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Young Coaches Usually Fail — but the Rams Hired One Anyway

For Los Angeles, Sean McVay is a risk worth taking

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

When Sean McVay was born in 1986, Jeff Fisher had already won a college national championship as a player, played in four NFL seasons, and began his pro coaching career. But Fisher and the 7–9 carousel are gone from the Rams, who announced McVay as their fired coach’s replacement Thursday.

If this season was step one in the team’s reinvention — with a new (old) city and new quarterback — then McVay’s hire represents a much-needed next step to modernize its offense and return the Rams to playoff contention for the first time since the Mike Martz era. At the very least, it serves to inject intrigue into the most boring franchise in football — McVay carries an element of risk, but a gamble beats ramming Todd Gurley into the line for 2 yards at a time every play.

After spending the last two seasons as Washington’s offensive coordinator, McVay is clearly being brought in to fix Los Angeles’s most dire problem. While its defense remained a force until it allowed a bizarre, late-season deluge of 40-plus-point games, the Rams offense ranked last in the league in DVOA, points, yards, yards per play, and first downs, and second-to-last in both passing and rushing yards. First-overall pick Jared Goff suffered through a confusing and ultimately lost rookie season; he stayed on the bench for what seemed like far too long in the first half of the year, then played the worst season ever for an NFL quarterback by one advanced metric.

Enter McVay, who in his time in Washington proved to be a talented strategist and play caller. Washington’s offense ranked fifth in offensive DVOA this year, and Kirk Cousins might make nine figures this offseason, thanks to his increased production under McVay. Before his promotion to coordinator, McVay was Washington’s tight ends coach, and Jordan Reed, the sixth tight end taken in the 2013 draft, has blossomed into one of the best at his position.

On a leaguewide level, McVay’s hire is notable because he surpasses Lane Kiffin as the youngest head coach in NFL history. The Rams must hope his tenure turns out better than previous “youngest coach ever” contenders: Four other NFL coaches born since World War II have taken head jobs while younger than 34, and none won even 20 games in his first chance at a dream job. Lane Kiffin and Josh McDaniels were fired midway through disastrous second seasons with the Raiders and Broncos, respectively. Raheem Morris sandwiched one 10–6 year between two last-place finishes for the Bucs. David Shula won just 19 games in five seasons for the early-’90s Bengals, giving him the third-worst record in NFL history. Overall, those coaches produced a 31 percent winning rate, the equivalent of a 5–11 record.

Extend that arbitrary age maximum an extra year and more successful coaches — Jon Gruden, Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin — appear, but by the time McVay is even that old, Goff’s rookie contract will have expired, Aaron Donald will own multiple Defensive Player of the Year trophies, and Los Angeles’s pro football market will be saturated with 14 teams all playing in one $76 billion stadium in Inglewood.

If his successful, albeit scant, coaching experience thus far is any indication, McVay might have led the Rams to a winning season by then. Or he might have pulled a Kiffin and be helping Nick Saban to his ninth national title in Tuscaloosa.