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Sean McVay’s Biggest Coaching Challenge Yet

The reigning Super Bowl champions are in a tailspin. Now it’s up to McVay to find answers to retool a broken offense and keep his locker room together.

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As the season spirals away for the reigning Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams, the chasm between the offense and defense is becoming more clear. One side, laden with veterans, is spitting fire. The other, decimated by injuries, is out of answers. It’s as if there are two teams in one locker room, and head coach Sean McVay seems to know it.

“Not a lot of positives you can take from this,” McVay said after last Sunday’s loss to the Arizona Cardinals, the team’s third straight defeat. “I don’t know what those answers are.”

It’s stunning to hear McVay admit he doesn’t have a solution to his team’s problems, particularly its offensive struggles. The Rams have lost five of their last six games and are in last place in the NFC West, with just one win against a division opponent this season. But what is most concerning is the disconnect between McVay’s offense and the defense—and it’s a divide that’s playing out in public.

Just listen to Jalen Ramsey. The veteran cornerback has never been shy, but it’s telling to hear him boldly criticize his team’s offensive coaches, like after the Rams’ loss to the Bucs earlier this month in which L.A.’s defense had seemingly put the game away before the offense went three-and-out and gave Tom Brady and Tampa Bay another possession to win the game. “We shouldn’t come to the sideline after a big stop like that and our coaches telling us ‘We gon’ need y’all one more time,’” Ramsey said. “What the fuck? We made a big stop. Turnover on downs. [With] a minute and some change left. … We gotta have some dogs.”

It’s certainly too late to rescue this season—the Rams’ playoff chances are 6.9 percent, according to FanDuel, but it’s now worth dissecting what went wrong, particularly over the past month as the Rams fell out of contention, to determine how the Rams can mend their differences and build themselves back into a championship contender. Let’s look first at McVay’s offense.

McVay’s claim to fame as he rocketed up the coaching ranks was his offensive creativity. He was viewed as a visionary that could plan for the future and was lauded as a genius play caller—a reputation that lasted until he coached the Rams against Bill Belichick in Super Bowl Llll. That’s when McVay got goated by the GOAT. Belichick’s defensive schemes force opponents to change their tendencies by taking away their first and second options. Essentially, making a team play left-handed. The flexibility becomes an issue if the opposing coach isn’t nimble enough. McVay and an offense led by Jared Goff wasn’t that day, and the Rams lost despite holding the Patriots to just 13 points. McVay’s offense looked helpless because he was unwilling, or unable, to adjust once Belichick took away his Plan A.

In many ways, that game was a learning experience for a young coach, and we saw a different, more aggressive version of McVay in the years that followed. Especially in 2021, as he engineered an offensive overhaul by swapping Goff for quarterback Matthew Stafford.

McVay’s challenge now is that with a decimated offensive unit, he has to rely on his creativity and flexibility, and has not been able to do so. What we saw last week against the Cardinals was a rigid offensive approach that was not all that different from how McVay coached in that Super Bowl loss nearly four years ago.

The Rams’ first 15 scripted plays against Arizona looked relatively decent, and they drove downfield on a 14-play, 57-yard drive that ended with a field goal. Once the script was finished, so was the offensive production. The Rams’ next 10 possessions included five punts (three of those three-and-outs), two turnovers (one fumble that was recovered on the Rams’ 30-yard line and an interception by fill-in QB John Wolford that was returned to the Rams’ 25-yard line). The Rams scored two touchdowns (one legit scoring drive, with an assist from two J.J. Watt penalties; another in garbage time, trailing by 17 points). (The remaining possession was a kneel-down to end the first half.)

One could argue that McVay didn’t have his rib during the game with Stafford sidelined for the game while in concussion protocol. But let’s be honest: Wolford’s performance was eerily similar to Stafford’s entire season. The offensive struggles—the inability to run block and pass-protect, and a nonexistent run game are independent of who is under center. Stafford is likely to return this week against the Saints, but the offense’s other most important player, wide receiver Cooper Kupp, will not. Kupp was placed on injured reserve earlier this week after suffering an ankle injury against Arizona.

Losing Kupp is a devastating blow to an offense devoid of top-end talent elsewhere. Kupp was McVay’s only true answer this season. And even with Kupp, the offense has been a shell of its former self: Through 10 weeks, the Rams rank 30th in offensive total EPA, 30th in points scored, 32nd in yards, and 27th in turnovers. Turnovers happen. But the context of the Rams’ turnovers are particularly detrimental to the Rams defense.

The team has committed 15 turnovers this season, and opponents have turned those mistakes into 50 points. Seven of the Rams’ turnovers ended up in their own territory (including both of their turnovers last week, a strip-sack and an interception by Wolford). It’s a seemingly impossible situation to put the defense in.

Los Angeles currently ranks fourth in red zone defense; they are giving up just 22.2 points per game and are fourth in yards allowed, though that includes points given up directly by the offense or special teams—off two Stafford pick-sixes, a Stafford fumble that was returned for a touchdown against Dallas, and a blocked punt that was returned for a score against the Falcons. They currently have the NFL’s fourth-best run defense, with just 96.1 yards allowed per game.

Defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, who earned plenty of praise for his work last year—his first season working with McVay—has received his share of criticism this season as the Rams’ defensive production dipped. The Rams are generating pressure on 5.5 percent of snaps this season, down from 7.2 percent last regular season, and are particularly missing consistent pressure off the edge that would complement superstar defensive tackle Aaron Donald’s interior rush. Donald has just five sacks this season, and only one in the Rams’ last four games.

Still, an average defensive unit (Los Angeles currently ranks no. 15 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA) with above-average players like Donald and Ramsey should keep the Rams in plenty of games. The problem is when that one side of the ball is being asked to do everything. And yet, the Rams defense seems prepared to keep on carrying an uneven burden. It must be on the defense, linebacker Bobby Wagner said, to create more turnovers and score points. Giving up is not an option.

“That’s not my mentality. The season’s not over. I’m a fighter,” Wagner said when posed with an “everything that could go wrong has” question after Sunday’s loss. “We got games left … It’s on us to choose whether or not we keep playing and creating positive moments.”

And as for Morris, his players have his back.

“Rah fire,” Ramsey said repeatedly in defense of Morris’s zone scheme last week. “The fact that he is not a head coach somewhere is a blessing for us.”

Morris has an open-door policy that even offensive players take advantage of when seeking advice on how to attack certain looks. That approach works, Ramsey said. “He can tell them flawlessly, not only in his language but he can tell us in our language,” Ramsey said.

This is the Rams’ reality: Two distinct units in one locker room. No immediate relief coming for this season. Where do the Rams, and specifically McVay, go from here? McVay took time after the Super Bowl to consider his coaching future. Still the youngest head coach in the NFL at age 36, he isn’t enamored with the idea of coaching longevity, and earlier this year told reporters he doesn’t seek the type of decades-long career of someone like Belichick or Don Shula. He got married earlier this year, and has spoken about wanting to start a family and be a present father.

What else does McVay have to accomplish? Ultimately, McVay returned to the Rams and signed an extension in August after reportedly turning down a TV broadcasting deal worth around $10 million annually. The long-term question is whether it’s possible to be committed to the people but not the process. Especially when that process takes you to the deep waters, sub-.500, as is currently the case in Los Angeles.

This season is lost, but can it serve as a launching point for reinvention for McVay’s offense? Losing Kupp for an extended period of time could be the push they needed to finally establish the relationship between Stafford and veteran receiver Allen Robinson II, or a chance to experiment more with 22 personnel. Either way, changes are coming. McVay hinted as much in his most recent news conference. “What it does provide is an opportunity for us to learn about a lot of other guys from that receiver room, really our offense in general. So you have to look at it through that lens,” McVay said.

But are any adjustments enough to rehabilitate this locker room into one cohesive team with one dream, and set a foundation for 2023? It might be McVay’s biggest challenge yet.