- The NFL’s youngest coach got here with a single-minded devotion to the game. Don’t expect the Rams’ savior to change anytime soon.
This story appears in the Aug. 27, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
Sean McVay is, at 32, the youngest head coach in the NFL. He runs Hollywood’s pro football team, a legitimate Super Bowl contender, and it might seem as if he has everything he ever wanted, years earlier than could reasonably have been expected. And yet on this May morning inside his windowless brick office at the Rams’ facility in Thousand Oaks, Calif., he’s worried about his . . . work-life balance?
That’s how his mind works: He’s constantly cycling through an endless array of potential improvements, which makes it difficult to find any sort of balance. But he’s trying.
He reaches for proof of his efforts, grabbing a hardcover from his office book shelf—Getting to Us: How Great Coaches Make Great Teams—and opening to the first chapter, which details what Urban Meyer learned from his health-related leave of absence after Florida’s 2009 season. McVay read that volume on a Hawaiian vacation this spring, his idea of a holiday being to fly to a tropical paradise with his girlfriend, Veronika Khomyn, and then spend time reading up on how to do his job more effectively. Sitting poolside, he scribbled notes in the margins, noting the pitfalls he wanted to avoid, underlining passages he could apply to his team or to himself. Like this one: “[Meyer’s] sabbatical taught him the importance of living a balanced life and conserving energy, which replenished his persistence.”
In discussing his own work-life balance, McVay does not mention that he reported to the Rams’ facility this morning at 5 a.m. That he then geeked out on film study for two hours. That he hasn’t had time to tackle his to-do list: hang the picture leaning up against the back wall, start an Instagram account, take up golf. . . . Balance remains elusive for the NFL’s reigning Coach of the Year.
Really, though, he says, he’s trying. Last season he changed his sleep schedule, attempting to carve out six hours of rest on each of the preceding three nights’ games, compared with the four he gets the rest of the week. He has delegated more responsibility to his assistants, and he reads those self-improvement books. “Well, it sounds nice,” says McVay’s father, Tim, his skepticism poorly masked.
The image that the Rams’ coach presents to the world—his hair spiked just so; his ever-present sunglasses; his “schmedium” shirts showing off baseball-sized biceps—can make him appear like the bro-iest of bro coaches, a millennial with a clipboard. But the real McVay more closely resembles Bill Belichick (an emotionless cyborg and football lifer who’s more than twice McVay’s age) than he does Justin Bieber (whose music—gird yourself—McVay admits he does not hate). The real McVay loves books. He loves drawing up offensive schemes. He loves books about drawing up offensive schemes. He’ll return home from practice and barely notice the breathtaking view of Los Angeles spread below his Encino mansion. Instead, he’ll retreat directly to his office for another hour of film study. Khomyn, he says, is understanding—but “she wants me to have a little bit more of a life.”
About that. Hobbies? McVay likes to study coaches. “I’m a fan of coaching,” he says with a straight face. He analyzes Gregg Popovich’s sparring sessions with reporters, travels to Dodger Stadium to pick manager Dave Roberts’s brain and spends his offseasons pestering everyone from Doc Rivers to Chip Kelly to Belichick himself. Then there’s Brad Stevens. McVay looks at the 41-year-old Celtics coach the way fledgling quarterbacks view Tom Brady. “I have so much respect for him,” McVay gushes. “I try to catch all his interviews. Learn a lot just watching him.”
For McVay, balance is relative, of course. It’s a topic worthy of examination, but only as it relates to achieving optimal job performance. It matters that he’s thinking about balance now, before any kind of health crisis, before he even has a family of his own. He became the youngest head coach in modern NFL history by scrutinizing every facet of his life. “There are only a few guys I’ve ever met like that,” says Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who at 36 is four years older than his coach. “Sean and Nick Saban [who coached Whitworth at LSU]. Rare intensity. It’s literally déjà vu for me.”
In 2017, McVay’s first season in charge of any team at any level, all of 14 years removed from quarterbacking his high school to the Georgia Class 4A state championship, he led the Rams to an 11–5 record, the NFC West title and the franchise’s first playoff appearance since January ’04. L.A. landed four additional Pro Bowlers this spring through free agency and trades, bettering its odds of winning Super Bowl LIII while also raising the (totally valid) question of whether another collection of discarded superstars might spectacularly combust.
Speaking of balance. . . .
It’s 5 a.m. on another May morning, four months from the start of the season and seven hours before practice will begin. Jay-Z flows through the speakers inside the team’s weight room—Yes, sir, I’m cut from a different cloth—as McVay enters, chest puffed, hair moussed, sauntering past a sign that reads EMBRACE THE SUCK.
Strength coach Ted Rath runs McVay through his daily 20-minute workout: squats and leg lifts and resistance band exercises, all done in circuits. Mid-plank, McVay asks Rath’s advice on how best to reach certain players, and he laments the lack of practice time allowed in the NFL. “The biggest thing is losing the ability to coach,” he grouses.
McVay, it seems, was born with that ability to coach. Tim McVay remembers his son’s natural curiosity as a child, how he never stopped asking questions, especially about football. The boy idolized his grandfather, John McVay, who worked in the 49ers’ front office for two decades overseeing a dynasty that won five Super Bowls. Even after Tim moved the family out of the Bay, to Atlanta, where he took a job managing a TV station, Sean would obsess over the game. When the 49ers visited Atlanta, he’d hang around the team at San Francisco’s Saturday walk-through and sit in on meetings, peppering the likes of Jerry Rice, Ricky Watters and Steve Young with questions about schemes.
At Marist School, Sean asked his teammates to stay for extra film study, devoured books on leadership and quarterbacked the War Eagles to the 2003 state title running a read-option offense. (He even edged out Calvin Johnson—yes, that Calvin -Johnson—for Georgia player of the year honors.) Then he accepted a scholarship to Miami (Ohio), a school he’d targeted for its reputation as the Cradle of Coaches, a place where the likes of Woody Hayes, Ara Parseghian and Bo Schembechler once roamed the sideline.
Shortly before graduation, in 2008, McVay scored an interview at the NFL scouting combine with Jon Gruden, the then 45-year-old coach of the Buccaneers. Sean asked one of his college teammates, Dante DiSabato, to drive him to Indianapolis. Afterward, McVay excitedly told his friend, “I think I nailed it.” The duo splurged on a dinner at Mo’s steak house, where they saw Jack Del Rio, Andy Reid and John Fox downing slabs of beef in the dining room. “One day you’ll get there,” DiSabato said. “I hope so,” McVay responded.
McVay won the job (assistant receivers coach), wrote his friend a thank-you note and then started mimicking Gruden, friends say, in his mannerisms, speech patterns and predawn office hours. McVay would arrive at 4:30 a.m.—only to be greeted by the head coach, who’d ask, “Where the hell have you been?”
The Bucs fired Gruden that offseason, and McVay took refuge with the United Football League’s Florida Tuskers, where he worked under Gruden’s brother, Jay. He caught on with the Redskins in 2010 and began his unprecedented rise: from assistant tight ends coach (’10) to tight ends coach (’11–13) to offensive coordinator under Jay, who joined him in Washington in ’14. That McVay took over play-calling duties in ’16 from Jay, who’s regarded around the league as a brilliant offensive strategist, was telling. The Rams’ general manager, Les Snead, took notice of the spiky-haired savant.
The schemes McVay drew up in Washington, meanwhile, boosted the Redskins’ offense to a No. 3 ranking, turning Kirk Cousins into a coveted passer—one who would later sign a free-agent deal with the Vikings guaranteeing him $84 million. (In his house McVay keeps a jersey the QB signed along with the inscription: i owe you my career.) The young coordinator took on guys who were seen as injury-prone (tight end Jordan Reed), combustible (wideout DeSean Jackson) and overrated (Cousins), and he connected with them all.
Snead sniffed around, heard players describe the upstart coach as the best teacher they’d come across, and then hired him, replacing Jeff Fisher, with his annual sub-.500 record, and spawning what seemed like a million jokes and memes. Sean McVay’s “back in the day” was 2006. . . . The head coach gets carded first. . .
“People have it all wrong,” says Aubrey Pleasant, who moved with McVay from Washington to be the Rams’ cornerbacks coach and who now tears up talking about what McVay means to him. “They think coaches can only be successful if they’ve done this for the last 20 years. But the game is changing. I think Sean and this organization are a microcosm of what’s going on. What matters is how you reach people, cultivate relationships.”
That balance thing is still a work in progress. McVay settles into his desk chair before sunrise and spends the next two hours planning the afternoon practice. The rapper Post Malone plays on his office speakers as McVay scribbles notes on a legal pad. It’s 6 a.m., and he’s already jazzed about working with his new receiver, Brandin Cooks, who arrived in April from New -England (along with a fourth-round pick, in exchange for first- and sixth-round selections). McVay cannot stop raving about Cooks, his speed and his ability to separate from defenders. A Patriots assistant, McVay says, told him Cooks didn’t miss a single practice snap in 2017.
Now the coach is studying a mash-up of the wideout’s highlights from this spring and from past seasons when he arrives at a recent practice rep in which Cooks shakes off cornerback Aqib Talib (fresh from Denver) for a long score. “That’s the play he got popped on in the Super Bowl,” McVay says, noting that Cooks left that game against the Eagles last February concussed, in the second quarter. That exact sequence comes on next: Cooks never sees Philadelphia safety Malcolm Jenkins coming. Boom. “That’s a great one to teach off of,” McVay says. “He just turned around too early. He showed it.”
McVay pivots from that game and mentions that he met with Belichick this spring, pestering the Pats’ czar with questions about offensive schemes. Could you envision coaching an NFL team at 66, as Belichick will this season? “No,” he says. “I don’t think I could make it.”
But does McVay even believe that? Asked what he does outside of football, he says he’s been watching 13 Reasons Why, a drama about teenage suicide on Netflix—but it’s giving him nightmares, cutting into his already-limited sleep. In the next breath he says, “You know what’s really cool? Having a year of tape to pore over!”
The Rams that McVay inherited were an unequivocal mess, having finished 4–12 in 2016 after moving from St. Louis. They had a quarterback, Jared Goff, who looked like a bust in Year 1 and a running back, Todd Gurley, who’d regressed in Year 2. All that plus offensive-line woes, depth problems and cultural issues: They hadn’t topped .500 in 14 years.
“You need to know how serious we are about football,” McVay told his team in that first meeting. And then he proved it. He made Pleasant, his friend from the Redskins, interview twice. He blew up the offense, adding a wider range of plays to make his team less predictable. He and Snead added Whitworth and center John Sullivan through free agency to stabilize the line.
They stomped the Colts in Week 1, 46–9, and took six of the next eight, toppling the Cowboys and the Jaguars on the road and dropping a combined 114 points on the Cardinals, Giants and Texans. They crushed the division-rival Seahawks and wrapped up the NFC West title (and a 7–1 road record) with a Week 16 victory in Tennessee. Gurley ran for 13 touchdowns (first in the NFL), Goff passed for 28 (tied for fifth) and McVay’s Rams outscored their opponents by 149 points, the offense climbing in one season from worst in the NFL to first, which no other team had ever done.
Even then, the thing McVay recalls most vividly from last season is a 26–13 loss to Atlanta in the wild-card round of the playoffs. “That still stings bad, man,” he says. “I could think of about 15 calls I screwed up. Probably 30 calls that I’d like to have back. You get away from the run when [first-team All-Pro Todd Gurley] was playing really well. You get a little greedy. . . .”
Still, McVay completely changed the direction of an entire franchise. In one season. Goff says his coach’s youth actually helped him relate to his players, the way they tweaked game plans, for example, over text message. Even then: “We haven’t done anything yet,” the QB says. To which McVay answers, “I love to hear him say that.”
This team looks and feels very different than it has in recent seasons. Just listen to equipment manager Adam Mirghanbari (Merg in these halls), a Rams fan so dedicated that he moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles with the team, leaving behind his pizza business to work the JUGS machine at practices. “My favorite player is Sean McVay,” Merg says. “He’s my everything.”
On the night before the draft, back in April, Snead attended his team’s party for the first time in years. In previous seasons he’d been working to trade up for cornerstones like Gurley and Goff, but in 2018 he didn’t own a single pick in the first two rounds. So he decamped to Otium, a modern restaurant in downtown L.A. that serves funnel cake with foie gras; caviar; and escargot with bone marrow. Having valeted his car, he ducked under the velvet ropes to find the restaurant filled with the beautiful and the tanned. This, he said to himself, is what football in Los Angeles should look like.
Last season, though, was not enough, and so Snead—despite the turnaround, despite the return to relevance and the improved roster—sent a text to McVay in May: “You know what I love? 2017 is officially over. 2018’s on.”
“No doubt,” McVay tapped back.
So started an offseason talent splurge that, Goff says, felt as if the Rams signed “somebody every day.” Which is almost true. Coach and GM wanted to address their defensive backfield in particular, and Snead traded for the Chiefs’ Marcus Peters (for a fourth-round pick this year and a second-round selection in ’19) and Talib, from Denver (for this year’s fifth). These moves allowed them to use the franchise tag on free safety LaMarcus Joyner, gifting 71-year-old defensive coordinator Wade Phillips one of the league’s most talented secondaries.
McVay had noticed how Peters responded to his worst plays, and he loved that Phillips could vouch for Talib, whom he’d coached in Denver, as a positive influence on younger players. When the new charges arrived, McVay carved out extra time to spend with the corners, indoctrinating them to his philosophy. “He sits right behind me,” Talib says. “And when I watch him, I see guys respond to him the way they responded to Bill [Belichick],” who Talib played for in New England.
Adding to that defensive repertoire, Snead also signed former Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who Rath enjoyed training years ago in Detroit. If not for All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald’s training-camp holdout, it might have been the perfect offseason.
Snead sees his approach as less Hollywood, more pragmatic. “I wouldn’t call this a splashy offseason,” he says. “Heck, I wouldn’t even call Sean a splashy hire.”
But he can only downplay the Rams’ offseason spending so much. The reality: That approach is not without risk. It’s faintly reminiscent of the so-called Dream Team that Philadelphia assembled in 2011. That team finished 8–8, then 4–12. “You do see people get ahead of themselves,” McVay admits. (Snead: “You knew at some point you were going to hear the Eagles thing.”) But coach and GM don’t see their roster that way. In fact, the comparison they choose is much loftier: They point to the NBA’s latest dynasty, the Warriors.
No, they’re not suggesting they have quite that level of talent, hands down more than anyone else in the league. They’re saying only that teams can collect superstars—adding someone like Kevin Durant, the second-best player in the NBA—and still win. Says Snead, “We’ve seen the Warriors embrace that.”
The GM does not expect his young coach to find the balance he seeks this season. (“What do you want him to do? Watch something on Netflix?”) But he does expect their young team to keep improving as the Rams’ new 70,000-seat, $3 billion home nears completion. (Los Angeles Stadium at Hollywood Park is scheduled to open in 2020.) He expects to see more mcvay is the way T-shirts around town. He thinks the 32-year-old could be the most celebrated coach in L.A. since Pat Riley was slicking his hair back for the Showtime-era Lakers.
It could happen.
But what if it all comes down to a choice? What would McVay pick: Better balance; a long and healthy life? Or a Super Bowl ring, with no balance? The coach makes a face as if that’s the dumbest question in history, as if the answer should be obvious.
“Super Bowl,” he says, laughing. “Wouldn’t even have to think about it.”