Super Bowl history at stake in Bill Belichick vs. Sean McVay duel

ATLANTA -- For a few moments this week, Bill Belichick and Sean McVay shared a stage, and it was tempting to draw some easy conclusions. Belichick wore a navy blue suit, McVay a league-issued team warmup jacket, the elder and the wunderkind prepared to set some kind of record: We will have either the oldest or youngest winning head coach in Super Bowl history come Sunday night.

Don't be fooled by outward appearances. Belichick might be twice McVay's age, and McVay may speak thousands of words more than Belichick does in public. But the gaps in their demeanor and their experience -- the Super Bowl will be just the fourth postseason game McVay has coached, while this will be Belichick's ninth Super Bowl as a head coach -- make it easy to forget that Belichick and McVay are not all that dissimilar.

The two have struck up a professional friendship -- McVay said he was like a "googly-eyed schoolgirl" about Belichick texting him after a game -- and both come from football-steeped families. Belichick's father, Steve, from whom he learned to break down film, was a college football coach and scout, with a long stint at the U.S. Naval Academy. McVay's grandfather, John, was the 49ers' general manager during the San Francisco 49ers' dynasty of the 1980s and 1990s, with coaches Bill Walsh and George Seifert. The younger McVay never met Walsh, but his grandfather has shared insights into how Walsh constructed and managed his teams.

Belichick did know Walsh, back when Belichick was the wunderkind -- before McVay was even born. When he was the age McVay is now -- 33 -- Belichick was the New York Giants' defensive coordinator under Bill Parcells, coaching Lawrence Taylor, a year away from winning his first Super Bowl ring. The Giants, with Belichick and Parcells, beat Walsh's 49ers twice in the playoffs. Belichick was 39 when, after winning his second ring with the Giants, he coached his first season with the Cleveland Browns.

The generational passing of the torch was an undercurrent of the entire 2018 season, as the NFL enjoyed the emergence of a new group of young stars like Jared Goff and Patrick Mahomes, while the old guard of Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers continued to excel as their careers near their ends. A victory by the youngest coach to ever take a team to the Super Bowl -- and one who has turned around a franchise in just two seasons -- over one who has lorded over and bewitched the NFL for two full decades would seem an appropriate conclusion to that story arc.

But that is an oversimplification. McVay has undoubtedly transformed the Rams and brought much-needed excitement to a franchise still finding its footing in Los Angeles. His importance to the Rams has transcended the field.

The same can be said for Belichick, who has his fingerprints on every element of the Patriots' operation. His challenge as he has accumulated experience and years is different, but no less weighty than McVay's. While McVay had to inject the Rams with a better offense and overall direction, Belichick has had to keep the Patriots fresh and refreshed year after contending year. It is the NFL's version of a first-world problem, but it is a problem that has bedeviled plenty of other teams, and it is the next hurdle McVay will have to face, if he's so lucky.

Belichick has remained at the very top of the game -- he has redefined what the top even looks like -- by vacuuming up information from the coaches with whom he consults, and then shape-shifting his team. All the tinkering, the tweaking -- and, obviously, the omnipresence of Tom Brady -- means the Patriots don't go through full-scale rehabilitations like the Rams did after firing Jeff Fisher in 2016. They go through a nearly constant series of tune-ups instead.

From the start of his career, Belichick has essentially constructed his own independent study program in coaching. When he first began in Cleveland, he instructed each of his assistants to ask members of other coaching staffs what their practice routines were like. There were trips to visit Jimmy Johnson to discuss draft strategy. He once did a deep dive on the Naval Academy's running game. He has talked defense with Nick Saban and spread-option offense with Urban Meyer.

Last week, when Belichick noted that Wade Phillips had not changed his defense, while Belichick has, it sounded like a thinly-veiled shot at Phillips. But there was a germ of truth there, too. During the first iteration of the Patriots dynasty nearly 20 years ago, the team relied on the 3-4 defense that Belichick also used with the Giants. Later, they were in a 4-3 more often. And Belichick has routinely made the case that the designation doesn't matter anymore, because spread offenses force teams to be in nickel defenses. In December, the Patriots started using an "amoeba" defense, with one down lineman and a cluster of linebackers and defensive backs, after not using it at all in the first three months of the season. At the start of the dynasty, the Patriots were run-heavy. Then Belichick acquired Randy Moss, and New England embraced a wide-open passing attack. Now, the Pats' offense is usually constructed around runs and short passes that quickly come out of Brady's hands.

All of this is by design. When he became the Patriots' head coach after the 1999 season, Belichick was given complete control of the team. Belichick comes from the coaching tree of Bill Parcells, who insisted he should be able to buy the groceries if he was expected to cook the meal.

"Bill is a dinosaur," said Michael Lombardi, a former personnel executive who worked under Belichick, Bill Walsh and Al Davis and is the author of "Gridiron Genius: A Master Class in Winning Champions and Building Dynasties in the NFL." "He is a dying breed of a true head coach in the NFL. There are very few coaches that run all three phases of the game. I don't mean just listen -- he runs all three phases. If the running backs coach didn't show up tomorrow, Bill would be the running backs coach. If the general manager didn't show up, Bill would fill that role. Bill could be the pro personnel director. It's a dying breed."

This is one of the places where Belichick and McVay diverge. The most important -- and among the most telling -- decisions McVay made since going to the Rams were in assembling his staff. He hired Phillips, the longtime defensive coordinator. He retained John Fassel, one of the league's most respected special teams coaches. As a young coach, those hires were quick signals from McVay that he was smart enough to know what he did not know. So he farmed out parts of his team to people with more experience and expertise, while McVay tailored the offense -- the top-scoring unit in the NFL over the last two years -- to Jared Goff. McVay is not only not shopping for the groceries, he is even allowing others to do critical parts of the prep work for the meal.

"Sean had embraced the subcontractor role, and he's growing into the head-coaching role," said Lombardi, who worked for McVay's grandfather with Walsh and says he has a soft spot for Sean. "He's confident in his ability. I admire Sean's willingness to learn and not feel like he knows everything. Those are unbelievable qualities to have."

Still, as when Belichick arrived in Foxborough, McVay was charged with changing the culture of the organization. When Rams management interviewed McVay two years ago, they did not talk about Xs and Os in their meetings, said Kevin Demoff, the team's chief operating officer and executive vice president of football operations. They could see on tape what he'd done in Washington. While many offensive coordinators get top jobs because they worked with great quarterbacks, the Rams thought, McVay took a Redskins offense that was near the bottom of the league and, working with a new starter in Kirk Cousins, elevated the attack into the top 10.

But what the Rams wanted to know about McVay, Demoff says now, was whether he had the emotional intelligence and awareness to handle what was coming -- managing a team that was new in town, with a young quarterback already being labeled a bust, while playing in a temporary home for a few more years. The offense was important. But the Rams needed a transformational figure, a leader of men.

"Sean gets a ton of credit for being a great offensive mind, but his true path to stardom is, he's the best communicator I've ever been around," Demoff said. "He has natural leadership qualities; whether he was a football coach, the CEO of a tech company, in education, I think he would be a natural leader in any endeavor he chose. Yes, he happens to be a special football coach and great on offense and great at coming up with game plans. But what jumped out right away was his ability to clearly communicate and make you sit up in your chair a little straighter."

Belichick, of course, has been making the NFL pay attention for the last 20 years. On Sunday, we may find out who takes it from here.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter at @judybattista.