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    Alexander: Rams’ Sean McVay still standing – and thriving again
    • January 14, 2024

    DETROIT — The retirement of college coaching icon Nick Saban, and the firings (let’s be clear about it) of Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll this week are a good reason for a reminder that, exactly one year ago, Sean McVay was seriously contemplating stepping away from the business.

    He hadn’t even reached his 37th birthday, yet in his first five seasons he’d reached two Super Bowls and won one, as well as three division titles and more than 60% of his games. He was still the youngest coach in the NFL, and yet he was facing burnout after an injury-racked 5-12 season and an uncertain future for his team, the general consensus being that general manager Les Snead had paid a heavy price for that Lombardi Trophy of the season before.

    “This has been years. This isn’t a new thing,” he told reporters at the end of last season. “(Making) sure that this joy, this zest, this ability to be able to do the things at the level that you know you’re capable of, how do you not let the challenges and the grind and the competitor in you … how do you not let that change the dynamic of who you want to be as a leader in those types of things? And that’s kind of where I’m at.”

    Now look at them. McVay’s Rams are back in the postseason tournament, and their Wild Card Weekend meeting with the Detroit Lions on Sunday night – aka Matthew Stafford’s Return – may be the most anticipated first-round matchup of the weekend. The Rams were 10-7 in the regular season, as those bills didn’t turn out to be so steep after all, and McVay seems to again be having the time of his life, having apparently figured out the work-life balance issue. (Maybe having a baby in the household helps.)

    Oh, and McVay isn’t even the youngest coach in the NFL any more. Jerod Mayo, the New England Patriots’ replacement for Belichick, assumes that job at the age of 37. (For the record, McVay turns 38 in a little more than a week.)

    So it was haunting, almost, that McVay – old enough to have his own coaching tree, still young enough to respect his elders – spent a good part of his Friday availability this week telling the reporters on site his feelings about the bombshells that had rocked the football coaching world in recent days.

    “I don’t know Coach Saban too well, but I have tremendous respect for him from afar,” McVay said. “What he’s done (at Alabama) is undeniable. We’ve had a little bit of interactions, but he’s as good as it gets and his résumé speaks for itself. And then (Rams pass game specialist) Jake Peetz worked with him, and I’ve heard so many great things and a lot of the things that he shared that they did, it’s like, oh man, we should implement that.”

    His interactions with Belichick and Carroll, of course, were more frequent, Carroll as a division rival in Seattle (with a 10-5 record in McVay’s favor, including a series sweep this year) and Belichick in two head-to-head meetings: A 13-3 loss in Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, in February of 2019, and a 24-3 victory at home during the pandemic season of 2020.

    “You start in this business and you’re a fan of the coaches,” McVay said. “And I had such respect and admiration (for Belichick), and then obviously it was a really humbling experience in the Super Bowl in (’19). But the relationship that we’ve been able to develop, the way that you can almost feel like he’s done so much for this game … it almost felt like he was giving back to the game with the information that he shares and how he’s always treated me. And that sure means a lot.

    “But (it’s) just the amount of the work capacity, the consistent stamina that he’s had, the way that he’s been able to develop players, coaches, and people around him. And then the results are one thing, but it’s just the consistency over time. And then you talk to (Rams offensive line coach) Ryan Wendell and you talk to (tight ends coach) Nick Caley and (Seahawks offensive coordinator and former Ram assistant) Shane Waldron that have really worked with him year in and year out and the admiration, but just how impressive everything that he can do and that he’s done and that he still does it at such a high level.

    “The game is better for these guys, and really a lot of the same things (can be said) for Coach Carroll. But these guys are what make the game special from a coach’s perspective and I know they love it. And this game has really been good to me, and I appreciate the way that those guys have been towards me as well.”

    It has been a learning experience for McVay over these past seven seasons, and part of that has been a willingness – OK, sometimes an over-willingness – to take the blame for his team’s failures. But I’m convinced it’s an important part of his coaching technique, to take the heat publicly but make sure his players understand exactly what needs to change.

    He acknowledges now that he could have handled Jared Goff’s final days as a Ram far differently, but maybe that process was necessary for both Goff and the team that drafted him to get to better places, which has led to Sunday’s showdown.

    “I think Jared has said it himself: The experience of being traded, which hurt, built a different resilience in him,” NBC’s Mike Tirico said on a midweek conference call. “He feels like he’s a stronger football player, stronger individual for what he’s gone through.”

    McVay said early this week that with “four years of great experiences (with Goff), I have much more appreciation and perspective than I probably did at the time. … I just think (it’s) growing as a person, handling every situation the way that you want to with perspective, respect, appreciation. The (things) that I’ll never run away from are mistakes that I’ve made in previous instances. But when you look back on it, (there’s) the gratitude for those four years, all the good memories that we had.

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    “And then when you end up making a change that ended up being difficult … could it have been handled better on my end? Absolutely. I’ll never run away from that. But the further you get away from it, the more that you try to grow as a man, as a person, as the leader that you want to become. He deserved better than the way that it all went down. I’ll acknowledge that. I think he knows that too. I’m not afraid to admit to those things, but I think we’re all better being able to look back on those things and I do have more appreciation for him as time goes on.”

    It has brought them both to this place and this meeting. And isn’t it a good thing, for the Rams and for their fans, that McVay didn’t step away after all when the temptation arose?

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    ​ Orange County Register