ATLANTA – He had them at hello.
Sean McVay was two weeks shy of his 31st birthday when the Rams hired him as their head coach two years ago.
He had done an impressive job as the Washington Redskins’ offensive coordinator the previous three years, transforming quarterback Kirk Cousins into a good enough player to command a $28 million-a-year contract on the free-agent market.
Still, he was pretty much a kid, younger than many of the players he would be leading. Could he really get them to buy what he was selling?
Family connections – his paternal grandfather, John McVay, had been the San Francisco 49ers’ vice-president of football operations during the ‘80s and early ‘90s when they won five Super Bowls -- had helped pave the way for every job opportunity he’d had to that point.
But now, he was on his own. Now, he had to convince a locker room full of men who were coming off a 4-12 season that he knew what the hell he was doing; that he wasn’t just John McVay’s grandkid.
“If anything, I think [his age] was an asset,’’ said Rams center John Sullivan, who is 5 ½ months older than McVay. “He’s been able to get up in front of the team and give a very complete speech for a team meeting, and then he’s able to make rap references in order to connect with the guys.
“Everybody is aware of his age. Nobody is going to tell you, he doesn’t seem like a 33-year-old. He does. But he just seems like the most competent 33-year-old ever, and the best guy to lead your football team.’’
Last month, after 32 years as an NFL assistant, 60-year-old Vic Fangio finally got his first head-coaching opportunity when he was hired by the Denver Broncos.
McVay is well aware that, if not for his last name, he almost certainly wouldn’t be the Rams’ head coach right now because he wouldn’t have been hired by the Redskins in 2010 and wouldn’t have been hired by family friend Jon Gruden right out of college to be the Tampa Bay Bucs’ assistant wide receivers coach.
“I’m not naïve enough to think I would’ve gotten these opportunities if it wasn’t for the legacy my grandfather was able to establish by working hard and treating people the right way and always treating people first,’’ McVay said.
His name may have opened the door for him, but it’s been McVay who has made the most of his opportunities, including this biggest one with the Rams.
He inherited a 4-12 team and has them in the Super Bowl in just his second year on the job. The Rams finished first in the league in scoring last season and second this year.
McVay’s impressive – and rapid -- success has prompted other teams to go shopping for young, forward-thinking offensive coaches.
The guy already has his own coaching tree for God’s sake. Matt LaFleur, who was the Rams’ offensive coordinator in 2017, was hired last month to be the Packers’ new head coach.
Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor, brother of Eagles quarterbacks coach Press Taylor, is expected to be named the Bengals’ head coach after Sunday’s game.
Earlier this week, the Rams’ defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, suggested teams might want to consider his son Wes for any future head-coaching vacancies.
“Wes is a young offensive coach [he spent the last five years as the Redskins’ tight ends coach] who knows Sean if anybody’s looking for a coach,’’ Phillips said.
McVay won the Rams player over immediately with his communication skills and sharp offensive mind. He might go a little overboard sometimes with the catchy slogans and mantras – “we not me’’ is one of his favorites. But hey, it works.
“What’s great about football is it’s [about] everybody being on the same page,’’ McVay said. “You show me a good team and I’ll show you a team that enjoys each other, but also communicates really well.’’
“Since day one, he’s had the whole room locked in and bought in,’’ said Rams linebacker and core special teams player Bryce Hager, who is the son of former Eagles linebacker Britt Hager. “If you didn’t know how old he was, you wouldn’t think twice about it. The way he talks, the way he carries himself, age has nothing to do with it.’’
“He’s the best; he’s brilliant,’’ Sullivan said. “He communicates well. He’s innovative in terms of schemes. And more than just being a brilliant head coach in terms of schemes and X’s and O’s, he’s so relatable and so charismatic.
“Most of the time, when guys are brilliant like that, they can’t connect with people. Sean is able to do both. And that’s what sets him apart. Look, maybe there are other guys like that. But I’ve never met one.’’
McVay’s coaching acumen surfaced early. December of 2003, to be exact. He was the senior quarterback for Marist School in, ironically enough, Atlanta, where he grew up.
Marist was trailing by five points with 20 seconds left in a Georgia 4A quarterfinal game. McVay, who had spent most of the previous week studying film of Marist’s opponent, suggested to his coach during a timeout that they call a play they had never run before – a naked bootleg out of a power formation.
The play worked to perfection. McVay caught the defense completely off-guard and scored the winning touchdown. Two weeks later, he led his team to a state championship, playing the second half of the title game with a broken foot.
McVay a triple option quarterback who became the first player in Georgia high school history to throw and run for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons, beat out none other than Calvin “Megatron’’ Johnson to win the George 4A offensive player of the year that year. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a fraction of the talent Johnson had.
He ended up going to Miami of Ohio where he played in a total of 26 games and caught 39 passes.
Within a week after his first Rams team began its offseason workout program, McVay knew every player by name. “I didn’t even know all of the coach’s names in a week,’’ Phillips said.
The Rams’ roster includes some high-maintenance players, including defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters. But all of them have blended in well.
“It comes down to transparency and knowing how you want your team to be run,’’ Suh said. “Coach McVay does an amazing job of that.’’
“I’d like to believe our players feel they have some ownership,’’ McVay said. “It’s not necessarily what we know. It’s what they know and what they feel comfortable executing. I don’t think we ever want to lose that perspective.