NFL

Sean McVay has grown to become the Rams’ intellectual and emotional center

Rams coach Sean McVay celebrates the team’s Super Bowl championship with the team at the Coliseum on Wednesday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

It was so crazy. It was so risky. He was a child.

Sean McVay was so young when he became the Rams head coach in January 2017, he showed up at his introductory press conference with babysitters.

Sitting in the second row, keeping a watchful eye on the 30-year-old McVay after hurriedly flying into town that morning, were his parents and brother.

McVay was going to be the youngest coach in NFL history, and there were many, many questions.

This columnist talked to his father, Tim.

“It’s an incredible moment,” he said. “It came fast.”

Fast? You think?

Meanwhile, Gary Klein of The Times talked to his mother, Cindy, while she recounted the story of her child’s excited phone call.

“I have the job,” McVay told his parents, who were at home in Atlanta.

“You ready for this?” Cindy McVay asked.

I’ve been ready for this my whole life,” McVay said.

His whole life? Thirty years old?

It was brash. It was bold. Even for the most swaggering front office on the planet, it was awfully Ram-bunctious.

“To me, the final check mark of age is not a factor here,” said team President Kevin Demoff at the time. “This is really about Sean’s talents, his ability to lead and communicate.”

Les Snead, the team’s general manager, put it in simpler terms.

“The youth and age help him relate to young guys … it’s a young man’s business,” he said.

Rams coach Sean McVay makes his way onto the field before Super Bowl LVI.
Rams coach Sean McVay makes his way onto the field before Super Bowl LVI against the Cincinnati Bengals at SoFi Stadium on Sunday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Five years later, those statements have crystallized as cornerstones in the story of a Super Bowl champion.

Demoff was right. Snead was right. The babysitters were right.

McVay was the perfect age for a franchise that, in its second season in Los Angeles after a 22-year absence, was basically as young as him. He was able to grow with the Rams, learn with the Rams, stumble with the Rams, rise with the Rams, and eventually triumph with the Rams.

McVay has become more than the Rams’ sideshow, he’s become the entire show, the brains behind their brawny attack, the heart of their passionate play, the emotional center of their rollicking universe.

If you’re going to print a commemorative newspaper section about the Rams championship season, the commemorating must start with him. If you’re going to honor their ascension, you must understand the journey began with him.

He is not only the Rams’ most important asset, he is the most important asset in the entire National Football League. In the wake of the Rams’ 23-20 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI, he is the NFL’s true MVP.

Most Valuable Person.

On that precocious first day, McVay told the story of dining at Spago during his job interview with Demoff, owner Stan Kroenke, and former Rams star Marshall Faulk.

Wolfgang Puck approached the table to talk football with the other three as if the red-haired kid wasn’t even part of their group.

“Wolfgang kept asking, ‘Mr. Kroenke, have we found a coach?’ ” recalled McVay at the time. “I wanted to say, ‘Hey man, I’m right here!’ “

Fast, fast forward five years to Wednesday at the Coliseum, McVay screaming hoarsely into a microphone in front of thousands of championship celebrants, 36 years old and all grown up.

“Run it back!” he screamed, again and again. “Run it back.”

They cannot run it back without him, and he knows it. That’s why McVay planted a seed with The Times’ Dylan Hernández on the morning after the Super Bowl win when asked if he would be coaching next season.

“We’ll see,” he said.

He’s looking for more money, and he’ll get it. He wants more security, and he’ll have it. There’s no way he will be allowed to leave the Rams for a lucrative television job while this Rams team has a chance to win a couple more championships.

Think about it. Five years earlier, his first public words as Rams coach were being monitored by his parents. Now, for the Super Bowl champions in the entertainment capital of the world, he is calling his shots.

Think about it some more. Is there anybody else on any professional field who has been more valuable?

Rams coach Sean McVay leads cheers with people behind him.

Rams coach Sean McVay leads cheers at the Coliseum on Wednesday as the team celebrates its Super Bowl win. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“You guys hear me talk about competitive greatness until I’m blue in the face,” McVay said moments after the Super Bowl win. “That was on display in a big way. Guys being at their best when their best was required.”

Nobody has been competitively greater than McVay. During the last five years — one championship, two Super Bowl, four playoff appearances — he has been at his best when his best was required.

McVay has been to Super Bowls with two different quarterbacks, two different running games, and two different wide receiver groups (Cooper Kupp was injured and missed the first Super Bowl).

The coach has been the constant.

McVay has been to Super Bowls with two different defensive coordinators, two different defensive backfields, and two different special teams coaches and approaches.

The coach has been the constant.

In just five years, McVay has prepped and turned out four other NFL bosses — Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur, Cincinnati’s Zac Taylor, San Diego’s Brandon Staley and now Minnesota’s Kevin O’Connell.

The coach has been the constant.

“We always talk about how there is something special about being a part of something bigger than yourself,” McVay said.

He’s made everybody bigger than himself.

Start with Matthew Stafford. The quarterback had languished for 12 years in Detroit, but McVay saw enough in him to rudely discard Jared Goff — OK, coach, you handled that part poorly — and help bring Stafford to the Rams.

Rams coach Sean McVay and quarterback Matthew Stafford head to the locker room.

Rams coach Sean McVay and quarterback Matthew Stafford head to the locker room after defeating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC divisional playoffs Jan. 23. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

When Stafford was acting silly and throwing picks, McVay stood behind him. When Stafford was losing games they should have won, McVay never blamed him. So when Stafford leads the Rams on a game-winning touchdown drive in the final minutes for a Super Bowl championship, it was the coach who was leaping and screaming, his vision fulfilled.

“You put the ball in your best players’ hands when it matters most,” said McVay. “That’s what we did with Matthew and he delivered in a big way.”

Most players deliver in some fashion for McVay, because he’s honest with them and himself.

McVay built a system that has gotten the best out of previously underrated Kupp, who rose from a third-round draft pick to become Super Bowl MVP. Yet that same system wasn’t right this year for DeSean Jackson, so he was allowed to leave.

McVay built an empowering locker room culture that can handle the mercurial temperaments of stars such as Jalen Ramsey and Odell Beckham Jr. Yet when the environment no longer works for an emotional player like Marcus Peters, he is sent packing.

In a strength that could also be considered a flaw, McVay often holds himself more accountable than his players. Who can forget how he immediately took the blame for the loss to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl after the 2018 season, saying he was “outcoached” by the great Bill Belichick?

Rams coach Sean McVay takes the field.

Rams coach Sean McVay takes the field before a divisional-round playoff win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in January. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Three seasons later, McVay is considered in a small group with Belichick as one of the best coaches in the game, and yet he still weekly takes all the blame for his players. That’s something he’ll need to work on, but here’s guessing he’ll make that adjustment, just as the Rams constantly and boldly have adjusted to everything from moving a storied franchise to making every crazy move to turn that franchise into champions.

“I’m just really pleased to be associated with a group that is not afraid to shoot their shot and take chances on things we feel like is in the best interest of the football team,” McVay said. “There are a lot of rolled eyes at us, but we believe in those things and we’re going to do things that we think are in the best interest.”

That shot, those chances, those rolled eyes, they all began on that January afternoon in 2017 with an impossibly young coach in an absurdly bizarre situation.

Five years later, McVay still works in the shadow of a babysitter.

He’s 22 inches, seven pounds, sterling silver, name of Lombardi.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


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