Anyone who has crossed paths with Sean McVay will tell you he’s not normal. They also will say that little about his meteoric rise to offensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins comes as a surprise.
Just six years ago, McVay hung up his cleats after three injury-plagued seasons as a wide receiver for Miami (Ohio) and got an entry-level coaching job on Jon Gruden’s staff with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
A promotion from tight ends coach, the job McVay held for three seasons under Mike Shanahan, was inevitable, people around the league say. McVay had the potential to direct his own unit, and many see him as a head coach in the making.
“He’s been around it all his life. He was born into football,” said former Redskins quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur, one of McVay’s closest friends. “He’s passionate, he’s positive and he’s persistent. He has this never-say-die attitude. And his preparation is really impressive. He’s got all the traits you look for in a coach.”
“Sean’s going to be a star — there’s no question,” Jon Gruden gushed. “. . . He’s got an incredible personality and a passion for the game. Plus, he’s intelligent and has a strong work ethic. Sean comes from a great football family. He’s known what he’s wanted to do his whole life. He’s worked hard and been successful with every opportunity that’s been presented to him.”
McVay certainly boasts strong football lineage. His grandfather, John, coached in the World Football League and NFL in the 1970s and spent 21 years in the San Francisco 49ers’ front office, winning five Super Bowls. Sean’s father, Tim, was recruited by Jay Gruden’s father, Jim, and played at Indiana.
During family get-togethers, football dominated the conversations.
“He was always right in the middle of all the discussions with myself, his father and two older uncles,” McVay’s grandfather remembered. “He was one of those kids that matured early — in life and as an athlete. Whether it was soccer or football, he was intense, to say the least. He was always concerned with what teams were doing defensively, what kind of coverages they were playing, who could play man-to-man, who could do this and that.”
The fascination with X’s and O’s never waned.
When McVay realized his playing career wouldn’t continue past college, he turned his attention to coaching and interviewed with Gruden, who hired him as an offensive assistant. Jay Gruden held the same title.
McVay calls himself “really fortunate and blessed” to get that job, acknowledging his family’s connection with the Grudens helped. But he aimed to ensure his work ethic allowed him to stick around.
“I wanted to do whatever job they gave me to the best of my ability, whether it was cutting up film or putting in formations or putting together tip sheets for the coaches, just whatever I could,” McVay said.
The Bucs fired Gruden following a 9-7 season in 2008. But McVay and Jay Gruden landed on Jim Haslett’s coaching staff for the United Football League’s Florida Tuskers — Gruden as the offensive coordinator and McVay as wide receivers coach.
He was only 22. One of McVay’s players, Jermaine Wiggins, often jokingly asked, “You need me to buy you your beer after the game? Are you sure you’re old enough?”
The ribbing never swayed McVay, however.
“I’ve always had a confidence and a belief in myself that I belonged,” he explained. “And a lot of that comes from being around great coaches who are willing to help you grow faster than you probably would have. And this is what I’ve been around my whole life. It’s where I feel comfortable.”
After that 2009 season with the Tuskers, McVay followed Haslett to Washington, where he was made an offensive assistant, working primarily with Keenan McCardell and his wide receivers unit.
“He was young, but he didn’t just sit in the corner and watch,” former Redskins wide receiver Anthony Armstrong recalled. “He actually had a lot of great insight and did a great job of explaining stuff.”
With roughly a month left in the 2010 season, tight ends coach Jon Embree left the Redskins to coach at Colorado, and McVay filled in. The following winter, when Jay Gruden tried to bring McVay to Cincinnati, where he had accepted the job as the Bengals’ offensive coordinator, the Redskins promoted McVay to full-time tight ends coach to avoid losing him.
Washington’s tight ends thrived. In 2011, Fred Davis enjoyed a career year and appeared headed for the Pro Bowl before he missed the final four games of the season. The next season, Logan Paulsen had the best year of his career. In 2013, rookie Jordan Reed developed into a threat, setting franchise records for a rookie tight end.
Now McVay is charged with helping the whole offense excel.
The transition poses a challenge but one that is achievable, associates say.
McVay already has the necessary holistic knowledge. The Grudens often preached the importance of “viewing the offense from an 11-man standpoint” regardless of coaching position. Under Kyle Shanahan, McVay was charged with planning third-down packages. And following their talks immediately after his hiring, Jay Gruden deemed McVay the best fit for an offensive coordinator.
“I’m certainly proud but not at all surprised,” John McVay said. “Sean is so confident and so deeply involved in this stuff. He’s really immersed himself in the game. He’s a sharp guy, and he’s had some unbelievable opportunities to learn from some great coaches in Jon and Jay Gruden, Jim Haslett and Mike Shanahan and Kyle Shanahan.”
Passion, confidence and strong communication skills enable McVay to position his players for success, colleagues say.
“I swear his alarm goes off at 4:45 in the morning, and he thinks, ‘Yes! Football!’ ” former Redskins tight end Chris Cooley said. “He’s so excited that he gets to coach, teach and talk football every day, and as a coach, you have to be like that. Because of that, he’s the most-prepared coach that I’ve ever played for, by far. . . . [His message] is very clear because he completely understands it. Players pick up very quickly if a coach isn’t really sure or questions the scheme and what it is. But he was always very clear in what he wanted and expected from guys. . . . He’s just a little more talented than a lot of people I’ve been around.”
Described as “a people person,” McVay also succeeds because of his ability to read his players and cultivate relationships with them.
“You look at the room that I was working with as tight ends this past year,” McVay said. “All of those guys are very good football players, but they also learn in different ways. At the end of the day, your job as a coach is to help people achieve at their highest potential. . . . So you need to get a feel for those players as people and find, ‘What’s the best way to motivate them and help them reach that highest potential?’ That’s always fascinated me.”
McVay’s biggest task — and the most important relationship he must cultivate— involves quarterback Robert Griffin III, who will try to rebound from a tumultuous second season.
Gruden will serve as play-caller and also will work with Griffin, but McVay is expected to help the transition by blending the best elements of the old offense with those of Gruden’s playbook.
McVay embraces the challenge, viewing it as simply one more requirement in his progression.
“I can’t control what happened last year,” he said. “All I can control is the relationship that I have with Robert, and we’re going to develop that, and it’s going to be strong. . . . We’re going to work and succeed together, and any failures, we’ll go through those together as well. So I’m not worried about what has happened before. I’m just excited about what’s ahead.”