The Mad Scientist of the NFL
Here, what we believe in is: You either get better or you get worse. You never stay the same.” Sean McVay, the 31-year-old coach of the Los Angeles Rams, the youngest head coach in modern NFL history, is standing outside the offices of the team’s training complex in Thousand Oaks, California. He speaks with the conviction of a man who cannot, will not, stomach complacency. And he isn’t just talking about his players; he’s talking about himself. Every second is monumental
Here, what we believe in is: You either get better or you get worse. You never stay the same.”
Sean McVay, the 31-year-old coach of the Los Angeles Rams, the youngest head coach in modern NFL history, is standing outside the offices of the team’s training complex in Thousand Oaks, California. He speaks with the conviction of a man who cannot, will not, stomach complacency. And he isn’t just talking about his players; he’s talking about himself.
Every second is monumental for the first-year head coach. Five minutes later, he dashes off to a meeting, where he will labor over formations and movements and should-have-beens and better-bes. “He’s like a mad scientist,” says Chris Ashkouti, a close friend since seventh grade.
McVay has transformed the Rams from a punchline to a contender, from a 4-12 nightmare to a 6-2 first-place standing in the NFC West. He’s revitalized one of the NFL’s worst attacks into the second-highest-scoring offense. And he’s doctored Jared Goff—last year’s No. 1 overall pick, who went 0-7 as a rookie starter—into a quarterback on the rise.
But the mad scientist doesn’t want to hear any of that. Not with eight games left in the regular season.
McVay may be young: born in 1986, three years before the Rams’ last winning season in L.A.; younger than current Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth, 35, and center John Sullivan, 32; so young that Wade Phillips, his 70-year-old defensive coordinator, tweeted that the Rams have “the only staff with DC on Medicare and HC in Daycare.”
But make no mistake: McVay is as old-school as a Green Bay power sweep; he’s all about the grind.
While a senior quarterback for Marist School in suburban Atlanta, McVay led his team to the state championship despite a broken bone in his foot. Only after the title game did he finally allow himself to be seen limping across the field.
He never missed a workout while playing receiver for Miami of Ohio, whether it was in-season or out-of-season, mandatory or optional. “He was always trying to find that little extra edge, any advantage he could get,” says Tom Crabtree, a former college teammate and Green Bay tight end.
When McVay, the grandson of former 49ers GM John McVay, got his NFL start working for the Bucs in 2008, the 22-year-old furiously pedaled his bike at 3:30 a.m. from his apartment to the Tampa Bay complex in hopes of beating then-head coach Jon Gruden to work.
Diagramming plays, Gruden would tell his prodigy: Your circles are worse than mine. Go practice your circles. “He came back, and four or five days later he drew perfect circles,” says Gruden, now an ESPN Monday Night Football analyst. McVay didn’t have time for hobbies outside of football. “He was just young and hungry,” says Keith Heinrich, who played tight end for McVay on the Bucs and the United Football League’s Florida Tuskers. “You want to play hard for him.”
McVay has never been intimidated by coaching players older than himself, most recently transforming Washington’s offense as coordinator into one of the league’s best and mentoring fourth-rounder Kirk Cousins into an elite quarterback.
Of course, while climbing the ranks of Washington’s offensive staff, mostly as tight ends coach, McVay frequently popped into the office of defensive backs coach Bob Slowik, with questions about the defense. “That’s not a normal characteristic in this day and age in the coaching world,” Slowik says.
It should come as no surprise that during a Rams game against the 49ers on September 21 of this year, with his team on defense, McVay was otherwise occupied, sitting on top of a water cooler, tap-tap-tapping his tablet for offensive stats and schemes. He is a perfectionist constantly in pursuit.
Could he be the one to end the Rams’ 12-year playoff drought?
It’s raining in the second quarter against the Giants on a Sunday. Goff gets under center and surveys the defense. He takes a couple of steps back and turns to his left to face receiver Sammy Watkins. Goff rubs his left arm with his right hand and goes back under center.
The play starts. Goff retreats, executes a play-action fake to the back and throws a perfect pass—60 yards in the air—to Watkins sprinting up the center of the field for a 67-yard touchdown.
Goff had a career-high 311 passing yards and four touchdowns in the Rams’ 51-17 rout.
But coming into this season? Critics wrote him off: He’s a bust. He’s not tough enough. Now he’s completing 60 percent of his passes, 13 for touchdowns, with four interceptions. Last year he was sacked 26 times; this year 10. He even faked a handoff and ran nine yards for a touchdown in the Rams’ 33-0 win over the Cardinals.
Like his coach, Goff, who went just 11-of-21 in the Rams’ 27-17 win over Jacksonville on October 15, is still evolving.
“As a young quarterback, as a young coach, we’re going through a lot of things for the first time together,” says McVay, who served as Washington’s offensive coordinator from 2014-16. “We’ll experience the good together and then we’ll also consistently stay together when we go through some adversity and stay connected. I think that’s important to have that support and know that we believe in each other, and we’re going to work through it—both good and bad.”
Running back Todd Gurley has also flourished under McVay, scoring 10 touchdowns, rushing for 100 yards or more four times and ranking second on the Rams with 29 receptions.
There’s a new energy buzzing around the locker room. “[McVay] gives the whole team confidence,” Goff says. “No matter what the situation is—you’re up three touchdowns or down three touchdowns, you feel good about the play, and that’s rare for that feeling to happen on every play.”
Early in his time in Washington, when he had just been promoted to tight ends coach, McVay was suddenly in charge of veterans such as two-time Pro Bowler Chris Cooley and former second-rounder Fred Davis. McVay handed the tight ends pregame notes—typical for any NFL team—with final points of emphasis or minor tweaks to plays.
But these weren’t ordinary notes. McVay turned the document into a test and required players to turn it back into him before the game. He needed them to know: No matter how young he was, he was taking his job seriously and they would have to as well.
“The guys were taken aback at first,” says former Washington receiver Anthony Armstrong.
Until they began to respect their coach. “He was confident in how prepared he was for the game, but it never came off as arrogant,” Armstrong says. “He would treat a London Fletcher with the utmost respect. Then he’d treat a rookie with the utmost respect and a practice squad guy with the same level of respect.
“That’s why I think he’s so successful in L.A.,” Armstrong says. “He’s able to relate to everybody.”
To be sure, McVay is a player’s coach. He doesn’t walk into the Rams locker room like he knows all the answers. He often asks players for their input: What did you see? What do you think would be good off this formation?
That’s been more or less his approach with Goff. “I’ve always told him, with a certain play, even if I might like it, I’m not the one executing it,” McVay says. “And if you don’t like it or don’t feel comfortable with it, then maybe I’ll try to explain why. And he’ll say, ‘OK, I like it.’ Or if it’s not something that he feels comfortable with, then we don’t do it.”
“It’s about continuing to develop a rapport and a relationship where it’s not just, ‘What can I do for him?’ but what can I do to make him feel comfortable with the things that we’re asking him to do,” McVay says. “That’s a two-way street where communication goes back and forth.”
Dan Perez, Marist’s assistant head coach and offensive line coach, remembers eating lunch with McVay in the summer of 2016, in Atlanta. While eating cheeseburgers and fries at Jo’s Grille, Perez asked McVay about his offseason projects. McVay let loose like a kid bopping to his favorite lyrics, the words spilling out of him quickly. You’d think he was delivering a pregame sermon right then and there.
McVay explained he was examining substitution patterns for every NFL team, a maddening pursuit of the exact moment in the play clock when, after he puts in new offensive personnel, the opponent responds by putting in new defensive personnel.
“Are you serious?” Perez says.
“Coach,” McVay says. “I’m dead serious.”
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” Perez says. “I never would have thought of something like that.”
McVay’s mind moves many miles a minute. He’s spent hours picking the brains of Jon and Jay Gruden, Bill Callahan, the assistant head coach and offensive line coach for Washington, and now Phillips, and breaking down film with his grandfather and his father, Tim McVay, who played for Indiana. As a young boy, Sean McVay would cross paths with 49ers legends such as Jerry Rice and Steve Young, asking for any advice he could get.
Naturally curious, McVay operates almost like a journalist. He digs and digs, as a reporter would, for anything and everything that could inch his team a little closer to a breakthrough. He is obsessively in love with the process: the day-to-day drag of clawing for details, mining for advantages.
“Every day he challenges you and himself to get better,” says NFL vet Jermaine Wiggins, who played for McVay on the UFL’s Tuskers. “He brings an excitement to the field, like, ‘Every day, we’re going to have a positive day. Every day we’re going to make plays.’ As a player, that really motivates you, when your coach has just as much energy as you.”
McVay communicates the intricacies of plays with the composure and cadence of a professor, making eye contact from the left to the middle to the right side of the room to ensure every player feels like he is speaking directly to him.
“A lot of guys can do the preparation. They can sit in a dark room and prepare like crazy, but they can’t present on installation day or go into an individual period and really present the techniques and the fundamentals you are trying to get across,” Jon Gruden says. “Sean can prepare with the best of them. We burned the candles out at night preparing for games. Sean can do that and he can present.”
McVay always had the confidence to speak up among his superiors.
When Marist trailed with less than a minute left in a third-round playoff game against No. 1 seed Shaw High, the most physical team in the state, McVay had the gall to suggest to his coaches in a timeout that they let him run a naked bootleg (Marist had the ball inside the 5-yard line).
“I’m just telling you; the naked boot’s there,” McVay said to head coach Alan Chadwick, the second-winningest coach in the state. The coaches hesitated. It was a risky move. “Coach, I’m telling you; it’s there,” McVay insisted. “You better be right,” Chadwick said. “Coach, I know I’m right.”
Sure enough, McVay pulled off the play and Marist won. “That was a gutsy call,” Chadwick says. “He basically won that game for us because that was his call.”
McVay continued to make his voice heard in college, especially among older receivers. Once a play broke down in the middle of a game. Ryne Robinson, two years McVay’s senior, tucked his head down, visibly disappointed. McVay smiled, quietly asking Robinson: “Hey, what can we learn from that?”
“He was always trying to find the positive,” Robinson says. McVay was just as vocal when he was sidelined with injuries. “He was a tough dude,” says Mike Bath, former Miami of Ohio coach, now Wyoming’s running backs coach.
McVay wouldn’t even slow down during spring break, according to David Shula, who became head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals when he was 32 years old and who has known McVay since college. (Shula’s son, Chris, played with McVay in college and is now the Rams assistant linebackers coach).
McVay, Chris and a few other teammates would go to the former NFL coach’s house in Fort Lauderdale. The other boys would stay up late, clowning around, in one room. McVay politely asked for an air mattress to sleep in a separate room, the family’s study, to ensure a good night’s sleep so he’d be alert and organized for the next day.
“He was with the guys but always a little bit apart, in a good way,” David Shula says. “You could tell he was a little more mature than the other guys at that point.”
The Rams cruised to victory against the Cardinals, 33-0, back in October. The defense was dominant. Gurley was magnificent, rushing for 106 yards and a touchdown. L.A. improved to 5-2 for the first time since 2003.
You’d think they were 2-5 the way McVay downplayed any playoff predictions, any Cinderella narratives. “We haven’t arrived by any stretch,” he said after the game.
A strong candidate for Coach of the Year, McVay still moves like a player, like someone with something to prove.
“He is who he is because of a chip-on-his-shoulder mentality. He’ll never lose that. … Expectations were always extremely high for him,” says Chris Ashkouti, nodding to McVay’s being born into football royalty. “He’s always fighting to live up to those expectations.”
He demands a lot out of his players but expects just as much, if not more, out of himself.
“Watching him react after a loss was probably the thing I appreciated the most,” says Washington team president Bruce Allen. “He refocused his efforts to look for an opportunity to get better. He has a great resolve about him: ‘Let’s not make the same mistake twice.’”
The Rams lost, 27-20, to Washington in September, as linebacker Mason Foster intercepted Goff’s pass on the first play of their final drive; afterward McVay said he should have called a better play. The Rams committed multiple penalties in the fourth quarter. McVay says he could have prepared his team better: “That was something that I was disappointed in myself with.”
Four days later, the Rams bounced back to beat the 49ers, 41-39, as both teams combined for the highest-scoring game in Thursday Night Football history.
When he burned all of his first-half timeouts by early in the second quarter against the Cardinals, which prevented him from possibly challenging an official’s call on a play, McVay didn’t shy away from admitting he needed to manage timeouts better.
“More than anybody he’s willing to take accountability for things,” Goff says. “And when you see that from your head coach? You kind of take the identity of him. … I go, Man, I need to start taking accountability, and so does the other leaders and other players on the team.”
Back in high school, when Marist would lose, McVay would apologize in front of the whole squad, as if every mistake belonged to him. The following Monday at practice, he’d spend a few minutes with as many guys as he could, helping them with aspects they struggled with in the loss. They respected him for that. “Those guys would have followed him jumping off a bridge if he asked them to,” Perez says.
During film sessions with Washington, if a tight end would get chewed out for a mistake, for something McVay told him to do in practice earlier that day, McVay wouldn’t keep quiet, like some youngsters determined to climb the coaching ladder would. He’d interrupt his bosses and confess: “That’s on me. That’s my fault. I told him wrong,” Armstrong recalls. “He wasn’t afraid to do that.”
Before L.A. cut the heart out of the Giants on Sunday, the last time the Rams had beaten the Giants was October 14, 2001.
McVay was a high school sophomore.
And now? He’s guided the Rams to more touchdowns and more points than all of last season.
But stop right there. Don’t even think about saying the word “playoffs” around McVay. There’s the rest of November. There’s all of December.
There are more circles to diagram.
“We’re focused on daily improvement and daily excellence,” McVay says. “If you’re going to ask your players to do that, I think it’s important for you to personify those core beliefs. And if you’re not really living those things? I think people can feel that.”
Mirin Fader is a writer based in Los Angeles. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW, SI.com, Slam magazine and SB Nation. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.