sizing up McVay (La Canfora, John Sullivan) … good reads

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    While others focus on age, Sean McVay is winning over Rams players and rivals alike

    The youngest coach in NFL history isn’t coming off as someone out of his depth — just the opposite

    by Jason La Canfora

    IRVINE, Calif. — Sean McVay has just finished a long and feisty joint practice with the Chargers in his first NFL training camp as the youngest head coach in NFL history, and his team is quietly working on a blockbuster trade for receiver Sammy Watkins during a fairly frenetic time, when he notices a kindred spirit nearby.
    McVay, 31, just wrapped up his daily session with Southern California media and moments later he is engaged in an animated conversation with Bob Bradley, one of the most accomplished in managers in American soccer history who led the U.S. Men’s National Team to the 2010 World Cup and who just took over MLS expansion team LAFC.
    McVay, never one to miss out on an opportunity to chat up another coach and glean whatever he can even from a brief and chance meeting, is always in pursuit of knowledge. He didn’t rise through the NFL assistant ranks to become Los Angeles Rams head coach this quickly by not listening closely, by not trying to absorb as much as he could from those successful men he’s worked under, by not taking advantage of opportunities that arose.
    McVay has pedigree for greatness
    While he hasn’t yet coached an NFL game, McVay has drawn quite a buzz already around the league. He’s something of a phenomenon, a force of coaching nature, who has an innate feel for people and an advance eye for offense. As execs from rival clubs have been around him a bit now, dating back to the spring owner’s meetings, he is making a strong impression — “I kinda wish he wasn’t in our division,” one exec recently told me, adding, “That guy is a gonna be a stud” — and he’s already won over the Rams’ key veterans. McVay can blend the old school philosophies of men like his grandfather, former top NFL exec John McVay, with theories at the vanguard of the modern passing game.
    While the Rams are still a ways away from contention, McVay might be the man to finally get then back there.
    “What this opportunity provides is a great platform to be able to learn, and that’s the biggest thing,” McVay told me. “What I’ve been flattered and blessed and humbled about is that these other leaders that you can connect with are so willing to share. Even going back to some of the other coaches that you talk to at the owner’s meeting in the NFL, and being able to reach out to others. And meeting (NBA coach) Doc Rivers and some different guys like that who have had that platform and done it the right way for a long time. It’s still pretty unique.”
    Besides his bloodlines, McVay has direct coaching ties to Super Bowl winners like Jon Gruden and Mike Shanahan, as well as Don Shula, who for a long time was the youngest coach in NFL history himself after taking over the Baltimore Colts in 1963 at age 33. McVay is always trying to seek that type of knowledge and is open to suggestion from those who have made this walk at a similar age.
    “I have been able to talk to him about this,” McVay said of Shula, “and really one of my closet friends on our coaching staff is Chris Shula (Don’s grandson and McVay’s college teammate), so Don is a guy who I got know and spend some time with, and Chris’s dad David Shula was a coach at 32 years old, so I think it’s been a great opportunity when you realize how small the network of people is who are involved in this game.
    “And that’s when you realize what a blessing it was when you get done playing to get in with the Bucs and work for a Jon Gruden, work for (Washington coach) Jay Gruden and Mike Shanahan. So for me, I couldn’t say enough about the mentors who have invested in me, and I’ve been lucky with the timing as well.”
    Buzz building for McVay and his staff
    The Rams’ players and execs are not hesitant to boast about what they believe they have in their head coach. Despite his youth and inexperience, McVay is able to extend outside of the Xs and Os bubble that engulfs so many of his peers. He understands the need to build bonds and express his vision to the entire building and not just retreat to a cocoon of offensive meetings trying to turn Jared Goff into an NFL quarterback. He wants to infuse the entire organization with a young and dynamic energy, which you can see when he’s racing around the field with players in a modified rugby drill.
    “I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but I do know this, about eight minutes into the first interview you knew the guy was special,” Rams general manager Les Snead said. “And then probably every day since then he’s exceeded those expectations. He’s legit. And you know what I found most interesting — you can be a smart offensive coordinator, and we’ve seen a lot of young, bright guys get the chance (to be a head coach), but I do think that Sean has that ability also to see the bigger picture and be a real leader in the organization and not just to your players, but the way he develops his staff, the way he collaborates, the way he include the building in things. There are some bigger-picture leadership skills he has that you don’t often find.
    “We always joke around here that we don’t have any life skills, but we’ve got football skills. But there is an intelligence there of football and beyond, and especially of football recall. I mean this guy, he can talk about a play from three years ago in a certain game, go to the video, and go right to play 58, and bam, there it is. And it’s like, ‘How did you just do that?’ And he’s like, ‘I just remember that play.’ And it might not even be his team, he might have just been studying something.”

    McVay also already had a network of highly qualified assistant coaches who wanted to join his staff, and he has assembled an overall group far superior to the prior regime. Jeff Fisher, who has struggled to develop quarterbacks, was never one to agonize over advancements in the passing game, and he churned through coordinators after the great Mike Heimerdinger passed away from cancer. Last year’s Rams staff was weak on that side of the ball — figuring out who would work with Goff seemed almost an afterthought — and McVay’s staff is much better equipped to cultivate an offense.
    McVay kept highly-regarded special teams coach John Fassel from the former staff and landed Wade Phillips to run his defense, with Gregg Williams leaving for the Browns job (McVay is very close with Phillips’ son, Wes, who was also on Washington’s staff). The offensive staff also includes Matt LaFleur, a fast-rising young coach who was also with McVay in Washington and who was Matt Ryan’s quarterback coach during his 2016 MVP campaign.
    McVay said the most overwhelming thing about his new gig is the sheer volume of issues, requests and queries that come across his desk each day, but his peers are trying to help as much as they can.
    “Before you get the chance to be the head coach, you can only imagine what it’s like,” said Fassel, who took over as the Rams’ interim head coach when Fisher was fired in-season. “And then having opportunity to do it even for only three weeks, start to see all the different things that come across the table of a head coach.
    “So really what I’ve done for Sean is just say, ‘I only did it for a couple of weeks, but if there is any burden I can carry for you, no matter how insignificant, I think that’s an important thing. Because you have so many responsibilities, and it’s hard to do any of them’. I told him, ‘If you want me to get you dinner, and you forgot to eat because you have so much stuff going on. I’ll bring you a (Styrofoam) box to eat.’ Anything. Because it becomes pretty heavy, and I’ve learned that if there is anything I can do to help him, that’s what I’m going to do.”
    Getting the offense on the right path
    For all that he contributes to the organization, much of McVay’s initial success in this rookie season will be tied to the quarterback position. I’m still decidedly a Goff skeptic, but the infrastructure will be much more conducive to success.
    “Having this staff is invaluable from the start, and (Goff) coming from Cal and that offense there, there is an element of rewiring your hardware you have to go through.,” Snead said. “And I can’t think of a better one to do it that than Sean.
    “You take him and bring in a coach who coached the NFL MVP last year, and also add Greg Olson, who has been a coordinator with rookie quarterbacks and he’s coaching out quarterbacks. And (free agent left tackle Andrew) Whitworth, who mentored Andy Dalton (in Cincinnati). And you bring in (veteran backup Dan) Orlovsky, and he was Peyton (Manning’s) lieutenant (in Indianapolis), and (coach Jim) Caldwell brought him to Detroit to pass some wisdom to (Matt) Stafford.
    “So we’ve surrounded our young quarterbacks, and that’s Jared and Sean (Mannion) with some wisdom. Now let’s go climb the hill.”

    There are some who have been around this camp who believe the climb would actually be shorter for Mannion than Goff, but given the bounty the Rams paid to jump up from No. 15 to land Goff atop the 2016 draft, well, let’s just say he’s going to be given every opportunity to show he can be a starting quarterback. It’s not uncommon to see Snead even just a few feet from Goff during training camp drills — jobs are very much on the line here in the front office; not for the coaches who inherited this project — and the sight of errant passes hitting the ground isn’t exactly rare, either. Given his work with Kirk Cousins and others, however, McVay certainly has a chance to harness something here.
    There will be schematic alterations to the run game as well, McVay told me, given the woes of highly-talented back Todd Gurley a year ago. Upgrades to the offensive line should help, but McVay will use the preseason to cater certain things and look for ways to put the runners in better position to win matchups as well.
    “Ultimately, it’s about figuring out what our players do best,” McVay said. “What does Jared do best? What do our linemen do best? What scheme is Todd most comfortable with? These are things we’re continuing to figure out, and then you also attack the defense in different ways based on things they’re doing front and coverage based.”
    High praise from the locker room
    Rams players told me they could sense, early in the spring, that McVay was someone who would be working as hard as he could to put them in the right spots. They believe in his offensive mind, and he’s shown an ability to connect with defensive players as well.
    Whitworth, a critical offseason addition to what was a horrible offensive line, is five years older than his coach but said he doesn’t make a big deal about or bust McVay’s chops much.
    “I’m sure he hears that stuff a little bit,” said Whitworth, who stayed 30 minutes after a recent walkthrough diligently working on footwork and hand placement with three young linemen despite his wife and children milling about the practice field, a coach-on-the-field vitally imperative to a young coach. “But I’m not one of those people who just keeps saying things that you hear every day to people.
    “But I really haven’t heard a lot that stuff, because the reality is, if you hear him in front of a group of people or in front of a room of players, age kind of goes out the window when you hear him speak. And he handles himself in a way that you realize quickly that he’s a guy who is so sharp and ahead of the game and you give him that instant respect.”
    Whitworth, who played for Nick Saban at Alabama, sees a lot of that legendary coach in McVay. The dedication to their process and their work ethic and the consistency of their message cuts through the clutter. High praise and comparisons for a man who has yet to coach a regular season NFL game, but one who I fully expect to be doing just that for the next 20 or 30 years of his life if he so chooses.
    “Nick Saban is one of those guys that epitomizes that, day-in and day-out being the same guy and having the same process,” Whitworth said. “Nick is very successful with that, and I think Sean is a lot like that, with who he is and the way he handles communication. It’s the same every day.
    “Those kinds of people, they earn a lot of respect from a locker room because that’s one of the biggest things that guys want. You know as a player you want to be as consistent as possible, and you want coaching and everything else in the building to be consistent to where you know what to expect and you know what’s expected of you. That’s the best thing you can do, and that’s what Sean does.”


    John Sullivan on Rams’ offense: ‘We’re not going to be an easy out’

    Alden Gonzalez

    IRVINE, Calif. — It has been eight years since veteran center John Sullivan joined legendary quarterback Brett Favre on the Minnesota Vikings, the last stop in what became a Hall of Fame career.

    But hearing Favre’s name still makes Sullivan’s right buttock sting.

    “He used to smack your ass so hard,” Sullivan, now the Los Angeles Rams’ starting center, said after a recent practice. “You’d be standing in a walk-through and you had to keep your head on a swivel because you just knew if Brett came up behind you, you were getting one, and you were going to have a handprint on there for a couple days.”

    Sullivan was Favre’s center in 2009, the year he made the Pro Bowl and led the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game at the age of 40. He still laughs at all the times Favre used to make stuff up as he went along. Like that one two-minute drill in Pittsburgh, when Favre didn’t bother calling plays or protections. At one point he barked instructions to one of his receivers, yelled at Sullivan to snap him the ball and completed a five-yard out. The offense and defense was so flat-footed that the linemen didn’t even make contact with one another.

    “He was an amazing player in terms of having a very natural feel for the game; instincts,” said Sullivan, also Favre’s center during his final season in 2010. “You talk about a youthful exuberance about the sport — he was 40 years old and he was playing like he was a 10-year-old kid in the backyard. It was refreshing for everybody. I was a 23-year-old kid fresh out of college, and even for me it was refreshing at that point in time.”

    Sullivan, now 32, is surrounded by youth these days. His quarterback, Jared Goff, is 22, the youngest among the 10 players Sullivan has ever snapped the ball to in an NFL game. His boss, Sean McVay, is 31, the youngest head coach in NFL history.

    Sullivan played under McVay last year, when McVay was in his last of three years as the Redskins’ offensive coordinator. Back issues began to plague Sullivan after a six-year run of being one of the game’s better centers. He started 93 of a possible 96 regular-season games from 2009 to ’14. He spent all of the 2015 season on injured reserve, the product of two back surgeries, then lost the starting job in 2016 and was released at the end of August.

    Rams center John Sullivan on Sean McVay: “He’s an incredible motivator, amazing with the X’s and O’s, and so far proving himself as a great head coach in terms of leading this organization and changing the culture …” Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports
    The Redskins picked him up on Sept. 27, shortly after starter Kory Lichtensteiger injured his calf. It was a Tuesday, heading into Week 4, the day of the Redskins’ walk-through. Sullivan flew into Washington, D.C., that morning, worked out, signed his contract and went straight into an offensive meeting before even having a chance to text his wife.

    There, he met McVay.

    “You’re going to these offensive install meetings, and he is so on the screws on every single detail,” Sullivan said. “But he’s not micromanaging. It’s just pointing out things that you can be looking for, and really coaching in the classroom in terms of being detail-oriented. He was incredibly impressive. I didn’t know his age at that point. I didn’t know he was 30. And even to this day, it doesn’t make any difference. He’s an incredible motivator, amazing with the X’s and O’s, and so far proving himself as a great head coach in terms of leading this organization and changing the culture, and making sure that everybody buys into our message. That’s just a connected team, with a ‘We Not Me’ slogan.”

    Sullivan started only one game during that 2016 season, then re-joined McVay with the Rams, where he will replace former starter Tim Barnes at center. McVay believes Sullivan is fully healthy now. His presence in the room, with the knowledge he has of his offense, “has helped immensely,” McVay said.

    “He’s one of the more impressive players I’ve ever been around, just in terms of his above the neck and the way that he’s able to translate things from the meeting room to the grass,” McVay went on about Sullivan. “He truly is one of those linemen — like we talk about with the quarterbacks — that’s an extension of the coaching staff. He’s got a great grasp of what we want to get done. He knows why, so he’s able to help his teammates out. He’s been a breath of fresh air.”

    More than the offense, though, Sullivan knows McVay. He knows his thought process on protections, he knows the way his offenses function, and he knows how he likes to attack. McVay is trying to do for the Rams what he did for the Redskins, even though his new personnel is significantly younger and less accomplished. He’s going from Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis to Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett, two tight ends who have combined for 11 career catches. He’s going from Kirk Cousins to Goff, who’s coming off a disastrous rookie season. He’s going from DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon to Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods, two former Bills teammates together again on the Rams.

    “We scored a ton of points last year, and that’s the expectation here in Los Angeles now is we’re going to do that exact same thing,” Sullivan said. “We’re going to use all the facets of the game to attack teams, and we’re going to try to put defenses on their heels, make them defend the entire field.”

    It’s been a long time since the Rams put opposing defenses on their heels. They have finished outside the top 20 in defense-adjusted value over average after each of the past 10 seasons. The past two years, they were last in the NFL in yards. This past season — a 4-12 season — they were held below 300 total yards in 10 games. Sullivan isn’t willing to set concrete expectations for what McVay can do for this offense, but he is confident in one thing.

    “We’re not going to be an easy out for any defense we play,” Sullivan said. “We’re going to come out, we’re going to attack you, and we’re going to execute as well as we possibly can. We’re very process-oriented. We focus on coming out here and working the right way every single day. And the belief is that if you do that, the results will follow. We’ll see.”

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