Sean McVay and Bill Belichick have made all the right calls at the right times to reach Super Bowl Sunday. More decisions await the coaches and could determine the difference between a championship and one that got away.
ATLANTA – How do you build a Super Bowl champion? Well, here is a story.
Not even the hardest of hard-core draftniks gave a minute’s thought to UCLA’s 2008 pro day. The Bruins had one player who would be taken in the first four rounds: linebacker Bruce Davis, a late third-round pick who would bounce around the league for a few years.
UCLA senior Matthew Slater was just hoping somebody, anybody, would notice him. He had no clear position. He had no impressive stats. He worked out at safety while somebody threw passes; later, the stand-in quarterback would chat with him for a few minutes, but Slater didn’t even catch the guy’s name. Only seven teams brought Slater in for pre-draft visits.
Slater watched the final day of the draft with his father Jackie, wondering if he might hear his name. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had the 153rd pick. They were one of Slater’s seven teams. He was hopeful. But when the Bucs traded down seven spots to the Patriots, he figured he would have to keep waiting. The Pats were not one of those seven teams. They had shown no interest.
New England picked Slater. He was shocked. As he walked through the Pats’ facility to rookie minicamp, he noticed a familiar face: the guy who had thrown passes in his safety drill, and had chatted him up, was Nick Caserio, New England’s director of player personnel.
How do you build a Super Bowl champion? Another story: On Thursday nights in the fall, Jedd Fisch watches the last five minutes of every NFL half from the previous week. Coaches usually watch the All-22 angle, so they can see what every player does on a play, but Fisch watches the TV broadcast copy, so he can understand why decisions are made.
“You go through it and go, ‘OK, that’s why they used their timeout at 2:17 instead of 2:04 … OK, now the ball crossed the 50 so now they didn’t. …” Fisch said.
Fisch has been described as Rams coach Sean McVay’s clock-management guy during games. He is, but that undersells both him and McVay. Fisch was an NFL and major-college offensive coordinator and is a viable candidate for Power 5 coaching jobs. He runs the scout-team defense during Rams practices.
McVay did not just hire some 24-year-old “analyst” to help with clock management. He hired an experienced, smart coach in his prime. McVay is secure enough to want great coaches around him, good enough to earn their admiration, and he treats people well enough to make them want to stick around.
NFL teams make thousands of decisions every year. To win the Super Bowl, you need to get as many of those right as you possibly can — not just the big ones, like trading up for the No. 1 pick to draft Jared Goff, but the little ones, like signing an undrafted free agent named Malcolm Butler.
You need to do enough research to know that a defensive back from UCLA named Matthew Slater got into two Ivy League schools, has high-end speed, and is extremely coachable. You have to care enough about a potential fifth-round pick to hide your interest from everybody — not just other teams, but the player.
McVay and Bill Belichick and both come from football families — McVay’s grandfather, John McVay, was the 49ers general manager, and Belichick’s father Steve was a coach and scout for Navy. But their brilliance is not just what they learned from their families. It is that they learned they have to keep evolving and adapting. Running a football team is not a skill you master. It’s a series of problems that keep flying toward you at an incredible pace.
Belichick has his hands in everything with the Pats; there has probably never been anybody like him in NFL history. People often say he does not have the best talent on his roster, but it’s probably more correct to say he does not have what other teams would consider the best talent. He favors smarter, more coachable, multidimensional players over the purest athletes. Those are the ones who can execute what he wants, who give him the most possible answers to every question.
Belichick’s program can be summed up in two fifth-round picks. One became Slater, a seven-time Pro Bowler on special teams and perhaps the ultimate Patriot, though obviously not the most important. Another became Josh Gordon. When the Pats traded for Gordon last fall, a lot of people said they were crazy — Gordon had too many personal problems and would never last.
The critics were both right and wrong. Gordon did not last. He was suspended indefinitely in December for another drug violation. But before that, he caught 40 passes for 720 yards and three touchdowns — well worth the risk of trading a fifth-round pick for him.
Belichick’s genius is commonly known at this point. McVay is still so fresh on the scene that we’re still learning about him. Most people just know he is an offensive whiz, he is 33, and every team in the NFL wants to hire a coach who knows him, or looks like him, or wears the same deodorant as him.
Teams hoping to hire somebody to run McVay’s offense miss the point. Offenses change. McVay has somehow managed to maintain his hold on play-calling — he calls every one — while still being the leader the Rams need.
McVay delegates just enough to allow him to innovate, but not so much that players think he is just an offensive coordinator with a head coach’s title. He listens to players and coaches, processes the information, and makes a well-informed decision.
Fisch says, “Sean is the best at letting us know how he sees the game, and how the game is going to play out, and scripting it. He lets you in on his brain. But his brain also works really, really fast. So there might be something that he sees (during a game) that he is able to take advantage of.”
The only sure bet in this Super Bowl is that at some point, the Patriots and Rams will each do something the other coach has never seen and did not expect. Belichick and McVay will have to recognize it and try to figure out the best answer for it, perhaps in a matter of seconds. It will be just one more decision among thousands that determine who wins the Super Bowl.