The jaw-dropping youth of the Rams' newest sideline savior is just one of the things that makes him different from your average head coach.
By Michael Silver | Published Jan. 3, 2018
LOS ANGELES -- As Sean McVay headed home from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on a sunny Sunday evening in mid-September, his black BMW 750i exiting the interstate and traversing the north slope of the Santa Monica Mountains, the Rams' 31-year-old head coach was 1,400 feet above sea level, and as low as he had been in a long, long time.
McVay had just suffered the first defeat of his career, a 27-20 heartbreaker. He had fallen short against the Washington Redskins, the franchise that had employed him for the previous seven seasons, and Jay Gruden, for whom he'd served as a hotshot offensive coordinator from 2014 through '16. Worst of all, while the outside world might have been tempted to pin the setback on second-year quarterback Jared Goff, who'd thrown a late interception, or chalk it up to the growing pains of a team coming off a 4-12 season, McVay knew better: In a high-stress situation that called for excellence, he had underperformed. After the game, McVay had said as much to his players in the locker room, telling them, "I feel like I let you guys down today." And now, sashaying his way across Mulholland Drive -- atop the hillside that served as the setting for the final verse of Tom Petty's iconic ballad "Free Fallin' " -- McVay, in a mental and emotional sense, prepared to leave this world for a while.
By the time he pulled up to the driveway of his six-bedroom home in Encino Hills, with a majestic balcony overlooking the San Fernando Valley, McVay, like "Get Out" protagonist Chris Washington, had descended into his own "Sunken Place." He did his best to carry on conversations with his live-in girlfriend, Veronika Khomyn, and his college buddy and housemate, Rams assistant linebackers coach Chris Shula. He robotically reached down to pet Kali, his and Veronika's precocious pit bull, as she greeted him at the front door. Yet McVay wasn't really there; for the next several hours, he was awash in a spin cycle of self-flagellation.
You choked, McVay told himself. You had a plan, and you got behind, and you panicked. There was no flow, no rhythm, and you started pressing, running things that made no sense. It was horrible. You lost your mind against those guys. You make me wanna puke.
Eventually, McVay drifted off to sleep, his mind still wrought with deep, dark dissatisfaction. Then the alarm went off -- at 3 a.m. sharp -- and McVay arose a new man. He felt energized, upbeat, even confident. We've got a game in three days, he thought. And we can't let the Redskins beat us twice.
An hour later, McVay was back in his office at the Rams' temporary training facility in Thousand Oaks, excitedly drawing up a game plan to attack the San Francisco 49ers' defense. L.A. would go on to win that "Thursday Night Football" clash in Santa Clara by a 41-39 score -- the team's second 40-plus-point output in McVay's first three games -- offering further evidence that these were not your big brother's Rams.
Soon, the football world would be fully clued in to one of the NFL's most stunning transformations in recent memory. While McVay might be a brutally harsh self-critic, he has nudged, nurtured and energized the Rams with a deftly divine touch, infusing a formerly moribund operation with a joie de vivre that has extended into January.
The Rams (11-5) secured their first winning season since 2003 and the NFC West title, which vaults them into the postseason for the first time in 13 years. After averaging just 14 points per game in 2016 -- by far the league's worst output -- L.A. finished this year atop the NFL rankings at a 29.9-points-per-game clip.
"They've had an incredible turnaround, and you have to give it up for Sean," says Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider, whose team was essentially dethroned as division kingpin by the Rams in Week 15. "People rave about his work ethic, his creativity and his ability to communicate, and for a guy who's that young, it's really, really impressive."
Even in a region that doesn't impress easily, McVay is generating palpable buzz. As evidenced by the "McVay Is The Way" T-shirts being displayed at the Coliseum, there's a new star in Tinseltown -- and the wunderkind whom former Redskins tight end Chris Cooley describes as a "football savant" has a chance to captivate this area like no coach since Pat Riley of the "Showtime" Lakers in the '80s.
"Anybody that spends five minutes with Sean McVay comes away from it and goes, 'Man, that kid's not 31,' " says veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who signed with the Rams last March after a long tenure with the Cincinnati Bengals -- to play for a head coach more than four years his junior. "It's kind of the same as when you're around a truly great player, a future Hall of Famer. You hear people talk about Jonathan Ogden or Anthony Muñoz or Deion Sanders, and they say, 'You knew from the beginning this guy was gonna be special. You could just tell he's different.' That's how it is with Sean."
And that's precisely how it was for the Rams player most impacted by McVay's arrival in L.A.