IRVINE, Calif. — The realization didn’t come in a film session. There wasn’t some epiphany days or weeks later. Instead, unforgiving reality struck on the biggest stage of Sean McVay’s football life. And it was both brutal and instantaneous.
This is how the Los Angeles Rams coach recounts the lessons of his Super Bowl LIII loss. Like someone describing their slow motion agony of dropping a glass of red wine on white carpet – but still processing two thoughts before impact:
1. “Oh crap.”
2. “I have some immediate regrets.”
You could put that on a shirt and McVay might actually wear it. Because five months ago, he suffered one of the roughest offensive coaching performances of his career. And yet, ever since then he’s been framing it into remarkably naked perspective. About how Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots taught him something. And how people seem to be forgetting that this whole deal – learning to be a leader and a winner – is just starting for him.
“The thing that’s been consistent in all the leaders that I’ve met – business leaders, coaches – they’re constant learners,” McVay said. “There’s a security in their vulnerability that they still need to learn things. And let’s be honest, I certainly don’t have it all figured out, either.”
You have to hear McVay actually speak those words to realize he’s not feigning modesty. Because, really, how clueless can you be when you’re two years into an NFL head coaching gig and already have a 24-8 record and a Super Bowl appearance? All by the age of 33, no less. When someone with that kind of success says they don’t have it figured out, you either believe them or punch them in the ear.
With McVay, people buy that he’s continuously trying to cultivate experience. Likely because he legitimately seems to have a fetish for learning when it comes to his profession. Which might explain why he has so openly and easily embraced the discussion of his failures in the Super Bowl.
For McVay, the “oh crap” moment last February was watching the New England Patriots morph parts of their defensive scheme into something that hadn’t consistently been on tape. Mixed defensive fronts. Scrambled pass coverages. Odd personnel groups. Basically, dipping into all manner of things that didn’t readily fit their identity in 2018.
All of which delivered McVay to his immediate regrets. Well, only one regret, really: the realization that when you face New England and Belichick in the Super Bowl, you don’t ask what will be on that test. Instead, you just read every last vowel in the available material. You create answers for the unlikeliest of questions. You plan for all contingencies. Because that’s exactly what Belichick counts on you not doing. That’s why he is who he is. And that’s why the Patriots have become the gold standard in Super Bowl history.
When you don’t put in that kind of work (and the Rams didn’t), you lose a Super Bowl 13-3 with one of the worst offensive performances of your career. Then you face visitors coming to your training camp with a familiar question …
When did you realize the mistakes you made preparing for the Patriots?
“During the game,” McVay said. “Right in the middle of it.”
And the lesson?
“If you expect to adapt and evolve, [remember] the teams that did have success against you,” McVay said. “Because you bet your ass you’re going to see that game plan again.”
It should be noted, McVay isn’t downtrodden when he says things like this. Instead, he comes off more like someone who is simultaneously upset with himself and itching to show that he won’t make the same mistake twice.
That’s arguably the biggest positive for the Rams in this training camp. That the undeniably special McVay lost to arguably the best coach in NFL history in Belichick, but walked away with a significant addition to his file cabinet. Specifically, an illustration that a fearless and seasoned team can meaningfully alter its identity in just two weeks of Super Bowl preparation.
And one more lesson for good measure: There is no such thing as a meaningless contingency plan. Because not having one for every scenario is what gets you in trouble.
“The reality is I didn’t give us a chance really to have offensive production, period,” McVay said. “Whether you look at Todd Gurley. Whether you look at Jared Goff.”
To McVay’s credit, there’s something impressive about the persistence of that message. While many coaches have admitted their mistakes in Super Bowl losses, few have continued to openly process the errors for the media five months later.
And yet, McVay just keeps embracing the questions. Not because he’s trying to step up and protect anyone else. But because he actually believes he’s the person who bears the most responsibility. It was his game plan. The offensive flow was in large part manipulated by his calls. And even if players like Goff or Gurley didn’t execute, it was on McVay to make the adjustments and kickstart something.
That didn’t happen, so he was left to answer for it.
Which he has. Repeatedly, openly, almost happily. Each question offering another chance to explain what he has learned and who he has learned it from. Which, oddly, has given him even more credibility in his locker room and everywhere else in the franchise. Because when the head coach keeps dissecting his mistakes publicly, it makes it hard for anyone else to skirt their own shortcomings.
There’s no shame in failure. Or as McVay likes to say, “It doesn’t matter who is right. It only matters what is right.”
If that sounds like a pretty vulnerable statement from an NFL head coach, that’s because it is. Particularly in a league where some coaches insist on always looking like they have the right answers.
“Vulnerability is one of Sean’s greatest strengths,” Rams president Kevin Demoff said. “He’s vulnerable with the media. He’s vulnerable with the players. He admits when he screws up. He admits when he needs to get better. He encourages players to be vulnerable, staff to be vulnerable.
“The organization grows from our mistakes.”
The next few months will test that. Not only for the Rams, but for McVay specifically. Come next February, he still may not have it all figured out. But you can bet he’s counting on being a little closer than he was five months ago.
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