third,” Scott says.
* * *
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is in the defense meeting room, addressing his whole unit. He’s wearing a red plaid shirt but will later change into Rams gear. McVay stands in the back alongside cornerbacks coach Aubrey Pleasant. In a few minutes, Pleasant and safeties coach Ejiro Evero will take over, addressing the defensive backs. They’ll go back and forth, playing off one another and challenging safeties and corners to understand who is providing help in Los Angeles’s matchup coverages. McVay sits quietly in the back, taking notes.
* * *
Now it’s McVay’s turn to run a meeting. He’s addressing the entire offense. He jumps right in, no intro. “Today we’re going to be exclusively in ‘11’ personnel (one back, one tight end), working against pressures.”
McVay calls on players at random throughout the meeting. Rams employees have come to fear this. Nothing is worse than the head coach catching your daydream in front of the entire room. From quarterback Jared Goff to the quality control assistants, many have learned the hard way to pay undivided attention. Some have even taken to keeping a cheat sheet at the front of their binder, listing all the Ram slogans and acronyms that McVay asks about. It’s not unusual for McVay to call on a potential victim and hear frantic page-turning.
A few weeks ago star defensive back Trumaine Johnson was asked to name one of the two C’s that define their culture. With abrupt certainty that only a corner can conjure, Johnson said commitment. Wrong. “But he was so confident about it,” McVay later recounts for Veronica and friends, “that I paused and thought, ‘son of a gun, am I wrong about the two C’s?” (For the record, it’s character and communication.)
Towards the end of the meeting, McVay goes through a tight red zone route combination. “Here we’d tell the F receiver on this stick route to tight-turn it.” The video shows a Washington receiver catching a short pass and turning upfield towards the end zone. The next clip shows the same play, only run a little crisper. “We tight-turn it, get a little further away from the nickelback.” On screen, the receiver pushes the ball down just a yard short of the goal-line. “And then we give Todd [Gurley] another TD.”
* * *
Special teams coordinator John Fassel—known as “Bones” for his lanky build—is leading the next meeting. It’s in the same room as the offensive meeting and is slated to start at 9:50. The second the clock ticks over from 9:49, McVay calls out, “What time does this 9:50 meeting start?” He’s busting Fassel’s chops, but the veteran assistant hastens anyway. Fassel dives in, full energy, a few seconds before the clock ticks to 9:51.
* * *
It’s time for the full team meeting. This is where today’s emotional tone is set. McVay explains that there will be a competitive session near the end of practice, offense vs. defense at full speed (no pads, so no tackling). Three drives, each valued at one point. The offense gets a point by either gaining three first downs or 40 yards. The defense gets a point by forcing a punt or turnover before then.
McVay reiterates some of the mantras that he wants his team to live by. He talks about the importance of operating with poise and tempo. Of communicating. Of pursuing daily excellence. “We expect to achieve and live our highest standards,” he bellows, pacing back and forth. “You know those three things we have. Coach Wade Phillips, what’s one of those three things?” McVay keeps pacing, knowing his renowned veteran defensive coordinator will answer quickly and get the ball rolling.
Except Phillips says nothing.
McVay stops and turns. “Our APP [slogan], what’s one of its three things?” McVay asks again. Saying the three letters—APP—is a disguised lifeline for Phillips; a few weeks earlier Phillips himself had come up with the acronym. He’d picked off three values McVay commonly preaches—approach, preparation and performance—and proudly announced, “I have an ‘app’ for that.” Now here’s Phillips sitting in Row 1, before the entire team, drawing a blank. He starts to blush. “Help him out!” McVay barks. “Approach, preparation and performance,” nearly 100 dumbfounded voices mutter. Giggles start to creep across the room. Purely by accident, McVay has caught his unlikeliest daydreaming victim yet. Phillips can only laugh.
* * *
More meetings with the offense. McVay focuses on wide receivers, going over the nuances of spacing, blocking rules and how to set up routes that achieve separation. There also is discussion about Jared Goff’s progressions. The emphasis is not just on where the ball goes, but also why. This is for everyone to understand.
One player McVay calls on consistently is Robert Woods, a free-agent wide receiver formerly with the Bills. (And always by full name. What’s our rule for five-step timing on this play, Robert Woods? What do you do here against two high safeties, Robert Woods?)
Shortly after the meeting, on McVay’s way out, Woods, a diligent student with what’s planned to be a big role in Los Angeles’s passing attack, stops the head coach with a question. By the time he and McVay wrap up, five other players have gathered to listen.
* * *
Practice time. McVay recently tore a quad sprinting, so he’s not running from station to station as much as he normally would. Though an observer would never know. The coach traverses the Rams’ two fields, spending most of his time with the offense. It’s McVay’s prime area of expertise, plus the defensive staff is highly experienced, starting with Phillips, who has served as a head coach in Denver, Buffalo, Houston and Dallas. Those coaches can run much of their own show.
* * *
The first of many offense vs. defense sessions is beginning. “Left hash, ‘11’ personnel!” McVay yells. “Let’s start this thing off right!” Then he turns his attention to his young quarterback. “Alright Jared, here we go buddy. Right tight, Y-left, draw left, 16-4 vice blaze. Hey, let’s set the tempo here. Let’s have a good day. If something bad happens, don’t blink.”
* * *
The Rams are practicing a run alert play. That’s when the huddle call is a run but Goff has the option to throw a quick slant depending on the defense. McVay takes Robert Woods through it. “L 17-dancer, 13-slider. You get these corners, they play off just in no man’s land on you, when you get into a reduced split. We get it to you, right through that outside ’backer who’s up on the line of scrimmage. You catch that thing clean, man. Julio [Jones] caught a couple of balls for about 20 yards. It’s a great way to make people pay. And you throw the ball about four feet.”
* * *
The receiver drills need more precision. “Hey, listen! Listen! Listen! Listen! Listen!” McVay yells. “When we do this, in routes on air, come on man, you’re too on top of this, be three yards inside the numbers, right? You’re selling this through to the hash. Give somebody room to feel this, know what I mean?”
* * *
“Hey Robert Woods! Good finish, man.”
* * *
Backup quarterback Sean Mannion is intercepted on a deep ball. A receiver ran the wrong route, bringing the free safety into play. Mannion watched it happen and threw anyway.
The defense, which has talked trash for much of the scrimmage, goes nuts. Someone yells, “Yes sir!”
“No, no that’s not ‘yes sir,’” McVay hollers. “That’s what happens when you do your own shit. I love that that just happened.” He walks over to Mannion. “Hey, don’t let [the receiver] screwing you cause you to make a bad decision. Because you’re going to bring the safety over there.”
“I just don’t want to throw from one side to the other,” Mannion says.
“And here’s what I would say to you: Throw it away,” McVay responds. “Because that’s the only play [available] when he screws you. Because when you stay on that side, that safety’s going to key over the top.”
McVay keeps Mannion on the field for the next snap.
“Alright buddy, let’s do this: right hash, ‘12’ group, 3-jet Y bird slice.”
Before the snap, LaFleur whispers something to McVay about the interception. “I know, you can’t do that,” McVay agrees. “Because you’re going to take the safety to the freaking play. That’s what I said to him.”
Mannion’s throw on the 12 group, 3-jet Y bird slice is complete. McVay perks up. “Good. There you go right there. Good job, Sean.”
* * *
Mannion’s interception is one of several poor plays for the offense. McVay says for anyone in his vicinity, “Defense, you guys are kicking our ass on offense.”
* * *
There’s a problem: Soon-to-be-32-year-old center John Sullivan, a former Viking in his first year with the Rams, is too smart. He’s reading the defense and immediately calling out perfect offensive adjustments. That’s great in live action but counterproductive in practice when you’re trying to develop your second-year quarterback. “Hey, John,” McVay barks. “Let him”—Goff—“make these calls!”
* * *
The defense continues to defeat the offense. McVay gets frustrated at his second unit. At the end of a third-down play that, in an actual game, would have surely been measured by the chain gang, he yells “Two’s are off! [i.e., Second team, leave the field.] Point to the defense!” A little later, after the defense has won the drive-battle 3-0, left tackle Andrew Whitworth approaches McVay and tells him he got it wrong. The offense should have been granted a first down at the end of that second drive. The score should have been 2-1 defense.
* * *
Practice is over. The entire team is gathered at midfield. “First of all,” McVay says, “it’s a good start for next week. What we know is this: We go through some of those situations, it’s a great test of our poise, for everybody. But our communication, getting in and out of the huddle, we’ve got to be better with that. It starts with me, okay? We’ve had three days of great work. Love your effort, love your intensity. Let’s see if we can start tightening up the screws. In the competitive period, give it up for the defense today, you guys got the best of us.” Muffled applause. “But we’ll come back, we’ll continue to compete, we’re all making each other better. Where’s Robert Quinn at? Give us a breakdown, Robert Quinn! Give us a breakdown, Big Rob!”
* * *
Drinking one of the dozens of smoothies that team nutritionist Joey Blake prepared for the team, McVay sits at his desk watching film of the practice, which ended seven minutes ago. In a few minutes the entire offensive staff will watch and analyze it together. Various staffers flow in and out, many catching snippets of McVay’s concerns. There were some time-related issues that hindered the practice’s flow. The passing game could have been sharper. A receiver got hurt. The offense got shorted some yards by unfavorable spots of the ball. That one isn’t a big deal, but still. Most maddening of all: The film reveals that defensive linemen consistently lined up offside. No one noticed.
* * *
In the offensive meeting room, McVay sits at the head of a long table, opposite the projector screen. The other eight chairs are filled by assistant coaches. They’ll be there for the next three hours. McVay calls out every play beforehand, often analyzing from memory what’s about to happen. He runs the remote, which can be maddening. He’s known as a “remote tyrant”—someone who rewinds plays again and again. He used to drive Jay Gruden crazy in Washington.
* * *
“They’re lined up offsides,” McVay says, pausing to examine the defensive line before the snap. “No shit,” deadpans offensive line coach Aaron Kromer. The helmets of three defensive linemen are clearly in the neutral zone. “Look at these guys,” McVay whispers.
* * *
“This is not a good route,” McVay says. “Watch this. He’s been better than this.” The film shows Robert Woods getting absorbed by a press corner. “He’s not threatening anybody vertical on this play.” Woods already knows this. He’s the type who harps on his own mistakes. He had approached McVay after practice. Toward the end of the film meeting, when the position coaches each sum up their final thoughts, receivers coach Eric Yarber will admit that Woods is generally more consistent than he was today. Two bad routes were the difference. No one is worried.
* * *
McVay wonders something: Is his presence on the field during the hurry-up drills hindering the offense? Does he need to let the players grow under fire a bit more? He honestly doesn’t know and asks the room what they think. Every coach assures him the current setup is fine.
* * *
“Good progression by Todd, man,” McVay says, watching Gurley make a blitz pickup from his running back position. In the offensive meetings earlier, Gurley had worn an affable, subtly bemused smile, making you wonder if his mind wasn’t drifting toward topics a little more entertaining than the protection rules that were up on the whiteboard. But McVay called on Gurley several times, and each time his answer was quick and spot on. And now his actions on film verify his focus. McVay turns to running backs coach Skip Peete. “Gurley’s a smart guy, isn’t he coach?” Peete concurs.
* * *
“This is where my blood really boiled,” McVay says. The film shows the second-team offense lining up incorrectly just before McVay called off their drive in the scrimmage. “I yelled ‘Two’s are off! Points for the defense!’” He laughs.
* * *
One thing the film reveals: Whitworth was right. The offense had indeed gained three first downs on one of its drives. “I love that he cares so much, that he’s so competitive,” McVay says. This presents a golden opportunity: When practice resumes the following week, McVay will announce the mistake. The defense, which had been cocky and believed it won the scrimmage 3-0, will learn that the score had actually been 2-1. They’ll throw a fit and cry politics. (McVay, being so offense-minded, constantly worries about playing favorites.) And from that, the next scrimmage will be infused with competitive energy.
* * *
McVay broaches an interesting topic with Peete and Kromer: Gurley needs to keep his shoulders squared downfield when running “duo,” which is an inside zone run with two double-team blocks. In the formation they’re watching now, Gurley knows the run will often bounce outside. That’s why he’s turning his shoulders outside. But if he stays square, defenders will react differently and, long story short, it’ll create better blocking angles for when the ball does bounce outside. McVay stands up to demonstrate. Peete and Kromer fully agree. “That’s why I think Matt Forte was so good for you guys in Chicago,” McVay says to Kromer, who was the Bears’ offensive coordinator under Marc Trestman. “He was patient to the line, and he could jump cut with his shoulders square. Who’s the other best duo runner in the league? Le’Veon Bell. Those guys are patient. They play with their shoulders square to the line of scrimmage. I think Todd’s going to be awesome at this play.”
* * *
The meeting is over. The building is mostly empty. A three-day weekend is coming up, which McVay will parlay into a four-day break for everyone. After finishing some miscellaneous office work, he heads over to the trainers room to meet with Reggie Scott. There’s an update on the injured receiver. Scott also advises that the 35-year-old Whitworth and 30-year-old free-agent defensive end Connor Barwin should have their practice reps reduced. McVay agrees. Both veterans will hate it, but you have to save them from themselves. Before he goes, McVay gets instructions for healing his injured quad: light running over the next four days, but only on a treadmill, where he can regulate his speed.
* * *
Time to head home. But first, a quick shower in the one-man locker room at the back of his office. Usually McVay does this right after practice, before the coaches watch the day’s film. Today there wasn’t time.
* * *
On the drive home, McVay calls Robert Woods. “Hey, I was thinking about our conversation after practice. We can definitely clean up a couple of those routes—you can run them better—but don’t let that take away from all the good stuff that you’ve been doing, man.” McVay and Woods spend a few minutes discussing the specifics of those routes.
“But the main reason I was calling is because I could name about 25 good things you’ve done over last week and dating back to the minicamp, too. So, keep being hard on yourself because that’s why you are who you are, but don’t let it affect your weekend, man. You’re wired to separate, and you’ve done it consistently. And just watching how conscientious you are, and how you’re competing—showing the other guys how to compete, you’re making them better, too. And that’s what it’s about.”
* * *
McVay gets a call from Mom. Just a quick check-in. Before hanging up, he remembers something. “Hey those cushions on the patio chairs—how are they at absorbing moisture? It didn’t rain last night but they were a little damp.”
* * *
Veronica has just gotten back from the gym and isn’t sure that she’s presentable enough to be seen by The MMQB’s cameras, which have followed McVay inside. Her boyfriend chuckles at this.
Rams assistant linebackers coach Chris Shula (son of Dave, nephew of Mike, grandson of Don) comes downstairs. He and McVay were friends in college at Miami of Ohio, and now Shula lives in one of the six bedrooms at McVay’s a house. The two coaches have a beer by the fire on the balcony while Veronica and a friend visiting from back east get ready to go out. The group has a 9:30 reservation for sushi on Sunset Boulevard. The fireside conversation never veers from football.
* * *
McVay trails the group out the door. “Alexa, lights off,” he says. Nothing happens. He tries again, this time with a more deliberate delivery, like how you talk to a dog that won’t sit. “Alexa, lights off.” Still nothing. “Alexa….lights…..off.” Finally, darkness.
“He loves that light-switching thing,” Veronica says.
* * *
An Uber takes the group to sushi. Just one complication: The driver speaks zero English. McVay, in the van’s middle-row seat, pitches ideas to Shula (front seat) for how to explain that after the car reaches its first destination—Shula’s girlfriend’s house—it needs to continue on to the restaurant. That means a whole separate Uber ride. It’s only a matter of time until the ride ends and the gentleman behind the wheel is left wondering why no one is exiting his vehicle. Nothing Shula says to the driver gets through. Thankfully, at the girlfriend’s place, the driver produces a vocal translating device on his phone. McVay couldn’t be more impressed with the app.
* * *
The group gets a table near the front of the restaurant. It’s a trendy place devoid of sports atmosphere. McVay goes unrecognized the entire dinner. He and Shula drift in and out of conversations about football. At one point they quiz Shula’s girlfriend: How many wide receivers are on the field in “12” personnel? She says three but then quickly remembers that you subtract both of the personnel digits, 1 and 2, from five, not six. “Two! Two!” she says. Even at dinner, you must be prepared to answer McVay’s pop quiz questions in front of everyone.
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