• With firing and hiring season drawing near, revisiting how Los Angeles found its coach and the steps other teams should follow to find similar success
  • Other sections include: Peyton Manning's next job; Eli Manning’s future team; Pittsburgh’s growing optimism; the NFL players’ social justice situation; and more
By Albert Breer
November 30, 2017

The moment Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff and general manager Les Snead knew they had the right guy to be the team’s next head coach came when Sean McVay started talking about staffing, and Wade Phillips’ name first came up.

McVay planned to bring the ex-Broncos, Bills and Cowboys head coach to run his defense, but it wasn’t just the stacking of the staff that got the Los Angeles brass excited about the idea. It was deeper than that, going back to the research they’d done after firing Jeff Fisher a month earlier.

They were told, first and foremost, to focus on the person. And McVay’s tentative inclusion of Phillips told the interviewers two things about the interviewee. It spoke to McVay’s reputation, that a respected coach with Phillips’ credentials, and options, would choose to go with the young Redskins offensive coordinator. But even more, it struck the Rams’ guys that McVay, then 30, didn’t feel threatened by Phillips.

“His true confidence in his expertise actually allows him to be extremely, extremely humble,” Snead said Wednesday night, between draft meetings. “That gives you the element where he’s not threatened. It’s just, ‘Hey, we’re two people who, let’s call it what it is, are good at what we do and we respect each other. And that respect will make us great teammates.’”

On Sunday, the Rams will be in Arizona. With a win there, they’ll lock up their first winning season in 14 years, and they’ll do it with a quarter of the schedule left. Suffice it to say, they feel pretty good that they got the right coach, and person.

Harry How/Getty Images

In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll delve into the idea of Peyton Manning running a team, and check on what his little brother Eli has left as a player. We’ll also check out the Steelers offense, the Chargers’ ethos, and the schism that’s grown between factions of players connected to the social justice movement of the last year-plus.

We’re starting with the Rams, and for a very specific reason—it’s about to be coaching search season, and a lot of teams screw it up. Just look at the numbers, and the turnover, and you’ll see how many get it wrong. Over the past seven offseasons, there have been 51 coaching changes. Seven teams haven’t made changes, meaning the other 25 are averaging two changes during that stretch.

The Rams certainly hadn’t been above the fray either. Scott Linehan and Steve Spagnuolo lasted three seasons apiece, and Fisher hung on for five, with the three of those guys combining for zero trips to the playoffs.

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• Define what you want. The Rams fired Fisher with three weeks left in the season, which allowed them to start the process early, and it kicked off with some research. More specifically, the team started panning people inside the building (players, trainers, scouts, equipment people) about what was lacking. Then the Rams started to kick the tires on the methods of some other teams, like the Steelers.

The biggest thing to come from that work: Xs-and-0s were a small piece of what the team should seek, which was part of why the Rams inquired about position coaches like Steve Wilks and Mike Vrabel. And yes, McVay has that part of it, but it was more important, based on their own self-study, for the Rams to emphasize accountability, communication and energy. McVay quickly made it clear he had those things, too.

“You’re hiring the person,” Snead says. “Going with that, you quickly realize the head coach is directly managing some of the most important people in the building, and that’s the 53 players on the roster, and the 15-20 coaches.”

• Identify and assess the coach’s weaknesses. This one was easy for the Rams to find; McVay hadn’t yet turned 31 when he was interviewed. Over time, though, it became clear that age was really the only roadblock standing in the brass’ way.

Within the first 20 minutes of McVay’s interview, Snead made a note to himself: “Age doesn’t matter. It’ll be if we want to hire him or not.” And the research backed that up. For every Lane Kiffin washing out, you had a Mike Tomlin thriving. For the Josh McDanielses and Raheem Morrises, you have your Jon Grudens.

“Thirty doesn’t matter, it might actually be a positive here,” Snead said. “Those most important people in your building? Hey, most of them are in their early 20s.”

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• Vet the candidate. The Rams actually reached out to the agents of players who played for the team, but not unit, of each candidate. So in McVay’s case, that meant Snead and Demoff gathering testimonials from Redskins’ defensive players, all of whom helped the push the process along.

“It was unanimous,” Snead said. “I can remember showing Sean the texts, and it was relayed through their agents, what players he’d touched, coached, mentored along the way had said about him. It was one of the more touching moments for Sean to see it. And again, it was unanimous: ‘home run,’ ‘no-brainer,’ ‘hire him tomorrow,’ ‘best teacher I’ve had,’ ‘best motivator,’ ‘best coach to put us in position succeed as a unit, as well as individuals.’ A potpourri of compliments from a lot of different personalities on that team.”

• Project him. This is where the Xs-and-Os come in, via board work.

“There were moments in there where I felt like I could run his offense,” Snead says. “I wasn’t gifted with genetic capabilities of some of these QBs, their minds to take in info and process it so quickly. But there were moments where it was like, ‘I certainly couldn’t throw it like they do, but I may be able to play QB for this guy.’ He was so clear and concise and such a good teacher. … You could see the chess being played but it was in a manner where you felt like you were playing checkers.”

So the Rams got him with Goff in a similar setting, and Goff told Demoff and Snead afterwards: “I hope we’re hiring that guy, because after spending two hours with him, I don’t want to play for anyone else.”

• Have the timing line up: This wound up working out for the Rams. The Redskins’ ouster on Week 17 allowed them to get to McVay quicker than they thought they’d be able. That means by the time a second team, the Niners, decided to bring him in, McVay had already built a relationship with the Rams. Demoff called McVay before the San Francisco interview and told him, “Do well, but not too well.”

The Niners interview went well. But by then, the Rams were moving to make him their coach. And this advanced a train of thought they’d come to adopt in coming to a comfort level with his age.

“Get him now, don’t let somebody else get him,” Snead said. “Don’t come out of this saying he’s a year away, and then in a year, somebody else gets him, because that somebody else is gonna beat you with him.”

It’s an understatement to say this all worked out. The Rams are in first in the NFC West, second in the NFL in point differential, and second in points scored, a year after being as listless as they come offensively. Jared Goff’s broken through, Todd Gurley’s revitalized, the offensive line’s stabilized and Phillips is doing what McVay figured he would with the defense.

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Is there another McVay out there for someone in 2018? It’s hard to say now. But above all else, the process we just outlined should give teams a decent idea of who they’re hiring. It did for the Rams, who, by the way, aren’t as stunned as you might think about their new coach’s swift assimilation to the role.

“It’s the easy thing to say. But I’d probably be lying [to say I’m surprised],” Snead says. “He hasn’t exceeded expectations because you just had gut intuition that he was going to be special. Did I think we’d go from 32nd to 2nd in points per game? Maybe not. Did I think we’d have eight wins? I’m never thinking how many wins you’ll have after 11 games. So I don’t think he’s exceeded our expectations. But …”

Whatever McVay’s doing sure is working.

Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

1. Peyton’s next step? Soon, we’ll have my annual Future GMs list in this space, and there’s one name you won’t see in there that could well be occupying a lead chair in someone’s organization come January: Peyton Manning. The Colts/Broncos legend has long eyed a football czar role, going back to when he was playing, and you can bet there will be clubs working to lure him from retirement in Colorado. So the obvious next question is whether he carries the credentials needed outside of just being the player he was for 18 NFL seasons. And most of the people who’ve been around him will answer that question for you quickly. One Broncos staffer told me, “There’d honestly be no one better.”

Manning has prepared for it, and had a front-row seat for four years in Denver to watch John Elway, with whom he has a similar background (although Elway did run an Arena League team). Those who were around Manning as a player watched him keep close tabs on every facet of the NFL. The draft. Free agency. The coaching industry. The scouting community. All of it. And the rest, he can learn as a guy who brings experience as a player that very few of the planet ever could.

“He’ll be extremely successful in anything he chooses to do because of the person is, how smart he is and how hard he works,” said one personnel man who worked with him in Indy. “He’ll be extremely well prepared, have done research on the job and an understanding of what the job entails. And he wouldn’t go into the job with unanswered questions or just to try it. He goes into everything with the deepest commitment, desire and work ethic. He’s always seen and understood the biggest picture, and he’ll set a vision and high standard for an organization. Winning will be paramount, and he’ll grind and work, he won’t be a figurehead or a guy that hangs out with the owner. He loves the nuts and bolts of football, and knows and loves the game, players and coaches. He’ll be able to put the whole landscape together from a uniquely informed perspective, knows what it takes and will attract top people. He won’t suffer other agendas and obviously has the résumé to set that line. The challenge won’t be football. It’ll be if there are spots in the organization that don’t meet his standard or share his commitment.”

So why is a GM job right for him? Well, as I’ve heard it, coaching wouldn’t quite satisfy the businessman in him, and TV wouldn’t give him the competition he wants. Being a football czar, as we’ve said before, would give him both. And so it’ll be interesting to see where this goes now, with calls coming in—and his old buddy Jimmy Haslam potentially asking first to come and save the sad-sack Browns.

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2. Eli’s next step. As for Peyton’s brother … Is this it for Eli Manning in New York? Maybe. You could even say probably, but until we know who the GM and coach will be in January, it’s impossible to have any sort of certainty about it. As I understand it, Manning does put value in playing his whole career for one team and knows the kind of post-career benefits that come along with that. So I don’t know whether or not he’s thinking about retirement now—remember, Tony Romo wasn’t either at this point last year—but also don’t believe that he’ll go to any old outpost just to extend his career past his 37th birthday (on Jan. 3). 

Should Manning decide to keep playing, and given his affordable contract, the Giants should have a trade market. He’s due $16 million in cash in 2018 ($10.5M base; $5.5M roster bonus; $500K workout bonus) and $17 million in cash in 2019 ($11.5M base; $5.5M roster bonus; $500K workout bonus). That $16.5 million average would make him, even with Kirk Cousins, Drew Brees and Jimmy Garoppolo still unsigned, the league’s 16th highest paid quarterback in 2018. Very reasonable. The next question, then, would be what he has left. “I think he has a lot left,” said one defensive coach who’s faced him the last few years. “No offensive line (in New York), zero run game and he lost his four top receivers in the same game. So it’s hard to truly assess him.”

Another defensive coach agrees: “He looks uncomfortable right now. He’s probably a better alternative than some others. With a solid line and decent run game, he’s above average. Reads defenses well pre-snap. Can throw it when he’s got a clean pocket. But accuracy and decision-making get worse when the pocket gets messy. He doesn’t step into throws when the pressure’s in his face, but he never really did that. The offensive line’s an issue and has been the past few seasons. … In the right situation, I think he’d be effective, especially with a team looking to groom a young guy.”

I still believe the ideal one for him is Jacksonville, and not because of Tom Coughlin’s presence, but because the run game and defense would allow him to play the kind of efficient game that’d highlight those strengths. But again, the truth is that until the Giants make larger organizational decisions, it’s hard to tell what’s next.

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3. Steelers rounding into form. Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin broke script on Football Night in America last week, looking forward to the team’s Dec. 17 showdown with the Patriots and saying that it might only be “Part 1” for the two AFC titans. And before you start crying about bulletin board material, I’d tell you that my belief is he has reason to be confident. Two weeks ago, we wrote about the defense carrying the offense through some uncharacteristic rough spots. On Sunday, the offense finally returned the favor, scoring in the 30s for the second straight week—after not getting there once over the season’s first nine weeks.

The Steelers hit December with a rising young defense, and a loaded offense that might well be rounding into form. What happened? As it was explained to me, the team just stuck to the script. “For us, it’s just executing, doing things the right way,” said one Steeler source. “Very simple—catching the ball vs. not catching the ball a lot of the time. Nothing earth shattering. We were on the verge of breaking out the whole time. … We just stayed the course, knew we were winning games and we weren’t too far off (offensively), and we were working new or rusty guys back into the mix. And there’s something to be said for that.” They were patient with Martavis Bryant, through all the trade-demand drama, and he’s had nine catches the past three weeks, which is a modest breakthrough. It was well-timed, too, with rookie Juju Smith-Schuster working through a hamstring injury, and missing the Packer game as a result. Ben Roethlisberger’s been markedly better the last two weeks too, and Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are first and fourth, respectively, in the NFL in scrimmage yards. And the offensive line’s been better, too.

We can argue over whether Tomlin’s words were out of line. But it’s easy to see why he’s feeling breezy about his group.

4. Chargers still rolling. Give Anthony Lynn credit. There have been plenty of points where the Chargers’ calendar year could’ve gone sideways. And the interesting part of it, which I brought up with the coach, is how the move to Los Angeles seems to have galvanized the group, which is what he hoped would happen back in the spring. Remember, the Chargers spent the spring as lame ducks in San Diego, moved during their summer break, and spent training camp without a home facility in Orange County. 

Lynn and I talked then about all the upheaval, and he emphasized it’d likely affect his group in one of two ways. It could wear everyone out, and eventually take the team to its knees. Or it could harden the group. Then, the Chargers started 0-4. And just as it seemed the former scenario was playing out, the latter came to be true. “We’re still in the process, and looking back when the season’s over, we can ask, ‘Did that really galvanize us? Did that make us stronger? More resilient?’” Lynn said when I asked him about it. “We have to finish the season before I can completely answer that. But I was hoping that it would. And I feel like these guys are really resilient. The 0-4 start, it was pretty rocky, and these guys, they didn’t tank it. These guys showed up, they kept believing in the process and they stayed committed. And the last several weeks, you can see the results a little bit. We’re still 5-6, we’ve got a lot of work to do. I like the direction we’re going, though.”

The guys in the upper reaches of the organization do, too, “There might be a natural tendency to panic (0-4) but he certainly did not,” a Charger source noted. “He stayed the course. He was confident. You could tell the whole team still believed. No one was about to quit.” Lynn says the team just needed to learn to close games out, and that happened in nail-biting wins over the Giants and Raiders in Weeks 5 and 6.

With a win over the Browns on Sunday, and a Chiefs loss to the Jets, the Chargers will have pulled into first place, with a great chance to become the first 0-4 team to make the playoffs in a quarter-century. And who’d have thought that the move itself would be one big reason why it’s all worked out this way.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

1. Bills coach Sean McDermott handled the reinstatement of Tyrod Taylor as starting quarterback in a very simple way with his guys. He told them he made a decision (to go to Nathan Peterman) that didn’t work, and that Taylor would be back, and that was that. Seems to have worked, too, given that Buffalo won at Arrowhead.

2. I have no idea whether or not Josh Gordon can stay on the straight-and-narrow. What I do know is his talent is off the charts, and the 2016 preseason is such a great example of that. Coming off the street cold, not having gotten real game action in for nearly two years, Gordon was dominant, collecting a total of five catches for 116 yards, including a 44-yard touchdown, in losses to the Bucs and Bears. Can’t wait to see what he looks like against the Chiefs.

3. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said Wednesday he’ll keep going week-to-week with the quarterbacks. That makes sense. Why? Because the players have genuinely learned to handle it. It’s something I asked team captain Kyle Rudolph about a couple weeks back: “We have our formula around here, we have the way that we do things and the way we win games. [Coach Zimmer] just doesn’t talk about it. No matter who goes out there, he expects us to win, and he expects us to play that brand of football that we’ve established here.”

4. The union is going to ramp up its efforts to keep tabs on playing-field conditions in the coming weeks. They’re looking into the Redskins’ beat up natural surface at FedEx Field, as well as the turf at MetLife Stadium that Panthers coach Ron Rivera talked about last Sunday. A similar probe earlier in the year led to the Patriots swapping out the turf at Gillette.

5. Speaking of that, the union does have figures now that show that there remains a significant difference in number of injuries suffered on grass vs. turf fields.

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6. Joe Flacco and the offense have their issues, but the Ravens believe the defense they’re putting out there now is capable of living up to the ridiculous standard set by Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. In particular, the corner troika of Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr and Marlon Humphrey has been outstanding.

7. The Niners line has gotten healthier, Jimmy Garoppolo has almost a month under his belt in the system, and San Francisco isn’t playing Seattle this week, all of which play into the decision made to go with the fourth-year ex-Patriot. I do believe the Niners will do some subtle things to try and protect Garoppolo, and thus their investment.

8. Gut-check time for the Saints, in welcoming the 8-3 Panthers to the Superdome. New Orleans bullied its way to eight straight wins in such an un-Saintsian way, leaning on opponents with their running game and defense. Do they stick to the script now, and let Drew Brees play game manager against a rugged Carolina front?

9. The second adjustment for the Chiefs offense needs to come now. Coaches have caught up to the spread elements that Kansas City, behind Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt, put on tape in September and October.

10. The Redskins and Cowboys are both 5-6 going into Thursday night, and perception of the two couldn’t be more divergent. The Skins are making it work with less, and Dallas is collapsing under the weight of one big loss (Ezekiel Elliott). Or so it goes.

Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

By the time Niners safety Eric Reid decided to say something, more than three hours of the breakthrough meetings between NFL players and owners were in the books. And the dialogue, according to those in the room on that October Tuesday, was unprecedented with a number of people on both sides explaining that there was a focus on moving from protest to progress.

Quiet to that point, Reid spoke up: “What about Kaepernick?”

It appears that is where we are now. On Tuesday, ESPN’s Jim Trotter and Jason Reid reported, and we’ve verified, that the NFL and players have a basic agreement on a plan to contribute up to $100 million on causes important to African-American communities. Per Reid and Trotter, the seven-year deal will seek to make an impact on both the national level and the local level.

But just as the news was breaking, Reid and Dolphins safety Michael Thomas tweeted a statement withdrawing from the Players Coalition, the group headed by Malcolm Jenkins and Anquan Boldin that negotiated the deal saying “we don’t believe the coalition’s belief are in our best interest as a whole.”

The problem? Well, it’s existed since summer, and it was there during the end of that October meeting. It illustrates our lesson for the week: This situation is complicated, and the players have split into factions as a result.

Those on both sides acknowledge that there’s one group of players looking forward, and another looking back. The group looking forward, led by Jenkins and Boldin, is focused on pushing the process, and this landmark deal is a clear sign of how far they’ve come. The one looking back isn’t interested much in doing anything with the league until Colin Kaepernick has a job.

Meanwhile, there has been some frustration among those in the Players Coalition that Kaepernick hasn’t personally set the record straight on being invited to the meeting in New York. Jenkins said afterward that Kaepernick was, which was later disputed by Kaepernick’s lawyers. A subsequent meeting to involve Kaepernick was cancelled.

The concern now is that these cracks in the foundation of the movement that Kaepernick started more than a year ago could undermine the deal that the coalition struck and the good will built between the sides. To be sure, the owners have had to work through their own internal disagreements on this subject, and it remains delicate on their side as well.

And so as those involved see it, no matter how the deal is finalized, it’s important that the league and players emerge from it united and committed to seeing it through. My colleague Kalyn Kahler had Titans linebacker Wesley Woodyard, a member of the Players Coalition, on the phone on Wednesday, and she asked him about Reid and Thomas leaving the coalition.

“I haven’t heard anything about it, I can’t really speak on it, but I know Eric is true to the cause of Kaepernick, so I’m sure it has something to do with that,” he said.

Woodyard then added, on the deal itself, “I think that’s great. If you look at it, all of our sports markets can impact any community. That shows the world that the NFL is trying to take a step in the right way. Obviously, you can’t make everybody happy, but it’s a step. Kaepernick, he made the first step, and it took us a year to really get some movement and emotion in our movement, but now we’re here. It’s baby steps right now, but like I said, we have to continue to use this platform and bring awareness to every injustice out there and hopefully we can get things changed.”

Here’s hoping the players, and any owners scattered, can find a way to come together on this one. If for nothing else than because there are a lot of good people who busted their bottoms working on it.

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