Not long after the Los Angeles Rams traded for Marcus Peters, a talented but unpredictable cornerback, second-year Coach Sean McVay invited Peters to the team facility for some one-on-one time.
McVay knew about Peters’s first three NFL seasons: two Pro Bowls and so much passion that the young defender seemed to wrap his self worth into what happens on the field. Peters also had a reputation for talking back to his college and NFL coaches and collecting penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct, and in December he picked up an official’s flag and flung it into the stands before stalking toward the locker room.
So there were some things to discuss, yes, but McVay began by letting Peters do most of the talking. They watched game film and traded thoughts about what they saw. The 32-year-old coach and 25-year-old corner talked about family and hometowns. They talked about how they reached this point and how, for both of them, success came so early that it’s hard for people to entirely make sense of it.
“Just getting to know the person and being intentional about listening,” McVay would say months later of how he strategized an important conversation. “I would say I’m a pleaser.”
Then again, he’s also the leader and public face of one of the upcoming NFL season’s most compelling teams: a favorite to win the NFC and a franchise that — in the very mold of McVay himself — seems so eager to succeed quickly that its boldness is almost jarring.
A few months after McVay went 11-5 and reached the playoffs in his first season as a head coach, the Rams traded for Peters and another volatile Pro Bowl corner, Aqib Talib. They signed defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh, with his explosive play and history of getting fined for going too far during and after plays, and in April traded for wide receiver Brandin Cooks, who at 24 is on his third NFL team.
This is adding to a roster with franchise quarterback Jared Goff, star running back Todd Gurley and defensive player of the year Aaron Donald (who ended his holdout Friday by signing what was the biggest deal for a defender in NFL history before Khalil Mack’s new pact with the Chicago Bears eclipsed it the following day). Nearly two years after the franchise initiated its relocation from St. Louis to Los Angeles, Hollywood has arrived in the Rams’ locker room.
A little more than a week before the Rams begin the regular season, on national television no less, the only thing certain is that McVay is on the verge of something explosive. His second season — and a scintillating experiment in people management — could end with him either lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy or discussing youthful hubris and regrets. The New England Patriots have collected stars like this, but that’s with Bill Belichick — who was in his 30s when he was hired, then fired, for the first time as a head coach — as the coach, architect and chief disciplinarian. So have the Cincinnati Bengals, and remember the Philadelphia Eagles’ “Dream Team” in 2011? It lit up the offseason and drew praise for its fearlessness, then went 8-8 and missed the playoffs.
Andrew Whitworth played 11 seasons in Cincinnati for Coach Marvin Lewis, who after 15 seasons as a head coach has a reputation of ignoring the pasts of talented players. That has worked sometimes, and other times it hasn’t; in the end Lewis is still 0-7 in the postseason. When Whitworth signed with the Rams before the 2017 season and had a sit-down similar to the one McVay had with Peters, the veteran offensive tackle noticed similarities to Lewis — optimism, enthusiasm, valuing talent over all else — but in actuality McVay reminded Whitworth of a different coach.
“The closest I’ve been around,” Whitworth said, “to Nick Saban.”
The lineman played for the legendary coach at Louisiana State, where Saban won his first of what would become six — and counting — national championships. Back then Saban wasn’t as young as McVay, but among the things they have in common is that they were descended from football men, almost predetermined to do this, and share an exhausting but usually rewarding intensity. Cultures are created and meticulously maintained, both men believe, and are more important than even the biggest stars. Whitworth said his new coach and old coach have other things in common: They’re constant planners and psychological anarchists.
McVay might start practice one day by throwing out the session’s plan, engaging his players in a free-for-all because that’s what some games become or challenging defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to an impromptu scrimmage: the millennial offensive wizard with boy band hair against the white-topped 71-year-old who was building NFL defenses a decade before McVay was born.
“You almost create your own anxiety and your own challenges,” said Whitworth, who is four years older than his coach. “You need to be prepared for anything.”
Novelty is sometimes enough to keep challenging players occupied, but it’s the strength of McVay’s culture — still in its infancy 19 months after he was hired — that will determine this season’s direction. If the foundation is as strong as he hopes, it will be because veterans will steer wandering personalities back on course and because the Rams’ front office fully vetted the players it brought in. It will be because McVay trusted the judgment of associates such as Phillips, who coached Talib in Denver, and strength coach Ted Rath, who knew Suh when they were both in Miami.
“It’s all about being surrounded by good people that can help you manage,” said McVay, displaying either the belief in a system he has been putting together most of his life or a bit of his naivete.
Regardless, the coach said he has learned to trust in his lieutenants, primarily Phillips and the way he and McVay are effectively yin and yang, and in being honest. McVay said it’s important for him to personally deliver bad news, to be compassionate but direct, to be — and maybe this is rare in his line of work — a listener and a human being.
“Sometimes a guy just needs to be loved on,” Whitworth said, and in one way that’s what McVay was trying to accomplish with Peters a few months ago.
The young corner was the biggest mystery of an offseason defined by fireworks. No Rams employee had crossed paths with Peters elsewhere, so the team had no real experience knowing how to reach him or navigate his moods.
McVay and Les Snead, the team’s general manager, called friends in and around the league and asked questions as the trade — Kansas City parted with Peters for only second- and fourth-round picks, giving back a sixth-rounder — came together. They knew about Peters’s potential and his temper, that a brash Oakland native is a strange cultural fit in Middle America, that sometimes a change of venue and a little humanity can unlock something remarkable.
They went for it, and soon McVay was on the phone with Peters, showing that energy and personality that unexpectedly won McVay the job less than two years ago, when he was the 30-year old offensive coordinator of the Redskins. They agreed to meet in Los Angeles when the deal became official, they did, and here they all are.
“He has been nothing but a joy,” McVay said of Peters, going on to describe his receptiveness and optimism.
Then again, the coach said as he pivoted toward the team at large . . .
“We haven’t played a game yet,” he said, and indeed there’s no way for even him to know what’s ahead, dream team or “Dream Team” — although with so much glitz and star power set to be unleashed, there’s no chance it will be boring.