When Sean McVay was hired as Los Angeles’ head coach just under a year ago, the Rams looked as if they had a long way to go to reach the postseason.
The offense was at or near the bottom of the league in most major categories in 2016, including the most important — points. While both the offense and defense had talented pieces, the franchise as a whole still hadn’t been to the postseason since 2004. Nor had it finished a season with a winning record since 2003.
Nevertheless, McVay says he didn’t find the task of turning the Rams into a winner daunting when he was named the team’s head coach last January.
“I don’t think you really look at it like that. I think the biggest thing is, as soon as you get hired, you have an idea of some of the core players that are in place,” McVay said recently. “And what you see just from going against the Rams in years past is some great defensive players in place when you look at the Aaron Donalds, when you look at the Alec Ogletrees, you see a Trumaine Johnson at corner, you see Robert Quinn off the edge, Michael Brockers inside.
“And then you look at some really young, special players on the offensive side of the ball with a Jared Goff, with a Todd Gurley, you look at Tavon Austin and some guys that you’re really excited to work with and see how they handle things.”
From a record and production standpoint, they’ve all clearly handled things quite well. The Rams ended the regular season 11-5 as NFC West Champions — vaunting McVay into the Coach of the Year conversation. L.A. finished No. 1 in scoring with 478 points — more than doubling the output from last season. In fact, the Rams’ scoring total is fourth most in franchise history, behind only the 2001, 1999, and 2000 teams.
But that turnaround didn’t just begin with Los Angeles’ 46-9 drubbing of the Colts in Week 1. First, McVay hired a quality coaching staff — led by defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, plus retaining special teams coordinator John “Bones” Fassel. And he brought in a number of assistants who have been successful throughout their time in the league — like offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, quarterbacks coach Greg Olson, and assistant head coach/linebackers Joe Barry.
Then once the offseason program began in April, McVay impressed the players with the way he handled implementing his vision. Many Rams have talked all season about the increase in accountability, which is something all have said was needed.
“You know he came in the right way,” running back Todd Gurley said of McVay. “We didn’t know what we were getting. For the most part, when you get a coaching change you know, obviously, things are going to change. But he just did it in the right way — positive way. Just letting [us] know, this is what it is. And, you know, at that point, we were so tired of losing that — you’ll try anything for success.”
“I thought they handled it pretty well. I mean they came in and took control of the room,” middle linebacker Alec Ogletree said of the new coaching staff. “We had a couple of older guys in here that didn’t really know what to expect because we had another coach for so long. So, I was a little shell shocked, but I felt like everybody kind of responded to them really well. You could tell that he was a football guy, he loves football and the type of attitude he brought you know was definitely needed for this team.”
One of the immediate pillars of McVay’s team became “We Not Me.” The head coach came into his press conference to begin the offseason program sporting a T-shirt with the slogan on its back. And soon they were seen throughout the organization, with players also mentioning those three words when speaking to the media.
“I think ‘We not me’ means everything you do is for the greater of the team,” quarterback Jared Goff said recently. “You don’t do anything to benefit yourself if it’s not benefiting the team. And just to have an unselfish attitude.”
“I think what’s so special about football is there’s something truly special about being part of something bigger than yourself,” McVay said. “But it’s about just making sure that we’re a connected team, we stay connected through the adversity, we don’t get too high when things are going well for us. And the ‘We not me’ is just everything goes back to — it’s all about the team.”
With all the changes going on, many players began to get a sense that things would be different even at the outset of the offseason program. But the Colts game in Week 1 was a tangible representation that the Rams could, in fact, significantly improve their record in 2017.
“I think the Colts game really demonstrated the first time that I think everybody saw that we had a good feeling, we had a lot of confidence going into that game,” McVay said. “And then being able to have that result, I think, was instrumental to having that success, see what we had done through the offseason program, through training camp, lead to a result like that. And then guys have just handled that the right way since.”
That process culminated in the Rams’ 27-23 victory over the Titans in Week 16, which clinched the club’s first division title since 2003. As always, McVay deflected credit to those around him. But he said it meant a lot just to be a part of the celebration in Tennessee.
“[W]hen you look at the way that the feeling is in the locker room, how happy you are to be able to go through the journey that we’ve shared together and accomplished one of your goals with the players, with the coaching staff, the support staff — that’s a special thing,” McVay said. “There’s a lot of work that goes into being able to achieve a goal like that, a lot of special people along the way. And you just feel special and you just feel grateful to be a part of that, knowing that this isn’t the end of our journey — it’s just the beginning.
“But it’s a step in the right direction,” McVay continued. “And to see these guys have that success is really what coaching is all about. To see guys continue to improve, to see some of the things that our coaches are doing to help players have success on the field and then watch what that does for them — that’s why you get into [coaching] and that’s why you love it so much.”