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Was Sean McVay ever as good as people said he was?

Baltimore Ravens v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

“Maybe the worst thing to ever happen to Sean McVay was that non-call pass interference penalty that helped send the LA Rams to the Super Bowl.” - Me just now.

On January 1, 2017, the Rams were not preparing for the postseason. Not even close. At 4-12, with the 32nd ranked offense in the NFL by nearly every metric, LA (a city they had only been reacquainted with for a year) was preparing to find its next head coach after firing Jeff Fisher less than a month earlier. On January 12, they made McVay the youngest head coach in modern league history and set the stage for creating the most influential offensive unit of the last three years.

But with the added benefit of hindsight — namely that the Rams are now 6-5 with one of the worst starting QBs in the league, ranked 14th in scoring, 20th in points per drive, and rapidly slipping in DVOA to the point where now Mitchell Trubisky is nipping at their heals for when the next rankings come out — was McVay the main reason for their turnaround? And is LA’s offense just as easy to being exposed as historically popular offenses such as the wildcat, pistol and/or run-pass option that has mostly been eradicated since it helped the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers meet for the NFC Championship game five years ago?

I’m not the scheme or Xs and Os expert to answer all the intricate questions within that bigger picture query, but by the numbers, it appears that McVay’s Rams were pretty easily broken. And it’s not hard to see why they went from 32 to 1 and back to the middle of the pack.

In 2017, Fisher surrounded a rookie Jared Goff with Kenny Britt, Tavon Austin, and Brian Quick at receiver. Those three receivers were replaced with Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp. They also drafted Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee to replace on Lance Kendricks at tight end.

The changes on the offensive line were perhaps even bigger, replacing Greg Robinson at left tackle with Andrew Whitworth and Tim Barnes at center with John Sullivan. Robinson rebuilt his career a bit with the Cleveland Browns, but Whitworth is a two-time first team All-Pro. Sullivan never won any accolades but is well respected around the league and Barnes never played again other than one game appearance for the 49ers in 2017. The team also retained its best two offensive linemen from the Fisher era — Rodger Saffold and Rob Havenstein — while upgrading right guard from Cody Wichmann (hasn’t played since) to Jamon Brown.

Those are just the personnel changes of note, but there’s a lot more to it.

Number one: Regression is foolproof. If you’re the worst anything in the NFL one season there is an exceptionally high likelihood that you will improve by the next season. The phrase “there’s nowhere to go but up” actually means something. It’s rare to see any team remain as the worst for more than one season.

I read about this in the book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. When you praise someone for a great job on something — in this case let’s say it’s for one play in a game — and expect the result to repeat or get better, you’re almost certain to be setting that player up for disappointment because the next play is far more likely to be worse than better. Why? You just did your best. Yes, it’s possible and even probable that with work you will improve over the long haul, but play to play, you are setting yourself up for disappointment if you only hope to get better each time.

It works the same when you do your worst. If it’s your worst play, your worst game, or your worst season, you are far more likely to do better on the next play than you are to do the same or worse. This is the same principle as “Buy high” or “Buy low” on a free agent or trade candidate. I really dislike going after a player who just had a career-best season. If it’s the career-best, it’s more likely to remain the career-best (not in every case of course, like very early in your career) than it is to be topped.

I don’t like the term “common sense” very much but that does seem to qualify as a logical expectation. The Rams were the worst team in the NFL in 2016, it is likely that they will be not-the-worst in 2017.

Of course, the Rams weren’t just “not the worst,” they were very good in 2017. They went 11-5 and finished first in scoring. The main factors here:

  • Replace a bad coach like Fisher with anyone who knows more about offense.
  • Replace 9 starts by Case Keenum and 7 by a rookie Goff with bad personnel and coaching with 16 starts by a more experienced Goff, better personnel, better coaching.
  • Replace your top 3 bad wideouts with 3 good-to-great wideouts.
  • Replace the two most important positions on the line with two good-to-great players.

I think we considered McVay to be going into a bad situation with LA in 2017, but it was actually quite appealing now that we look at it again. They had a young quarterback, lots of money being poured into a franchise that was trying to win back the LA market, and regression aided by major personnel upgrades. I have yet to even mention Todd Gurley, a weapon that was utterly useless in the hands of Fisher and perfect for the intended plan by McVay and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur.

Overall the Rams improved from 32nd in points to 1st in points, but by DVOA the jump was from 32 to 7. Still really impressive, but a bit less so. They were 7th in passing DVOA and 10th in rushing DVOA — which is an interesting ranking given that Gurley led the NFL in total yards in 2017 and was often cited as the “real MVP.”

Less talked about: The Minnesota Vikings improved from 26th in offensive DVOA in 2016 to sixth in 2017, ahead of McVay’s Rams. They were third in passing DVOA behind the arm of .... Keenum, strangely enough. Perhaps a sign that with a couple of great receivers and an improved offensive line, quarterbacks do look a lot better.

That effort even led to a head coaching job for Pat Shurmur again, though one that is almost certainly about to end soon.

In 2017, the Rams were ranked lower in passing DVOA than Keenum’s Vikings, Carson Wentz/Nick FolesEagles, and just a hair ahead of Alex Smith’s Chiefs.

They were ranked lower in rushing DVOA than the Cleveland Browns and the Browns ranked 32nd overall in offensive DVOA.

The improvement to 11-5 got LA a division title and a home game against the Atlanta Falcons in the wild card round, a team that was just a few spots behind the Rams in offense and were doing so with Steve Sarkisian as the offensive coordinator — a job he only held through 2018. The Falcons went up 13-0 early and won the game 26-13. Atlanta’s 26th-ranked defense (20th against both the pass and run by DVOA) held Goff to 24-of-45 passing and forced punt-punt-punt-fumble-punt on LA’s first five drives.

It was an awful day for McVay against the A, but improvement was obvious and 2018 was going to be a banner year for the the Rams.

For awhile.

The Rams let Watkins go and traded for Brandin Cooks, giving him $81 million despite both the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots seeming undisturbed to let him go. They replaced Brown at guard with Austin Blythe, a seeming revelation who had come from obscurity to play like one of their best linemen.

There weren’t many other personnel changes of note on offense other than having to replace Kupp after eight games with Josh Reynolds once Kupp tore his ACL. The Rams were an offensive Gambit (I don’t like Juggernaut) with Kupp but still put up 90 points in the following two games against the Seahawks and Chiefs.

And as I’ve noted several times before, LA was never again the same after that 54-51 win over Kansas City on Monday Night Football.

Through 11 games, the Rams were 10-1, ranked 3rd in points, 4th in passer rating, and 7th in yards per carry. (Those statistical categories aren’t my preferred to use right now but what I’ve quickly got at my disposal. I’m open to updates in the comments!)

The end of season DVOA rankings for the defenses they faced in those 11 games:

30th, 17th, 8th, 4th, 14th, 5th, 23rd, 29th, 11th, 14th, 26th.

When they returned from the bye after the KC win, the Rams got a 30-16 win over the Detroit Lions, who ranked 27th on defense, 31st against the pass. Goff was just 17-of-33 for 207 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, and a fumble lost.

The next week was a 15-6 loss to the top-ranked defense of the Chicago Bears. Then a 30-23 loss to the Eagles. They closed with easy wins over the two worst teams in football, the Cardinals and 49ers.

By the way, during this same season, LaFleur was offensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans, who ranked 27th in points, 25th in yards, and 22nd in DVOA.

Facing a Dallas Cowboys defense that ranked 16th against the pass in the divisional playoffs at home, LA held onto a 23-15 lead late in the third quarter. It wasn’t really Goff or the passing offense or “the scheme” doing anything to help, it was street free agent C.J. Anderson pounding out first downs and a fourth quarter touchdown on 4th-and-1.

The next week against New Orleans, who ranked 22nd against the pass, Goff went 25-of-40 for 297 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, and a fumble, though he didn’t lose this one. It was LA’s defense, a side of the ball I haven’t mentioned once yet in this piece because McVay is virtually never touted as a “genius” because of being able to stop teams (and rightfully so because LA’s defense ranked 18th by DVOA in 2018 and is a major reason why they aren’t better than they’ve been), that kept them in the game against the Saints.

After Goff threw a pick on his second attempt at his own 16, the Saints were forced to kick a FG to make it 6-0. Going 1-for-2 for 0 yards on the next series, New Orleans got it back and went up 13-0. Goff did go 4-of-6 on the final drive of the first half, resulting in a Gurley touchdown to make it 13-10 at half. But the second half started with an LA three-and-out and the Saints went up 20-10 on the ensuing drive.

The Rams came back to make it 20-20 — and then you know what happened. A missed call so bad that the NFL was so sure that LA didn’t belong in the Super Bowl that we now have instant replay for pass interference penalties.

Goff went 4-of-8 on the final drive of regulation to setup a game-tying field goal that sent the game to OT. Drew Brees threw a pick four plays into overtime and it was a short drive to a 57-yard attempt. That’s the best they could setup for and luckily they have an elite special teams unit.

That’s a big reason why the LA Rams advanced to the Super Bowl with Sean McVay and Jared Goff: a missed penalty, an interception by a Hall of Fame QB, and a 57-yard attempt by a great kicker. And so they were anointed ...

But I didn’t buy it. And I think that it was one of the worst things that could happen to McVay and Goff.

Welcome to facing Bill Belichick’s idea of your “revolutionary” offense, a situation that McVay could have held off until 2020 if they hadn’t been so darned intent on winning a championship last year!

With every starter on offense that they wanted going into the year with the exception of Kupp and the addition of Anderson, the Rams went:









on their first eight drives. They gained 72 yards before a 42-yard drive that gave them their first points of the day, a field goal. New England had 87 yards by the end of their second drive.



Missed Field Goal

is how their Super Bowl ended. Patriots win 13-3, Rams put up one of the worst showings in championship game history.

I ask: What is so special about McVay’s offense? If they can be at full strength, minus perhaps some injuries to Gurley who still played throughout and was spelled by a running back who must not matter, and score three points at the most critical of times, why is this the copycat offense of 2019?

It seems so much more “wild” than “copy” when it comes to cats.

Exhibit mcvA: 2019

Through 11 games this season, the Rams are 6-5 and coming off of a 45-6 defeat to the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night. They have scored 35 points total over their last three games and they rank 26th in points scored since Week 6.

That’s fewer points over their last six games than the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers. Only the Denver Broncos with Brandon Allen have thrown fewer touchdown passes in that time. They are 27th in both passer rating and yards per carry since Week 6.

If you wanted to find an offense that was assuredly worse you could always seek comfort in Washington, relics of which belong to McVay, since he served as OC there from 2014-2016. Apparently it wasn’t strong enough to survive his exit — though there was little “special” we talk about in regards to McVay’s time as an OC other than how young he is.

Maybe instead you could focus on the 0-11 Cincinnati Bengals, of course coached by Zac Taylor, McVay’s assistant from 2017-2018 who has found a bottom that not even the Bengals knew existed.

The closest thing to a success story for the McVay tree (Raiders OC Greg Olson was McVay’s QB coach in 2017 but had a long record as an OC prior to that) is LaFleur, who has proven without a doubt that the only thing it takes to score some points is a two-time MVP at quarterback. Even with Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers have managed just 43 points over their last three games, including two embarrassing losses on the road.

Just what exactly is left that makes McVay a “genius” at this point?

His 2017 season was impressive but heavily aided by the most significant personnel changes of the year to any team and predictable regression.

His 2018 season was also impressive but past the Week 12 bye, showed zero proof of being sustainable and undefeatable against playoff caliber teams.

His 2019 season is only impressive in how far and quick the regression back to the bottom has been. The Rams rank 22nd in offensive DVOA, 20th in passing and 18th in rushing. Goff is turning his 2018 MVP campaign into one that is just trying to stay in the good graces of the Rams fan for next season. But the future seems even bleaker.

Goff is now locked into a deal that pays him $36 million against the cap in 2020. Gurley is locked in at $17.2 million and while I haven’t focused on him at all, it’s obvious that the run game mattered. Gurley’s season high for rushing yards is 97 and that came on 25 carries. He went from 788 receiving yards in 2017 to a pace of 182 receiving yards this year. Cooks is locked in at $16.8 million and in addition to being injured and suffering a concerning number of concussions, he has caught just 10 of 18 targets for 138 yards and 0 touchdowns in his last five games.

Cooks and Woods have combined for one touchdown reception this season. Add 212 yards and one touchdown if you include Higbee, who makes $8.6 million next season because .... well, because, okay? Because the Rams were infallible, I suppose.

I mean, you can’t spell “fallacy” without “LA” right? (Wow, this would’ve worked even better if McVay coached the LA Chargers.) Rebuild through the draft? Not in the 2020 and 2021 first rounds, since they dealt those picks to the Jaguars for Jalen Ramsey. Develop the 2019 first round rookie? No, they traded down and selected Taylor Rapp at the end of round two. The 2017 and 2018 first rounders? No, those were dealt for Goff and Cooks, respectively.

Overall, I think the case for McVay as overrated works much stronger than the case of him as a genius. Which is not to say that McVay is a bad coach or incapable of turning the team around or doing any number of things. Belichick himself was first hired as a head coach at 39 and by 42 had led the Browns to an 11-5 record, but was let go after the next season. He went 5-11 in his first year with the Patriots and then almost 20 years later he may have passed down a valuable lesson to his apparent heir.

I’m ready to open the discussion now for why I’m wrong. Why this is the anomaly to McVay’s past, present, and future tenure as an NFL mastermind. But as of now I don’t see anything more convincing about 2018’s success as opposed to 2019’s disaster. Jared Goff is bad. The Rams offense is bad. The team is middling. The future is complicated. And the Seahawks are 9-2.

“Wow. Good point.” - Me just now.