Super Bowl LIII presents a fascinating contrast in coaching styles: On one hand, there’s 66-year-old Bill Belichick, a gruff defensive wizard who has already won five Super Bowls as the head coach of the Patriots and two more as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants. Belichick spends his games planted athwart the gridiron, his balding, frowning noggin perched atop a mound of baggy skin and sweat clothes. Belichick is built for comfort, not for speed, the football equivalent of the billionaire who’s so rich he can wear pajamas wherever he wants.
Belichick’s opponent, Rams head coach Sean McVay, is his polar opposite. McVay, a former high school option quarterback who just turned 33, exudes youthful vigor. McVay keeps his strawberry blond hair gelled into rigid perfection, and his beard neatly trimmed. Belichick, for the most part, presides over his team in a state of imposing but comfortable stillness, looking like he’s about to express his gratitude to Tom Brady for bringing him the mighty Chewbacca. McVay, on the other hand, is as kinetic as his offense, clapping and skipping down the sideline, assuring observers that for as much as he’s known for his offensive mind, his body is just as active.
So active, in fact, that McVay needs a minder to keep him from straying onto the field during games. Ted Rath, the Rams’ director of strength training and performance, has to follow McVay around to keep him from literally stepping over the line.
Get-back coaches are nothing new in football. Each NFL team appoints at least one coach to make sure the dozens of players, coaches, and staff members who make up an NFL team don’t creep too close to the sideline; any large crowd of people will shuffle around and move in one direction or another, and if that crowd gets too close to the field during the course of play, it could present a danger to players or referees running down the sideline.
But certain coaches who stand at the front of the crowd have employed a personal get-back coach. It’s not just McVay; Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables famously has an assistant strength coach keep him off the field during games, using methods from a gentle tap on the shoulder to a full-on yank of Venables’s shirt. And look at McVay as he paces around in the above video, eyes trained on the action. He looks purposeful, focused, even locked in. It’s part of the image we expect from a football coach: dedicated to the point of being monomaniacal, so full of desire it takes an entire fully grown man to keep him from striding out onto the field to join his players.
Here’s the thing about get-back coaches, though: They’re fashion accessories. There are all sorts of legitimately culturally important reasons not to celebrate the fact that McVay, a grown man who’s been tasked with overseeing dozens of employees, apparently can’t stand on a level surface without a human leash.
First of all, it feeds into the football coaching culture that celebrates overwork, or at least the appearance of overwork. If you’re not sleeping in a cot in your office, you’re not dedicated enough. If you’re not tripping over the chain gang as you roam the sidelines, you’re not paying close enough attention. Second, the idea that one needs to be physically restrained in order to follow the rules is gratuitously macho. There’s nothing admirable about an inability to stand where you’re supposed to stand—consider how annoying it is when someone steps on your toes on the subway, or cuts in line at the coffee shop, or bumps into you on the sidewalk because they’re too preoccupied to look where they’re going. We don’t think of those people as inspirationally intense; we think of them as jerks.
In addition to the larger societal considerations, having a personal get-back coach looks really stupid if you stop to consider the construct even for a second. Let’s consider the two scenarios in which a personal get-back coach would be necessary.
The first is that coaching high-level college or pro football is a demanding job. A job that requires meticulous attention to detail. Are we supposed to believe that McVay is adequately detail-oriented to run an effective NFL offense, but not detail-oriented enough to notice another adult human, dressed in high-visibility stripes, in his path as he walks around his workplace? Or perhaps McVay registers the official’s presence in some abstract way but doesn’t view him as an obstacle worth avoiding.
Is McVay supposed to chide Jared Goff for not reading an incoming blitz while both Goff and McVay know that McVay himself can’t or won’t read where the gigantic white stripe on the side of the field ends? Presumably McVay has driven a car or taken a subway at some point in his life, and is therefore capable of recognizing boundaries on the ground in front of him, and altering his own path to avoid obstacles should the need arise. He could stand on the sideline without help if he wanted to—most football coaches do. Frankly, anyone who loses the ability to navigate when he hits the gridiron ought not to be trusted with a football team.
McVay appears to need a get-back guy because he’s so focused on the action on the field, walking around in a trancelike state that renders him oblivious to his surroundings. This as opposed to Venables, who needs a get-back guy because without one he’d run barking onto the field in a fit of rage, which is even worse. It seems like a prominent and well-compensated public school employee ought to have more self-control than a frightened Doberman, right? Is that an unreasonable expectation?
Obviously both McVay and Venables possess the ability to avoid obstacles and control their own temper, at least to the standards of football, which tolerates more shouting than most professions. And presumably, McVay had no problem staying put when he was a player or an assistant coach who wasn’t important enough to rate a sideline minder. If so, McVay is choosing to give the impression that he’s incapable of staying within the boundaries. It’s possible that he just shuts off the part of his brain that cares about the sideline while he’s coaching, like a computer shutting down idle background processes, but that’s unlikely. The NFL has more rules than East Germany did, and McVay isn’t discarding any others for his immediate intellectual or emotional convenience. It’s unlikely that respecting the sideline would be the sole exception.
Therefore the get-back guy looks affected, symbolizing intensity the way driving a Lamborghini symbolizes wealth and glamour. On the surface there’s nothing wrong with coaches showing their players—and fans and broadcasters who eat up the whole football-as-paramilitary-bastion-of-masculinity ideal—that they’re focused, dedicated, and passionate. There’s a long history of silly artifice in football motivation, and the personal get-back coach certainly follows that venerable tradition.
But there has to be a way to communicate those values without looking like the team’s millionaire leader lacks the situational awareness to navigate the sideline unsupervised. McVay is intensely image-conscious; you can tell because nobody who isn’t intensely image-conscious would keep his beard so tidy. And he’s not only OK with sending the message that without another coach holding his belt loops, he’d wander into the field of play; he’s actively promoting that image.
NFL franchises have been tripping over themselves to hire the next Sean McVay, a charismatic offensive wizard and quarterback guru. Perhaps the next McVay will also pay closer attention to where he’s going as he paces the sideline.