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How Sean McVay’s Rams Became a Reflection of Football’s Boy Genius

Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, and Co. have outsmarted opposing defenses at each step of their 4-0 start. The secret to their success? Embracing McVay’s rare brand of collaborative brilliance.

A photo illustration featuring Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay, quarterback Jared Goff, and running back Todd Gurley Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Jared Goff’s reaction was telling. He threw five touchdown passes in the Rams’ 38-31 win over the Vikings in Week 4, but none elicited the response that his second one did. With about 10 minutes left in the second quarter, the third-year quarterback hit wide receiver Cooper Kupp deep down the right sideline for a 70-yard strike. As his former roommate rumbled into the end zone, Goff ran toward the Los Angeles sideline and met head coach Sean McVay with a full-contact chest bump. “I told him after, ‘I didn’t mean to knock you over there,’” Goff said.

Goff’s elation was the culmination of a weeklong process, as the play design was a subtle mutation of a McVay staple from the Rams playbook. The offense was aligned in 11 personnel, with Kupp in the left slot, Brandin Cooks on the outside, and Robert Woods split out right. At the snap, Goff faked a handoff to running back Todd Gurley while Woods completed an over route and Cooks ran a deep corner toward the sideline. Those three elements are typical of the Rams’ bootleg concept, which McVay had used during the team’s first three games.

When this design is used on a bootleg—as it was in a 35-23 win over the Chargers in Week 3—Kupp starts by faking a block and then runs a route to the middle of the field. Against the Vikings, his initial movements looked identical to that play: He feigned a block against linebacker Anthony Barr before transitioning into a pass route across the formation. That’s where the similarities ended.

Instead of stopping and looking for a quick pass, Kupp continued his route up the right sideline with Barr giving chase. Tight end Tyler Higbee, rather than sprinting into the flat as he flashed to the other side of the offensive line, stopped to block, ensuring that Goff had enough time to get the ball to Kupp. This play design is known as a “leak” concept, and it’s a fixture in heavy play-action schemes such as Kyle Shanahan’s in San Francisco and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur’s in Tennessee. But McVay’s version has a twist: He leaks his slot receiver out instead of a tight end. That wrinkle, combined with the deception of Kupp’s bootleg-esque first few steps, left Barr and the Vikings unprepared. “I was fired up about that one because that’s one we tweaked during [practice that] week,” Goff says. “I was fired up for him getting that thing off.”

Him refers to McVay, who used a Thursday-night national showcase against Minnesota’s vaunted defense to solidify his status as the premier play-caller in the NFL. Last year, in his first season with the Rams, McVay took the NFL’s worst scoring offense and transformed it into the top unit in football. This year, he’s elevated his group from a feel-good story into a planet-destroying superweapon. Through four games, Goff—the 2016 no. 1 overall pick who looked like a lost cause as a rookie—has thrown for 1,406 yards and 11 touchdowns with a 72.4 percent completion rate.

The 32-year-old McVay is no longer just an intriguing footnote in the football world. He’s the most advanced offensive mind in the game. And as those close to him will tell you, what sets him apart goes beyond just his bag of tricks. “For anybody that meets Sean McVay, age is irrelevant,” Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth says. “From the moment you talk ball with him, you realize his level of intelligence and his level of understanding the game is just different.”

Los Angeles Rams v Oakland Raiders
Sean McVay and Jared Goff
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Matt LaFleur remembers the first time he heard McVay’s voice. It was the spring of 2010, when LaFleur was an assistant on Mike Shanahan’s staff in Washington. The now-Titans offensive coordinator was transitioning out of his role as a quality control coach, and Shanahan was interviewing candidates for his old job. Sitting in then-coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s office, LaFleur overheard a manic voice mapping out plays in painstaking detail. “I could hear, literally though the wall, Sean installing plays,” LaFleur says. “I was like, ‘This is pretty impressive.’”

McVay got the job, and during their first conversation, LaFleur could already see into the young coach’s future. “I knew the first time I met him he was going to be a head coach,” LaFleur says. “He just has a positive energy, extremely intelligent, loves ball more than anybody I’ve been around. And he’s just brilliant. I think he might have a photographic memory. He’s just rare.”

Others echo a similar sentiment when describing their initial interactions with McVay. You just know. “It was before the clock struck 10 minutes in the interview,” Rams general manager Les Snead says of talking to McVay during the franchise’s coaching search in 2017. “From intuition, just hearing him present and naturally, his enthusiasm. His ability to communicate. You’re like, ‘You know what? I’ll buy stock in this.’”

For Snead, the Rams’ plan during that offseason was three-pronged: “Hire the best head coach, fix the offense, and don’t forget about the defense.” After going 4-12 and recording a league-worst offensive DVOA in its final campaign under former coach Jeff Fisher in 2016, Los Angeles was set on turning things around on that side of the ball. But Snead says bringing in a dual head coach and play-caller wasn’t a requirement.

When the L.A. brass of Snead, executive vice president Kevin Demoff, and VP of football and business administration Tony Pastoors sat down with McVay for their initial interview, it found a coach who could accomplish the team’s top two priorities while also righting the trajectory of its young QB. It also glimpsed the qualities that would help the Rams jump to 11-5 last season and a start a spotless 4-0 this fall. “In those first 10 minutes, he probably articulated [the offense so well] to myself, Tony, and Kevin—who I’ll quickly say could never coordinate an offense, or defense, or special teams, even though we’re in football—that I guarantee we could’ve run a few of his plays,” Snead says. “He was that good at clearly explaining it. Oh, I could get you open. No, Sean, you really couldn’t.”

According to his players, McVay’s greatest strength isn’t some mad-scientist tendency to lock himself in a dark lab and emerge hours later with dozens of ingenious play designs. While he’s a wunderkind play designer, his best attribute is his ability to clearly communicate the tenets of his offensive philosophy. “It was really just the way he portrayed things,” Goff says. “The way he communicated. The way he made something that’s so complicated seem so simple. Right then, it was like, ‘Wow.’”

Following the Week 4 win over the Vikings, Whitworth told reporters in the locker room that McVay and his staffers don’t coach football. They teach it. Every directive is coupled with a specific reasoning. “Everyone can, for lack of a better word, empathize with it,” Whitworth says. “It’s ‘OK, not only do I understand what to do, I understand why I would want to do it that way.’”

The lines of communication are constantly open. Whether it’s a conversation at lunch, a quick chat in the hallway, or a short sidebar after a meeting, Whitworth says McVay probably interacts with every member of the offense at some point during each day. Those sessions often center on a concept or tactic that a player doesn’t feel comfortable executing. When an issue arises, players are able to voice their concerns to McVay, and one of two outcomes will follow. Either the coach will explain, in depth, why a concept is necessary, or he’ll brainstorm a way to change it to fit the player’s preference. “Most people are stubborn in their ways,” Whitworth says. “Just like everyday people who do a job. This is how I’ve always done it. I’m going to do it this way. He’s the opposite of that. Not only is he the most intelligent person in the room, he’s also the most humble. With him it’s, All right, I already know all the answers, but why don’t you tell me why you wouldn’t do this? If I can understand that and rationalize with it, then we just won’t do it that way. We’ll do it the way we both feel comfortable with.”

That willingness to continually learn and adapt is reminiscent of Bill Belichick and Nick Saban. And it results in belief traveling both ways in the Rams’ building. McVay and the staff place faith in their players to improve the system, and the players’ faith in the system grows. Everyone associated with this offense is moving in lockstep at all times. “It’s not, ‘Hey, I don’t care if you understand it or don’t, we’re going to run this play,’” Whitworth says. “It’s a marriage of him believing that players have to have confidence in the coaches as well as coaches having confidence in the players. Some places, you see different than that. It’s, ‘This is the way we do things. And we’re going to run this play whether you like it or not.’ That’s not his style.”

Arizona Cardinals v Los Angeles Rams
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Near the end of an August training camp practice, the Rams’ star-studded secondary gathered on the sideline, dumbfounded. Cornerback Aqib Talib conferred with slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman about what, if anything, they could do to stop the bunch formation and route combination that had just roasted them for a touchdown near the goal line. As they brainstormed, Los Angeles cornerbacks coach Aubrey Pleasant chimed in. “Yo,” Pleasant shouted, “that’s why Sean is the dude.”

McVay devises plays that are specifically engineered to test the defense’s guiding principles. Practices become games of chess between McVay and stellar defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. They also shed light on another aspect of McVay’s brilliance: In order to exploit the weak points of a defense, McVay has to know exactly how that defense operates.

McVay’s understanding of defensive football lies at the core of his wizardry. Take the Rams’ first touchdown against the Vikings on Thursday. Gurley released out of the backfield and started an in-breaking route toward the middle of the field. Most offenses using this alignment would try to isolate a player with Gurley’s route-running ability on an outside linebacker, thus allowing the stud back to shake the slower player in space. As a result, the Vikings saw L.A.’s setup and called for Barr to shield off the middle.

That’s where McVay’s mind comes into play. Rather than sending Gurley on an angle route to the middle, he called for his back to adjust his route vertically and break toward the back of the end zone. Goff delivered a perfect strike, and Barr never stood a chance.

The Rams run 11 personnel more than any other team in the NFL. This season, they’ve used it on a staggering 97 percent of their offensive plays. For many play-callers, formational monotony like this could produce a bevy of unimaginative, boring designs. McVay’s offense is the complete inverse because of his commitment to dressing up his three-receiver sets. “That’s why it’s so hard to defend us,” Goff says, “because we do so many different things off the same look.”

McVay alters the alignment of his receivers to no end, toying with defenses’ hard-and-fast rules. That sometimes means putting Kupp, Woods, and Cooks in bunches and stacks to combat tight man coverage. It can involve a steady use of jet motion and play-action to give linebackers an extra element to consider. Lining up Kupp or Woods next to an offensive tackle allows McVay to send a false signal to a secondary about what route is coming. Most teams use tight splits to set up out-breaking routes. The Rams, naturally, love using those alignments to set up in-breaking routes.

For all the bells and whistles adorning this offense, though, the Rams staff will tell you that the basic set of plays it has each week remains relatively static. McVay’s biggest advantage isn’t that he has a 1,000-page playbook for defenses to worry about; it’s that the fundamental set of plays the Rams rely on is built to accommodate one or two adjustments acutely aimed at attacking a specific defense. By the time a defense realizes how a concept differs from what it’s seen on tape, it’s too late. “That, to me, is the essence of football,” Whitworth says. “When you look at the rare teams, the rare NFL offenses, outside of special talent, the good ones are the ones where everything’s married to each other. Everything looks the same, but it’s completely different. That’s where teams get special and play to their potential.”

Over his first two seasons, McVay has passed his obsession with learning the ins and outs of defenses down to his players. He and Goff meet on Mondays to go over new plays for a coming week’s game, and again on Fridays to finalize the calls with which Goff feels most comfortable. “I like doing it for me, but I think he enjoys it as well, learning the stuff I like and the stuff I don’t like,” Goff says. “It helps him call the game.”

The dialogue has all but caused their minds to meld. In the middle of last season, Goff realized that what he saw from a defense was starting to match McVay’s calls. He points to a play from a 33-7 win over the Texans in Week 10. The Rams faced a second-and-8 from their own 6-yard line with about 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter. This would’ve been a precarious spot for just about any other offense, but Goff came up to the line knowing that a huge play was coming. “I saw the structure, and I said, ‘Man, I hope he calls this play,’” Goff says. “Sure enough.” McVay relayed in a sail concept that sent Woods on a deep post. Goff hit him in stride for a 94-yard score.

What mystifies Goff most about those moments isn’t that McVay always seems to see the right calls. It’s that he dictates them without reading off a card. “It’s fascinating to me,” Goff says. “I’m like, ‘I don’t know how you do that.’ A lot of them are long. When someone’s just saying them to you, they’re hard to just spit out.”

Like most of the league, Goff is mesmerized by his coach’s mind. The difference is that he gets to share in that football genius. That unified effort is what leads to moments like Goff and McVay’s sideline chest bump. McVay has turned the Rams’ offensive meetings into collaborative attempts to not only learn the game, but solve it. And damn, it feels good.

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