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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Albert Breer

How Sean McVay and the Rams Are Evolving

Mike LaFleur stood with two of his new position coaches nearby, and the Rams’ offensive coordinator reached back into his past, two jobs ago, to try to describe what Sean McVay’s done to Los Angeles’s tried-and-true scheme this offseason.

Five years ago, LaFleur was Kyle Shanahan’s pass-game coordinator in San Francisco, and the 49ers brought the Navy SEALs in to train the players. The coaches got educated, too.

“It’s like what the SEALs say: You always have to evolve,” LaFleur says. “For them, if you don’t evolve, you’re dead. Now, this is a whole different deal, it’s football. But it’s the truth, and Sean knows that. If you’re not always evolving, trying to be one step ahead of the league, and one step ahead of defensive coordinators, it’s hard to be successful. He’s always been evolving, so this just gave him something to grab, where you say, Hey, you’ve done it this way, I wanna hear about it, and how it’s going to fit our system.”

And if McVay, like LaFleur says, is always adapting, it’s fair to say that he, and his offense, have done more of it this offseason than ever before.

2021 was McVay’s fifth consecutive winning season in LA, a streak that was broken in ’22.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports

Coming off the Rams’ worst year under McVay on that side of the ball (they ranked 32nd in total offense and 27th in scoring through an injury-riddled season), the seventh-year head coach didn’t just shake up his coaching staff. He turned an entire coaching tree’s philosophy on hiring upside down.

Rather than replacing coordinator Liam Coen, tight ends coach Thomas Brown and line coach Kevin Carberry by simply dipping back into his own past, McVay seized what he saw as an opportunity to change things—to the point where you might mistake this latest evolution as a revolution.

Yes, LaFleur is connected to McVay. The new OC’s older brother, Packers coach Matt LaFleur, is one of McVay’s best friends, and was on his first Rams staff. But Mike LaFleur had never worked for McVay, instead coming up under Shanahan, first with the Browns, then the Falcons and 49ers. And McVay and Shanahan’s systems have veered from each other over the decade since they last worked together.

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Then, there’s Nick Caley and Ryan Wendell replacing Brown and Carberry, respectively. Those two not only have never worked with McVay before, but they’re also from outside the Shanahan family coaching tree altogether. Wendell played eight of his nine NFL seasons for the Patriots and got his coaching start under Brian Daboll, whose offense has a heavy New England influence. Meanwhile, Caley spent all nine of his NFL seasons in Foxborough.

“We really wanted to do our due diligence in finding the best coaches that were out there,” McVay says. “And I have tremendous respect for the background of all those guys knowing that, hey, man, I was so fortunate to be around really good people that taught me, and I had tremendous respect for. Whether it was Ryan Wendell’s background as a player under Dante Scarnecchia and Bill [Belichick] and learning from Josh [McDaniels], then being under Aaron Kromer in Buffalo, who, there is some familiarity with our background.

“And then Nick Caley, I mean, a lot of it, I trust his experience is there. I heard great stuff from Brian Daboll about them. From Josh, from Bill. And then Mike I’ve known forever, but I know how close he and Kyle were, how instrumental he was in a lot of the things that they were doing.”

There’s a humility to it, too, in the admission that the ballyhooed system McVay’s built, one that’s succeeded not just in L.A. but in a bunch of corners of the NFL, isn’t the be-all and end-all. There’s plenty McVay can learn, and the Rams can benefit from, outside of it.

The harder part is figuring out how to put it all together. And that’s been a work in progress from January until now, with the season just two weeks away.

• It started, simply, with McVay using the new hires to gain institutional knowledge on how the system he learned under Shanahan had changed. LaFleur says the language shifted so much, and was so different from San Francisco to L.A., that he and McVay initially resorted to using Washington terminology to be more efficient in communicating. Plus, McVay could also learn how other schemes worked.

“It’s even stuff as simple as, What are some of the operational things that they did there that were right in New England?” McVay says. How do we do our ball security every single day? What are certain phases of their offense that kind of translates? And what are the key coaching points that really were the separator? Because a lot of people run the same plays, but there’s certain people that when they run this play, it just looks different, because of the sell or the execution or the understanding of how to solve the problems.”

“He’d be like, You guys did this, talk to me about this, because maybe it’s a fit,” Wendell says. “And then we’d try to work it out. … Sean already had a lot of ideas and questions, like, Hey, you guys did this in New England, Buffalo, or in New York with the Jets, I wanna learn more about that.”

And while LaFleur’s library of knowledge on the Niners was being mined, he was right there with McVay in his enthusiasm to pick the brains of Caley and Wendell.

“From afar, it’s, Hey, what is really going on behind closed doors in New England?” LaFleur says. “I got some of those experiences with Wes Welker in San Francisco, and he was just a player in New England. But you could tap into that. That was always cool. And then the respect we had for Josh McDaniels, I remember sitting in with Kyle in Atlanta, early years in San Francisco, and we’d always buzz New England [tape] every Monday, because we always felt like Josh had a few little wrinkles, and it was so different than what we were doing.

“And we plucked a lot more than people know.”

• February was a grind as the staff worked on big-picture scheme stuff and tried to meld together beliefs and systems to build a better mousetrap. First, for the new guys, that meant learning the foundation of McVay’s system.

“I’ve been exposed to a decent amount in New England, my time with Josh,” Caley says. “But learning this system was my focus—the zone, the marriage of the run and pass, things that this system has done for a long, long time, that was honestly my focus. It’s really rooted in fundamentals, and that’s the cool thing. Nothing gets passed there for anything. You’re starting with fundamentals, and you’re going from there.”

From there, the discussion on the direction of the offense got going.

The coaches dug into it during February and March, and quickly, the enormity of the project became clear. Which meant, in the eyes of the staff, it was important to fight the urge to rush through the material.

“It was a slow, methodical and thorough process that was necessary in February,” LaFleur says. “And honestly, instead of trying to put it all in, and make sure that we felt good because we checked the boxes, so we had it done by the time the players got there, it was, as long as we felt like we were a few days ahead of the players, we could go in and teach it the right way. We just tried to stay 48 hours ahead of the players.

“We knew, Hey, we’ll do this the right way and not just throw it all in over one month. And we took this thing all the way into the end of OTAs, where we were still piecing together this offense.”

• LaFleur was quick to point out that the divergence of the McVay and Shanahan schemes came because both coaches did a good job of catering to the talent they had; the Rams have been a heavy 11-personnel team, because of the strength they’ve had at receiver, while the Niners have a do-everything, all-world tight end and the most versatile fullback in football, all of which lends them to playing out of heavier sets.

Point being, as fun as it was to explore each coach’s backgrounds, the Los Angeles scheme would still have to be built for the players the Rams had, and would have to be pared down enough to be digestible.

LaFleur joins the Rams after stints with the Jets and 49ers, among others.

Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

“You can’t just throw everything at them; it’s gotta fit into the foundation of what Sean has built here, and what fits with Matthew [Stafford] and the guys around him,” LaFleur says. “We took a careful and thorough approach at that, not being the jack of all trades and master of none. It’s that old adage, and it’s true. He said that quite a bit. But there were certain things we wanted to tap into that we felt New England did so well over all the years, and implement it to fit what we do, or counters off what we already do or what he’s done here in the past.”

And because what they were creating was new—again, in the spring, the coaches would create a concept and literally take it to the practice field 48 hours earlier—there was an energy to the whole thing, with all four coaches mentioned between 36 and 40 years old, and pass-game coordinator Zac Robinson and pass-game specialist Jake Peetz (who happened to have their own, looser connections to New England, too) in that age range as well.

“I thoroughly enjoyed coming to work every day,” Caley says. “You talk about the joy in the journey, Sean talks about that, but it is a phenomenal environment. To get the historical perspective on the background and the evolution of the offense has been a lot of fun. I mean, we love football; that’s what we do. It’s been great. It’s such a great culture that’s been built here. It’s awesome.”

“It was a blast because there was nothing old, and all the guys on the staff love football, and love talking about football,” Wendell adds, nodding at Caley. “It’s fun to hear the stories about how these plays came together or examples from 2017 when Sean first got here, and they put this play in, and why it is this way. It was a blast, man, going through all that.

“And it’s still fun.”

Here’s the rub: There’s a reason why guys from the Shanahan tree have been so hesitant, over the years, to hire offensive coaches from the outside.

The belief has long been that you have to learn the offense from a grassroots level to truly understand its detail and, in turn, its genius. And that belief, to be sure, is still there in people like LaFleur and McVay. Which is to say, yes, there was risk in rebuilding the offensive staff this way, since most who work in these places can be traced on a straight line either to Shanahan or his legendary dad, Mike.

“What you learned from [Kyle], for me, in 2014, and all these guys who worked with him at first, is how detailed he is,” LaFleur says. “Just all the little details that are involved in every aspect of it. It’s not necessarily so much the presnap look of a defense, it’s what happens post, and how a combination block versus a certain front, that exact same front, could happen the next week, but we might block it totally different, because of the way a defense is playing us and the techniques that they’re using.

“That’s why he’s gotten so many guys, Mike McDaniel, myself, into so many different rooms as we were kind of going through it. I was with the O-line, the tight ends, coached receivers, obviously I was with the quarterback. The only room I wasn’t in was running backs because Bobby Turner won’t let anyone in there [laughing]. … I think it just goes back to all the details, and it starts to stockpile in each room.”

So now, essentially, the Rams are introducing new details to one of the NFL’s most successful systems. Shanahan’s system used more gap-scheme runs in recent years to complement the traditional zone run game. And New England’s system is much heavier on the rugged gap-scheme concepts than either has ever been. Meanwhile, in the passing game, Patriot receivers have to sync option routes up with the quarterback, and the quarterback is responsible for a lot more in setting protections and checks presnap.

Is Cam Akers a better fit for a more physical run game? Would the Rams benefit from giving even more control to the uber-cerebral Stafford at the line? Would a reworked line benefit from a change in blocking philosophy? Would Cooper Kupp be even more effective playing like a Patriot receiver, running more option routes than ever before? Could the Rams become more of a week-to-week, game-plan-specific team?

All of that is on the table, and all of that was up for discussion. It doesn’t mean you’ll see a sea change in two weeks. But it does mean it’ll probably look a little different.

“Selfishly, I want to learn, too,” McVay says. “They have a little bit of a different background, and I think one of the things that I didn’t do a good enough job from 2021 to 2022 was, Well, how do we continue to really still keep our foundations, but then also add new wrinkles to be able to advance and evolve just based on the landscape of the league? I think those guys will be key and critical factors in that. …

“The first thing is, What is the identity going to be for us, offensively? What does that really look like, based on our players? And this is going to be different with our runner. You look at, O.K., what does Cam do best? What are we going to be up front? And there’s still [core] philosophical things, but it might not have to be the exact same plays that we’ve run.”

In fact, it probably won’t be.

Which is, to borrow the SEALs term, McVay choosing to evolve, rather than lose.

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