With respect to everything going on in our world—and for how small pro football’s place is in it, given the global crisis at hand—there’s part of this that really does suck for Sean McVay.
And that part has smacked him right in the face over the last month. Repeatedly.
Yeah, he’s trying to make the most of circumstances he, the Rams, and the other 31 coaches and teams are facing. But that didn’t make it easier, not getting to invite Todd Gurley—an absolute centerpiece of the facelift he’s performed— into his office to put a bow on the last three years, like he wanted to. Nor did it simplify calls to Brandin Cooks, who he calls “one of my favorite players,” or Clay Matthews, who he grew close to in their year together.
There are certain things you can replicate on the screen of a laptop. There are others you can’t, and it didn’t take long for McVay to realize it, with the Gurley gut punch as a catalyst.
“The one thing, especially this time when you have a lot more time than you’re normally accustomed to, to be reflective, to look back on the three years that we’ve spent together, it gives you nothing but an appreciation,” McVay said, late Wednesday from his house outside L.A. “And that’s the tough part about it. There’s still a human element. People say, ‘It’s not personal, it’s business.’ Well, there’s still a personal relationship, a personal appreciation, and a humanity that exists. …
“Certainly, it’s for the right reasons, as we fight the coronavirus. But it’s been a really difficult collaboration as we’ve made some tough decisions, and it only makes it worse when you can’t look guys in the eye and you have to communicate the information through the phone or on some of these social platforms that isn’t as personal as a face-to-face is.”
It’s also a reminder how much has changed with the Rams. McVay’s got three new coordinators. The way the team is building has, subtly but significantly, shifted. New leaders in the locker room will have to emerge. The new stadium is about to open, even if the pandemic has created uncertainty on when the ribbon will actually be cut.
This is a different offseason for everyone. It remains a very big one in LA.
We’re a week out, and we’re going to bring you plenty on the draft in this week’s GamePlan. Among those things…
• A ranking of position groups in the 2020 class.
• A look at what is happening with Tua Tagovailoa.
• What the Cardinals can show us, a year later, about perception.
But we’re starting with the new Rams, how they’re different from the old Rams, and the path they’re beating in navigating everything that’s come their way.
And maybe you don’t realize how much has changed in L.A. until you start to add it up, because it’s not like there’s a new GM, head coach or quarterback coming in. Consider…
• McVay hired Kevin O’Connell to be offensive coordinator (a title that sat vacant since Matt LaFleur left two years ago), Brandon Staley as defensive coordinator and John Bonamego as special teams coordinator, while saying goodbye to one of the great defensive minds in recent NFL history, in Wade Phillips, and a long-time Rams staple, in John Fassel.
• Cornerstones like Gurley, Cooks, Cory Littleton and Dante Fowler are gone.
• The team was far more restrained in its spending. One series of moves that signaled the change? The Rams took on economical reclamation projects A’Shawn Robinson and Leonard Floyd for the price it would’ve cost to keep Fowler, without yielding the long-term flexibility they would’ve had to in order to re-sign the star edge rusher.
• The Rams are swallowing over $40 million in dead money on the Cooks and Gurley deals, which is a tacit admission of mistakes made, and a price paid for pushing money from today to tomorrow to build the Super Bowl roster of 2018.
It’s not a total rebuild, of course. But there was enough here for McVay to make what, with the benefit of retrospect, wound up being a pivotal decision in the mosaic of the mess of 2020. He kept his coordinators home for the duration of the combine, and only went himself for a day, to try and make sure the identity of his team would be better cemented.
During that week, McVay would spend half the day with O’Connell, going over the team’s scheme, how to best build it for the players on hand, and the trouble areas that they wanted to fix, and the other half of the day doing the same with Staley. The coordinators, then, spent the other halves of their days working through specific position groups in the draft class, and looking at their fit for the team, to make up for the work lost in Indy.
“It was getting a jump on the teaching progression, and working in collaboration with them, being in a really good spot specific to where you typically are in an offseason, especially when it’s a newer system,” McVay said.
McVay says now that, at the time, the idea was “being intentional” about relationship building, and the unintentional benefit since has been obvious. The rapport within a staff working remotely is there now, at least in part, because of the time spent together then. And so just as unfortunate as the way the head coach had to say goodbye to guys was, McVay’s excited about trying to create advantages, in going forward with some purpose.
The age edge. McVay is hesitant to call his age, he’s 34 now, an advantage. And the truth is, in working through Zoom and Microsoft Teams, it hasn’t been all the time.
“I do know sometimes I’ll be looking, and I’ll have the camera still faced on me, and I’m talking about a play I’m narrating,” he said. “And they’ll say, ‘Hey Sean, shut the hell up and flip the camera back around.’ … That’s happened on more than one occasion where you say, ‘OK, so you see this guy right here, see what’s happening on this specific technique?’ The coaches are like, ‘Bro, we’re still seeing your face, we’re not seeing the film.’”.
But the fact that he, Staley (37) and O’Connell (34) grew up with the internet can’t hurt, and it may be why the staff as a whole has plowed forward without trepidation, even with the attendant mishaps factored in (which support staff guys like Billy Nayes, Jeff Graves and Dan Dmystirin have helped them work through).
“How we’re able to be diligent and efficient in our work, that’s been a real positive,” McVay said. “I don’t know if it’s necessarily exclusive to the age, but just how efficient our coaches, our scouts have been with that adaptability on some of these technological platforms that allow you to operate in a very similar manner to what you would if you were present in the building.”
Building an identity. Part of the reason for Staley’s arrival in L.A. was McVay’s respect for, and the trouble he’s had with, the Vic Fangio system—Staley was with Fangio in Denver and Chicago. Part of O’Connell coming aboard was how highly regarded he was with old friends of McVay’s in Washington. But the overarching idea here for McVay was being able to tie together the team’s offensive and defensive identities.
As we talked about that, I brought up how Bill Belichick toggles between sides of the ball to ensure his team has that. Likewise, McVay has spent more time with the defense the last couple years than most people know, and that’s continued with new coordinators aboard.
“One of the things that was exciting about Brandon and a lot of the visions he had, there was a very similar philosophy, in terms of how it’ll best suit our players but also marry with that team approach,” McVay said. “When you look at some of these teams, it’s about winning football as a team, not playing separately as far as offense, defense and special teams. …
“There are different ways to do it. [But] you referenced New England, they’ve done as good a job as anybody being able to adjust and adapt their system specific to their opponents but still have an identity with how they want to operate week in and week out. And I think that’s why they’ve been the most consistent program over the last handful of years.”
Being ready for the players. On April 27, two days after the draft wraps, the Rams offseason program will start under the same sort of circumstances that McVay’s coaching meetings have taken place. And McVay hopes that going through the former, and having to put together a revised scheme on one side of the ball, and a new one on the other, will prove a good dry run for the latter.
But there are pieces of it he acknowledges will be touch and go, under the NFL’s new rules. One will be the normal give and take—McVay likes his players to take ownership of what they’re being taught—that happens in meetings. It’s possible, to be sure, players will be more hesitant to speak up into their laptops than they would be in a meeting room. And with new coaches in the mix, it may be complicated even further. Which means that there’ll probably be adjustments and tweaks along what’s clearly an uncharted path.
“What’s going to be interesting to see is when you get into those larger quantity meetings where you’ve got 35 or 40 guys in a unit meeting, and the team meetings, those will certainly be a challenge,” McVay said. “We’ve practiced on one another, and we’ve tried to be intentional to make sure our time is spent where it’s efficient, it’s engaging, it’s entertaining for the guys, it’s educational. You don’t want it to get monotonous.
“You’ve got this time allotted. We want to make sure it’s maximized and it’s something that keeps these guys knowing you always have an intent in what you’re trying to get done.”
All this time has given McVay plenty of space to think too, and that’s where we got back to Gurley. Before the Rams cut him, McVay remembered Gurley’s incredible stretch run in 2017—he went over 100 scrimmage yards in nine of his final 10 games that regular season, as the Rams improbably won the division—and his important role in the Super Bowl season of 2018, and it came back to him again, how much Gurley meant to him personally.
“How fortunate and blessed I feel to have gotten a contract extension after my first deal, he’s been as instrumental and influential on the success that we’ve had as anybody,” McVay said. “He’s helped set me up, and my family up, for a lot of really nice things. You don’t get those opportunities and you don’t achieve a level of success without getting to work with players like him. I mean, it’s really special. … His resume for the five years he played as a Ram, and I was with him for three of those, it’s up there with the all-time greats.”
And just the same as McVay missed the chance to give Gurley the send-off he deserved, he is missing being at the facility, around his staff, and it’ll hit him again, he’s sure, in a week and a half, when he’s staring at his players in Brady Bunch-style boxes on a laptop, instead of addressing them in an auditorium.
But that’s where he, the Rams and we all are right now.
“I heard [L.A. Clippers coach] Doc Rivers, I’ve gotten to be friends with him, and he’s talking to his team about winning the wait right now,” McVay said. “It’s a little bit different, they’re waiting, they’re in a holding pattern. But it’s the same in that it’s winning the moment.”
And if that means just remembering to flip the camera on the laptop, then McVay will try to do that too.
With the draft a week away, I figured we’d get a little creative with this, and rank the five strongest position groups in this year’s class. So here you go…
1) Wide receiver: There’s no Calvin Johnson or Julio Jones (in fact, the 2021 class may have two guys who wind up being better than anyone this year), but there’s depth on depth on depth. Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy and Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb are 1-2 in some order, with Henry Ruggs’s game-breaking ability giving him a chance to go before either or both. But some teams will wait in Round 1, thinking that maybe someone like, say, Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk or Clemson’s Tee Higgins or Penn State’s K.J. Hamler is there for them in Round 2. Or even that they could address that need in Round 3, because maybe USC’s Michael Pittman or Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden slides a little. You get the picture. There are lots of receivers.
2) Offensive tackle: Louisville’s Mekhi Becton, Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, Alabama’s Jedrick Wills and Georgia’s Andrew Thomas should all be gone in the first dozen picks or so. And the second tier, headed by USC’s Austin Jackson, might start coming off the board earlier than most expect (maybe even in the teens). Boise’s Ezra Cleveland, Houston’s Josh Jones and Georgia’s Isaiah Wilson could also be in the first-round mix. And you’ve got sleepers like Div. III star Ben Bartch, from St. John’s in Minnesota, after that.
3) Cornerback: Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah comes off the board, and there might not as big a gap between the Buckeye All-American and the next one picked as many originally believed. Florida’s C.J. Henderson has a lot of uneven tape, but All-Pro athletic ability, LSU’s Kristian Fulton will likely be someone’s safer first-round play, and Clemson’s A.J. Terrell is likely to come off the board on Day 1 too. Alabama’s Trevon Diggs, TCU’s Jeff Gladney (who’s fighting some character flags) and Ohio State’s Damon Arnette shouldn’t be waiting too long on Friday, if they don’t go Thursday. Bottom line: The options should be good here through two rounds or so.
4) Running back: There’s no Saquon Barkley or Ezekiel Elliott, but there are a handful of starters. Georgia’s D’Andre Swift is a borderline first-rounders, and Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins, and LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire should be gone within the top 60 picks or so. And even past those guys, Florida State’s Cam Akers, BC’s A.J. Dillon and Utah’s Zack Moss have potential. If you need a starting tailback, you’ll probably be able to dig one up here.
5) Safety: One thing that’s surprised me is how universal the love for Alabama’s Xavier McKinney seems to be. He’s a 21st -century safety in his versatility, and he’s drawn comps to Earl Thomas. LSU’s Grant Delpit has great potential (he was seen as a top 10 pick going into 2019), despite a really down final year in Baton Rouge. And guys like Jeremy Chinn (Southern Illinois), Kyle Dugger (Lenoir-Rhyne), Antoine Winfield Jr. (Minnesota) and Ashtyn Davis (Cal) are interesting prospects who bring a lot to the table.
And yes, I thought about going with QB as the fifth best position in this year’s class. Joe Burrow certainly will be a worthy first overall pick. But there are real questions with every other prospect, which prompted me to give safety the nod at five.
THE BIG QUESTION
What will happen with Tua Tagovailoa?
There always promised to mystery surrounding Tagovailoa because of the timeline on his hip (he won’t really be out of the woods, depending on who you talk to, until he’s 9-12 months out from surgery), and the multitude of injuries he suffered as a collegian even before that. Now we’re a week away from the draft, and there’s still plenty of intrigue.
Perception has grown among rival teams (and sometimes this can be misdirection) that the Dolphins will not select the Alabama star they’ve done so much work on. The Chargers’ intentions have been less clear, which is no surprise, given how well GM Tom Telesco has done over the years in masking his intentions ahead of the draft. If Tagovailoa gets past the sixth pick? Then it becomes really tough to figure where he’ll go.
The Jaguars are sitting at No. 9 but seem ready to give Gardner Minshew a run at it, and may be content doing that and, at worst, waiting for 2021, with Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields likely to be in that pool. The Raiders and Jon Gruden seem to be a perpetual threat to take a quarterback high in the draft, and they have the 12th and 19th picks. After that? Niners, Bucs, Broncos, Falcons, Cowboys … it’s tough to find a home for him.
So, to me, this is the biggest story of draft night. Maybe the intel on Miami is out there to mislead. Maybe the Chargers are smitten with Tagovailoa. If not, I don’t know what happens. And that makes Herbert a surer bet to go in the top 6 than Tua is, which is neither a reflection on Tagovialoa nor something many saw coming.
WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT
No one seems to think the Cardinals were so crazy anymore.
And that hit me over the last week as I was going through what’s going to happen inside the top 10 picks next week. Last year, it was crazy that Kliff Kingsbury was their hire, and nuts that they were giving up on Josh Rosen so quickly. Now, they’re going into the draft with a 40-year-old coach who adapted well to the NFL despite a work-in-progress roster, and an electric 22-year-old quarterback to build around.
That puts Arizona in the enviable position of being able to build aggressively while Kyler Murray’s still on a rookie deal, an advantage the Eagles, Rams and Chiefs rode all the way to the Super Bowl over the last three years.
The lesson? The lesson is that Twitter narratives can be fun in the moment, but those social media mobs don’t roll so deep when their assumed truths are disproven. And a lot of times, those who don’t listen wind up being rewarded.
For the record, I don’t know if Kingsbury and Murray will truly make it as an NFL tandem. But after Year 1, there’s plenty of hope indicating it could happen. And that’s not something you’d have seen predicted much on the internet a year ago.
The Browns did the absolute right thing with their uniforms—credit to them for recognizing the mistake they made in 2015 and correcting it as soon as the mandated five-year waiting period to change was up. I even like the subtle update (it’s in the font of the numbers) they splashed on to a classic look.
Next up on the uniform calendar is the Chargers, who are emphasizing powder blue as a part of their update. The guys there say the new jerseys are off the charts. I’ll be the judge of that!
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