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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Albert Breer

Sean McVay’s Changes to His Offensive Staff Pay Off for the Rams

It’s Tuesday morning, and we have a lot to clean up heading into the last week of the 2023 regular season …

• The Los Angeles Rams are back in the playoffs, and we mentioned in the Ten Takeaways how remarkable it is that this was accomplished with the team carrying $75 million in dead money and, at points this year, 19 rookies on its 53-man roster.

Here’s the other thing: Sean McVay made some pretty significant changes to his offensive staff with the idea of injecting new ideas into the Rams’ scheme, and it’s worked.

McVay looked outside his comfort zone in the offseason to retool his offensive coaching staff.

Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports

He brought in Mike LaFleur, who spent seven years under Kyle Shanahan with the Cleveland Browns, Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers—after McVay and Shanahan parted ways. He hired Ryan Wendell, who played with the New England Patriots and coached for Brian Daboll with the Buffalo Bills, as the team’s line coach. Along those lines, the respect McVay has always had for Josh McDaniels’s scheme was reflected in the hire of McDaniels’s right-hand man, Nick Caley, as tight ends coach. And all of it showed a certain humility in McVay’s approach.

Despite all of the success he and the Rams have had with the Shanahan scheme, McVay sought out new ideas from outside his coaching tree.

“We really wanted to do our due diligence in finding the best coaches that were out there,” McVay told me over the summer. “And I have tremendous respect for the background of all of 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, 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. 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.”

The result? A run game that’s more diverse with more downhill, gap-scheme concepts, and a passing game that further leans into, and empowers, the expertise and experience of Matthew Stafford. A top-10 rushing attack behind Kyren Williams. And a renaissance season from Stafford, with a record-breaking rookie receiver (Puka Nacua) riding shotgun.

All because McVay was willing to go outside his comfort zone.

• So what’s gone wrong with the Philadelphia Eagles having dropped four of five after starting the year 10–1? Based on what other teams have told me—both earlier in the season, and this week—it’s actually pretty straightforward.

“The biggest thing, they have an aging back seven on defense,” an NFC exec says. “And they’ve set the blueprint for team health over the last few years, but that’s starting to catch up, too.”

Indeed, four players starting Sunday were 28 or older, two were 30 or older, and that’s with Darius Slay, 33, out with an injury. That’s led to the team being slower at those positions, and easier to take advantage of. Which is how you struggle on third down to the point where you’d need to make a midseason coordinator change from Sean Desai to Matt Patricia.

Add to that red-zone issues on offense, with the team pretty reliant on the quarterback run game, and you’ve probably gotten to the root of the problem.

On the surface, some of that (scheme and play-calling) is correctable, but age isn’t.

Kittle on Purdy: "He can throw for four touchdowns, he can throw four interceptions. He’s the same guy every single day.”

Brad Mills/USA TODAY Sports

• Since Brock Purdy burst on to the scene last year, NFL teams have taken a closer look at the value of starts and attempts as a metric to judge a quarterbacks’ readiness to play in the NFL.

That’s why a comment San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle made to me Sunday really stuck out—and it wasn’t just that he brought up the experience Purdy had as a four-year starter paying dividends. It was also that he actually got there on his own, without me saying anything about that.

“One thing that I’ve just loved seeing from him is he’s incredibly consistent,” Kittle says. “When you’re a quarterback and you start 48 games in college, you understand how to play the quarterback position. He’s gone through the highs. He’s gone through the lows. He never gets too high and he never gets too low. He’s very even keel. That’s one thing that people on the outside don’t see about him. He’s the same guy every day. He can throw for four touchdowns, he can throw four interceptions. He’s the same guy every single day.”

This would be a good place to mention that Oregon’s Bo Nix started his 61st collegiate game Monday, and Washington’s Michael Penix will make his 45th college start in the national title game Monday against Michigan, which gives those guys a relatively significant edge over third-year signal-callers Caleb Williams (33 starts), J.J. McCarthy (27 starts) and Drake Maye (26 starts).

• While we’re on the topic of quarterbacks, I know the Jaguars thought the climate in their quarterback room was a factor last week, as Jacksonville prepared C.J. Beathard to start in Trevor Lawrence’s place.

Beathard told me how Lawrence let him know earlier in the week that things weren’t looking good as to his availability. And that was just the start.

“My and Trevor’s relationship is so good,” Beathard says. “He’s my biggest fan. I’m his biggest fan. So I think that he was able to tell me earlier in the week how he was feeling and being honest with me—and he’s pulled for me out there. I’m pulling for him to get back hopefully this week and get us into the playoffs. And I’m just grateful for the opportunity to get out there and play like it’s been three years since my last start and it’s kind of crazy.”

The Bears could stick with Fields or trade the former Ohio State star this offseason.

Mike Dinovo/USA TODAY Sports

• Justin Fields had one of his best games with the Chicago Bears on Sunday, connecting on 20-of-32 passes for 268 yards, a touchdown, and a passer rating of 99.5. Afterward, he spoke reflectively, a sure sign he knew that the win over the Falcons may well wind up being his final game at Soldier Field as a Bear.

Should it be? Well, the smart money would tell you it will be.

And money is the operative word there. If the Bears were to pass on a quarterback with the first pick, then the decision on Fields’s fifth-year option at more than $20 million would be academic. And Fields would only get more expensive from there if he plays well.

Conversely, Williams will sign a deal at around $40 million for the next four years, with a fifth-year option for 2028.

Making the call on Fields’s option will be a deciding factor, regardless of who’s making the decision—coach Matt Eberflus and general manager Ryan Poles have made a very strong case to remain in their jobs (team president Kevin Warren is the wild card here). And I say that as someone who believes Fields has done everything as a player and person to make his case for staying.

• The NFL hasn’t said much about the Saturday night officiating fiasco in Dallas. It’s unfortunate, even if there was deception (as we laid out in the takeaways) on the part of the Detroit Lions that contributed to head referee Brad Allen’s gaffe.

• Bradley Chubb’s injury is a terrible blow for a Miami Dolphins defense already without linebacker Jaelan Phillips. It’ll be interesting to see whether DC Vic Fangio gets a little more aggressive with his rush packages to compensate for the absences and turn up the heat on Buffalo’s Josh Allen on Sunday night.

• Glad to see the USFL and XFL merge to form the UFL. I think the next step is to find a way to create a partnership with the NFL, something that won’t be easy—but should be doable based on the issues the big league has had developing depth at certain positions (offensive line, quarterback) since the 2011 CBA overhauled the NFL’s work rules.

• It makes sense that the 49ers are protecting Christian McCaffrey this week. The Baltimore Ravens should do the same with Lamar Jackson, even if Jackson pushes to play. And I can say, definitively, that he does want to. I know because I asked him Sunday, and he quickly answered, “Yup. Absolutely.”

• Going with Mason Rudolph makes sense for the Steelers now based on how the offense has played with the sixth-year pro running it. It also gives us a window into where Pittsburgh might be with its quarterback position this offseason fewer than two years after taking Kenny Pickett in the first round.

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