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From 32 Wham to leading the Rams, nothing about Sean McVay’s rise is lucky

Rams Coach Sean McVay showed signs of becoming a top NFL mind all the way back in his high school years. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)
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The Marist War Eagles of Atlanta had arrived at the brink, and Coach Alan Chadwick watched his sawed-off senior quarterback jog toward him on the sideline. Timeout had been called with Marist two yards from a touchdown, trailing by five points, about 20 seconds left in a 2003 Georgia Class AAAA quarterfinal. Chadwick started to call a play, the play that would decide their season, before the quarterback interrupted.

“No,” Sean McVay told Chadwick. “This is what we need to do.”

McVay demanded 32 Wham — an off-tackle run right — with a new wrinkle: He would keep the ball on a naked bootleg to the left. The undefeated Shaw Raiders had a fast, aggressive defense, and McVay believed the call would use those attributes against them. Chadwick glanced at his offensive coordinator. The men nodded. Chadwick turned back to McVay and nodded again.

McVay stuck the ball in his running back’s stomach, then pulled it away. He paused, hiding the ball by his waist, as a swarm of defenders piled on the running back. He curled around the left side of the line, all alone, and hoisted the ball above his head as he crossed the goal line. Marist 18, Shaw 17. Two weeks later, Marist won the state championship.

“To be in that kind of pressure situation, in that big of a ballgame, for him to have that kind of awareness and that confidence …” Chadwick said. His voice trailed off, still marveling at McVay all these years later.

The rest of the football world has only started to marvel at McVay, the 31-year-old wunderkind leading the Los Angeles Rams into the NFL playoffs Saturday night. The youngest coach in modern NFL history when the Rams hired him last offseason to helm a dull, floundering franchise, McVay has turned the Rams into a Super Bowl threat, with one of the most appealing, thrilling offenses in the NFL.

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McVay, the Washington Redskins’ offensive coordinator for the prior three seasons, inherited from Jeff Fisher a 4-12 team that finished dead last in points scored, another lowlight for a franchise without a winning season since 2003. Under McVay, the Rams went 11-5, won the NFC West for the first time in 14 years and scored the most points in the NFL.

The Rams’ turnaround has been part addition and part transformation. McVay hired weathered defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, pushed for the signing of two crucial offensive linemen and overhauled Los Angeles’s receiving unit. Jared Goff, the 2016 first overall pick, morphed from lost rookie to franchise quarterback. Running back Todd Gurley, after a season in which he gained 3.2 yards per rushing attempt, became an MVP candidate.

At the center of everything is McVay, the grandson of a Super Bowl-winning NFL executive, the Marist option quarterback who grew up fast and became the NFL’s next great coach.

“He’s a brilliant guy. Brilliant football mind,” Rams center John Sullivan said. “I don’t know if everybody fully understands that. From afar, you can kind of appreciate that. You can’t understand how far ahead of everyone he is. You can just tell he’s ahead of the curve.”

McVay may have been born ahead of the curve. His grandfather, John, coached the Giants before he helped run the 49ers during their dynasty. His uncle played at Miami of Ohio, and his dad, Tim, played defensive back at Indiana. The McVays were close friends with the Gruden coaching family, and Sean came to know Jon well.

As an option quarterback in high school, he had to understand the reads and responsibilities of every offensive position. “He really got into the intellectual and gain-a-strategic-advantage approach that probably stimulated some thoughts of coaching down the road,” Tim McVay said.

McVay switched to wide receiver and played college football at Miami of Ohio, but he still studied the whole scheme. “He understood everything,” former Miami coach Shane Montgomery said. “He understood the whole offense, and he was a great leader.” Still, McVay had not decided he wanted to coach.

“He was like any college kid, wondering, ‘What the heck am I going to do when I get out of college?’ ” Tim McVay said.

Jon Gruden provided an answer: He offered McVay an entry-level job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as a gopher and a grunt. McVay had a year left of eligibility after graduating in four years, but he informed Montgomery he was leaving to start his career.

“How many kids are able to get hired right in the NFL right out of college?” Tim McVay asked. “Not many. All of a sudden, boom, he’s right in, working as an assistant to Jon. He embraced it.”

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Working for Gruden, known for keeping long hours, provided a lasting example. One day, McVay showed up at 5 a.m. “Where the hell you been, McVay?” Gruden asked him. “You’re late.” McVay still loved the work — the planning, the competition, the players, all of it, and he kept showing up before dawn and leaving long after dark.

“As parents, you’re going, ‘You got to get a little more sleep,’ ” Tim McVay said.

The work expanded McVay’s knowledge. In 2010, after Gruden had been fired and McVay spent a year under brother Jay Gruden with the United Football League’s Florida Tuskers, McVay landed an interview with Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan, who needed an assistant tight ends coach. Shanahan planned to interview four people for the job, and McVay went first.

“I could tell very quickly after the interview,” Shanahan said, “I didn’t need to talk to the other three guys.”

For a low-level assistant, McVay prided himself on learning every aspect. He would quiz other coaches about blitzes, protection schemes, secondary alignments, anything to understand the game better. He’d probe Shanahan about what he was thinking when he called a specific play. He loved football and devoured every morsel.

“He’d ask questions at a young age that most people wouldn’t ask,” Shanahan said. “He wanted to know the whys behind everything.”

That year, tight ends coach Jon Embree left to coach Colorado with about a month remaining in the season, and Shanahan elevated McVay, a couple months shy of his 25th birthday. Washington tight end Chris Cooley tested him immediately. “Sean, you were in high school when I started playing,” Cooley told him. “Don’t tell me how to do things.”

It took Cooley a week to stop, for one reason: Over and over, McVay knew. In one meeting, Cooley and McVay argued about how to run a route for 25 minutes. On the practice field, the debate continued for another 25 minutes, until Cooley, the seven-year NFL tight end, conceded that McVay was right.

“It’s not an arrogance,” Cooley said. “But he has a confidence in his knowledge of the game and understanding of the game. He has this never-back-down attitude that’s a good thing. There’s a fine line between, ‘We’re going to do [this] because I’m right’ and, ‘We’re going to do this because I’m right, and here’s the reason I’m right.’ ”

McVay won the argument through detail. He explained that Cooley needed to line up split two yards outside the numbers, and the “stem” of his route had to finish one step inside the numbers, at which point he would execute a “double-stick” — picking his foot up and putting it back down — before cutting outside.

“The nuance was amazing and awesome,” Cooley said. “In the past, I’d just hear, ‘Run 12 yards, get your depth and break hard.’ ”

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In the game, Cooley gained massive separation from a Jacksonville Jaguars defender with the route — only to drop a pass. But the instruction stuck with him, and still does. In those four weeks, Cooley believed, McVay made him a better player and a superior route runner.

“In the first month or so, I thought he was a little savant boy or genius boy,” Cooley said. “I think he’s an outlier in the football community.”

McVay’s intellect renders his age a bigger topic outside of locker rooms than in them. NFL players want their coaches to prepare them and make them better. McVay has proved, over and over, through natural talent and hard work, he can do both.

“The age was never anything he had to overcome,” Sullivan said. “I think it’s a strength. He’s energetic. He understands players. It’s a factor in why guys bought in.”

When McVay ascended to head coach of the Rams, after three years running Washington’s offense, he never let his youth become an issue. “He knew he was supposed to be there,” Chadwick said. In one of his most important staff decisions, he hired Phillips, a former head coach and one of the most experienced defensive minds in football. He felt secure enough in his own ability to have a 70-year-old Super Bowl winner work for him.

“Some young coaches are afraid to hire those guys,” Shanahan said. “Sean is not one of those guys.”

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Even as a head coach, McVay remains obsessed with detail. This summer, while visiting old coaches at Marist, one of Chadwick’s assistants asked McVay about his summer plans, expecting to hear about his vacation destination. McVay told him he had a project in mind: studying the defensive substitution patterns of the other 31 NFL teams.

McVay won over the Rams immediately. He made it a point to approach players and tell them specifically how and why they were appreciated. Some head coaches have a tendency to focus more on the side of the ball they coached as an assistant. McVay could compliment a safety or defensive end on his footwork, showing an understanding of the most minute details.

“He knows what everybody is supposed to be doing, and he knows why,” Sullivan said. “When he’s letting guys know, they know it’s genuine.”

But the strategic genius helped, too. He adapted his offense to suit Goff, who had run a spread offense in college. Through creative formations and run-play designs, he created more easy plays for Goff and opened up more chances to throw deep. Goff’s yards per attempt leaped from 5.3 to 8.0, and as the Rams’ offense evolved over the course of the year, McVay’s vision became more tailored to his players.

“When he talks about football, he sees everything,” Sullivan said. “Every single thing, it’s like he’s watching tape in his head as he says it.”

McVay has always seen more about football than others, from his days as an option quarterback to the NFL sideline. He has gone further, faster, than just about any football coach who ever called a play. He had a head start, perhaps, thanks to his grandfather’s connection. In the industry, some may consider him lucky. Shanahan, the man who gave him first full-time job, snorted at that notion.

“Funny how some people are really lucky,” Shanahan said. “He’s going to be lucky for a long time.”

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