Bob Slowik can remember the kid coming to his office to ask the sorts of questions you normally didn’t hear from a coaching colleague in the NFL. Chalk it up to vanity, or insecurity, but it isn’t often that one assistant coach seeks such guidance.
“He was very humble, curious, inquisitive,” Slowik said. “He was willing to be vulnerable. He’d come in and say, ‘Look at this play. What are they doing on defense? I’m not sure I get what they’re doing.’ There aren’t a lot of guys who are going to do that. Guys are afraid: ‘Someone is going to think I don’t know what I’m doing.’ He wasn’t that way. He was very confident in himself. But he didn’t have to show it off.”
Slowik had been coaching in the NFL for 18 years by the time he joined Mike Shanahan’s staff in Washington in 2010, serving for two seasons as the Redskins’ secondary coach and then for two more as their linebackers coach. That inquisitive kid was, when Slowik arrived, a 24-year-old assistant tight ends coach, as close to entry-level as it gets.
Little did Slowik or anyone else at Redskins Park know then that Sean McVay one day would be coaching’s Next Big Thing, that he’d be handed the head coaching job of the Los Angeles Rams just before his 31st birthday and that he’d be readying his own team for the Super Bowl at 33. What they did know then was that McVay was really young. And they came to know that he was really good. But just how good? That was unclear.
“He didn’t speak up as much,” former Redskins wide receiver Aldrick Robinson said. “So you couldn’t tell what a mastermind he was.”
McVay is a football lifer, the grandson of former San Francisco 49ers front office executive John McVay. He was a high school quarterback good enough to be named Georgia’s offensive player of the year, ahead of Calvin Johnson, and he played wide receiver in college at Miami University in Ohio. He went straight from playing in college to coaching, landing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2008 as an assistant wide receivers coach for Jon Gruden.
Two years later, Shanahan hired him to begin a Redskins tenure that included stints as an assistant tight ends coach, tight ends coach and, later, offensive coordinator under Shanahan’s successor, Jay Gruden. Those were McVay’s formative years in coaching, readying him for the opportunity that was to come in L.A. sooner than just about anyone expected.
“He wanted to learn,” Shanahan said. “He was a quality control coach when he came in, then a tight ends coach. But he wanted to know how the whole offense fit together. He wanted to know everything.”
Shanahan assembled a gifted set of young assistants on offense that also included his son Kyle as his offensive coordinator and Matt LaFleur as the quarterbacks coach. Kyle Shanahan is now the head coach of the 49ers and LaFleur was just hired as the head coach of the Green Bay Packers.
They were young. But they were good. Mike Shanahan said that any reluctance he’d had to hire any of them and hand them major responsibilities dissipated quickly.
“Not after I spoke to them,” he said. “With all of them, I knew these guys were young but I knew they were really sharp. They were driven and they really wanted to succeed. Obviously with Kyle, I knew a lot about him. With Sean, I knew his grandfather really well.”
Shanahan also knew there were promising coaching futures ahead.
“I thought Kyle could be a head coach in the league,” he said. “With Sean, I thought he could be an offensive coordinator in pretty short order. You don’t know about head coach with him at that point because of what his experience level was, and you don’t know when those opportunities will come along. But I knew he’d be an offensive coordinator before too long.”
McVay’s appetite for the work was clear. Mike Shanahan says that if he showed up at 5 a.m. for an early workout, McVay was already there. But if there were head coaching ambitions back then, they weren’t stated.
“It’s not like we’d sit there and talk about it,” LaFleur said by phone Tuesday from Green Bay. “You know how this league is. It’s so predicated on ‘what have you done for me lately?’ It’s about plugging away and doing the best job you can at the job you’re in. … We were a close-knit group. There were good times. And there were some times you’d rather not remember so much.”
There was no specific method for proving to players that they were qualified coaches at such a young age.
“I don’t think we had that mentality,” LaFleur said. “It’s about being the best ball coach you can be. Those guys [players] know what’s real.”
And McVay quickly demonstrated that he was the real deal as a coach.
“We were about the same age, and Chris Cooley was older than him,” said former Redskins tight end Logan Paulsen, now with the Atlanta Falcons. “But Sean showed his mastery of the offense. Sean had the answer to any question Chris could ask him.” Said Robinson, now with the Minnesota Vikings: “He was always one of the cool coaches.”
Kyle Shanahan, McVay and LaFleur were cut from the same coaching cloth, according to Robinson.
“You could tell it was a smart group,” he said. “We had an explosive offense. They’re all buddies. They all think alike. It was no surprise they’re having the success they’re having now.”
The success was mixed. That coaching staff devised an offense for quarterback Robert Griffin III that borrowed elements from the college game, took advantage of Griffin’s talents as a runner and a passer and helped to make him the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year in 2012. But after the Redskins won the NFC East title in Griffin’s rookie season, things fell apart in 2013 and Shanahan was fired following a tumultuous three-win season.
McVay was retained by Gruden and promoted to offensive coordinator, and together they helped develop Kirk Cousins into a three-time 4,000-yard passer proficient enough to land a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million contract with the Vikings last offseason.
McVay’s bigger successes have come since the Rams hired him in January 2017. He transformed Jared Goff into a legitimate franchise quarterback. He elevated tailback Todd Gurley to an MVP candidate. He took the Rams to the playoffs last season and now, in Year 2, has them in the Super Bowl preparing to face the New England Patriots on Sunday in Atlanta in a game in which McVay will match wits with Bill Belichick, twice his age and perhaps the greatest coach in NFL history. Other NFL teams with head-coaching vacancies in recent weeks sought the “next” Sean McVay, perhaps leading the Packers to LaFleur.
LaFleur called McVay on the day after the NFC title game to offer congratulations and tips on Super Bowl preparations, having faced the Patriots while working alongside Kyle Shanahan with the Falcons before joining McVay’s staff in L.A. for a season in 2017.
“I wanted to help him any way I can,” LaFleur said. “He’s truly like a brother to me.”
Those who worked with McVay during his Redskins days don’t claim to have known he would be this successful this soon.
“As the pieces of his career began to fall into place, you could tell,” Paulsen said. “Talking to him, you could tell. But as much talent as anyone has, you always need an opportunity.”
As Slowik, now the defensive coordinator of the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes, looks back, he says it was McVay’s curiosity as a young coach that made him stand out. But even that didn’t guarantee being a Super Bowl head coach at 33.
“If anyone says they knew that back then, they wouldn’t be telling the truth,” Slowik said. “There was no way to know that.”
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