SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Sean McVay stood against the wall of a dimly lit hallway behind the visitors' locker room at Levi's Stadium on Saturday night, his face still flushed with frustration, his mind racing with regret.
Twenty minutes earlier, McVay had been overcome with nausea as he stood on the sideline watching Robbie Gould's 33-yard field goal as time expired give the San Francisco 49ers a 34-31 victory over the Los Angeles Rams. The devastating defeat knocked the defending NFC champions out of playoff contention and sent McVay into what will surely be a protracted and relentless stretch of soul-searching. Now, as he tried to perform the early stages of the autopsy and break down what had gone wrong, the third-year coaching phenom looked 33 going on 83.
"I'm proud of the way we battled and fought, but I'm sick that we didn't come out with the result, and I'm sick that we won't be in the postseason," McVay told me, shaking his head twice for emphasis. "Our season will end next week, and it's a sickening feeling -- and one that will drive me... Every. Single. Freaking. Day... until next season arrives, and we finally get to come out and take another swing."
This wasn't the only time McVay had felt tormented by a Rams (8-7) defeat in the past several months, but this one was particularly crushing, and not just because it slammed the door on their postseason dreams.
Unlike in L.A.'s shockingly flaccid Super Bowl LIII defeat to the New England Patriots last February -- or the 20-7 beatdown it suffered against the Niners in mid-October, or last Sunday's desultory thrashing at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys -- the realRams had shown up in Santa Clara on Saturday, and at times their precision and mettle were a sight to behold.
Pushed to the brink of elimination while facing a formidable 49ers (12-3) team which can wrap up the NFC's No. 1 seed with a road victory against the Seattle Seahawks next Sunday, McVay had the Rams ready to play, and their urgency was palpable. He came up with a bold and brainy gameplan that put Jared Goff, a prototypical pocket passer, on the move for much of Saturday's game -- and the fourth-year quarterback delivered with a performance which, aside from one glaring blemish, ranked with the finest of his four-year career.
The Rams stunned the crowd of 70,103 by taking a 14-3 lead on the first play of the second quarter, on Todd Gurley's second touchdown run. After the Niners began to assert themselves, L.A. twice fought back from second-half deficits, ultimately tying the game at 31 on Greg Zuerlein's 52-yard field goal with 2:30 remaining.
And then, tantalizingly, it was there for the taking.
Twice, in the final two minutes, the Rams' defense forced San Francisco into third-and-16 holes, seemingly setting the stage for Goff to get the ball back, with visions of a game-winning drive spinning through the quarterback's head.
Eight yards and 32 seconds later, Gould came jogging onto the field and nailed his game-winner, provoking a raucous red-and-gold celebration, and sending the Rams spiraling into an offseason of introspection and uncomfortable unrest.
"We have a lot to fix," Goff (27 of 46, 323 yards, two touchdowns and one cataclysmic interception) said softly as we spoke at his locker after the game. "I have a lot to fix, and I'm gonna do my part. Our standards are a lot higher than what we put on the field for most of this year. We made the playoffs the past two years, and now we won't be playing past next week, and it's gonna eat at me."
When Goff looks back at the 2019 season, a campaign which began with him signing a lucrative contract extension, one play in particular will be hard to swallow. It happened with 56 seconds to go in the first half, five plays after Raheem Mostert's 16-yard touchdown run had pulled the 49ers to within 21-17.
Facing a second-and-10 on the San Francisco 48, Goff took a shotgun snap and, for one of the few times all evening, stayed stationary in the pocket. He soon felt pressure from Nick Bosa, the Niners' game-changing rookie edge rusher, and decided to dump the ball to running back Malcolm Brown and live to fight another down.
San Francisco, however, was in man-to-man coverage, and magnificent middle linebacker Fred Warner jumped the pass like an over-caffeinated tourist leaping aboard a cable car on Powell Street. Forty-six yards later, the Niners had a halftime lead -- and Goff, who'd thrown so many sublime passes before and would deliver so many others after, had an image embedded into his psyche that won't be easy to shake in the coming months.
"The pick six -- I'm gonna think about that for a long time," Goff said. "That's a mistake I can't make in that situation. I was just trying to get rid of the ball, and I knew it was man (coverage)... and I just can't make that mistake. I think you learn from mistakes, and that's one I feel like I won't make again -- but it's one that I should never have made to begin with.
"It's about how you respond, and after we do everything we can to beat Arizona (next Sunday), we've all got to get to work."
Though the Rams didn't exactly collapse in 2019, suffering narrow defeats to the Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers (along with Saturday's) that eventually squashed their postseason hopes, McVay is realistic about the challenge that lies ahead. Though the franchise is short on draft picks (having traded their 2020 and 2021 first-round choices for cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who intercepted one first-half pass and forced another on Saturday) and tight on cap space, major changes could be coming.
Multiple sources expect there to be a shakeup on McVay's coaching staff, perhaps including veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. There could also be significant turnover in the personnel department. As for the roster, Gurley's high salary and declining production may make him a cap casualty, and other key players could be traded or released as the organization builds around Goff on offense and star defensive tackle Aaron Donald on defense.
"I don't know exactly what's going to happen," one Rams veteran said Saturday night, "but I'd expect some major changes around here in the next few months."
On Thursday afternoon, as he looked ahead to Saturday's showdown with the Niners, McVay conceded that the 2019 season had been a challenging one.
"When you prepare as hard as we do and put it on the line for three hours every week, every time you don't come away with a win, it makes you sick," he'd said as we stood outside one of the team's temporary trailers at Cal Lutheran University. "Most people, when they experience that, are afraid to have that feeling again -- but you can't fear failure. You have to fight through that and charge ahead and put it on the line the next week, over and over again.
"This year, it's been good for me. As sickening as it is, it's given me a new perspective and appreciation for what's important and who our core is. I've grown as a leader, because of the scars.
"And whatever happens on Saturday, I promise you this -- I'm coming out swinging. We're gonna let our nuts hang and see what happens."
What happened in Santa Clara was that the Rams were ready to rock, and Goff showed poise and precision in executing McVay's top-shelf gameplan, and the defending conference champions came very, very close to extending their season, if only for a little while.
Instead, they fell just short, gifting Warner a touchdown on Goff's ghastly gaffe and failing to stop a pair of third-and-16 passes, and they left their young coach gutted and infuriated and, yes, feeling like he wanted to vomit.
"It all makes me sick," McVay said.
"It might be worse," he said. "At least, right now, it feels that way. It's hard to say. Every single loss, you feel like you lose a piece of your soul."
A few minutes later, McVay's quarterback offered a very similar outlook on Saturday's defeat, and on a season of searing disappointment.
"Yeah, it's very sickening," Goff said. "It is sickening that we won't be able to continue our season next week. Now it's, how do you regroup? How do you get better? How do you make it so that we don't have this feeling again?"
In McVay's case, the answer will likely be complicated -- but the motivation that fuels it is as basic as it comes.
A few minutes after boarding one of the team buses, as it pulled out of Levi's and headed into the gloomiest night of a wrenching campaign, McVay sent me one last thought via text message: I promise this will only serve to drive an absolute maniac in me to be better.
Rest assured, it won't be subtle.