The Rams will be stronger for McVay's Super Bowl mistakes

IRVINE, Calif. — The realization didn’t come in a film session. There wasn’t some epiphany days or weeks later. Instead, unforgiving reality struck on the biggest stage of Sean McVay’s football life. And it was both brutal and instantaneous.

This is how the Los Angeles Rams coach recounts the lessons of his Super Bowl LIII loss. Like someone describing their slow motion agony of dropping a glass of red wine on white carpet – but still processing two thoughts before impact:

1. “Oh crap.”

2. “I have some immediate regrets.”

You could put that on a shirt and McVay might actually wear it. Because five months ago, he suffered one of the roughest offensive coaching performances of his career. And yet, ever since then he’s been framing it into remarkably naked perspective. About how Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots taught him something. And how people seem to be forgetting that this whole deal – learning to be a leader and a winner – is just starting for him.

“The thing that’s been consistent in all the leaders that I’ve met – business leaders, coaches – they’re constant learners,” McVay said. “There’s a security in their vulnerability that they still need to learn things. And let’s be honest, I certainly don’t have it all figured out, either.”

You have to hear McVay actually speak those words to realize he’s not feigning modesty. Because, really, how clueless can you be when you’re two years into an NFL head coaching gig and already have a 24-8 record and a Super Bowl appearance? All by the age of 33, no less. When someone with that kind of success says they don’t have it figured out, you either believe them or punch them in the ear.

With McVay, people buy that he’s continuously trying to cultivate experience. Likely because he legitimately seems to have a fetish for learning when it comes to his profession. Which might explain why he has so openly and easily embraced the discussion of his failures in the Super Bowl.

For McVay, the “oh crap” moment last February was watching the New England Patriots morph parts of their defensive scheme into something that hadn’t consistently been on tape. Mixed defensive fronts. Scrambled pass coverages. Odd personnel groups. Basically, dipping into all manner of things that didn’t readily fit their identity in 2018.

All of which delivered McVay to his immediate regrets. Well, only one regret, really: the realization that when you face New England and Belichick in the Super Bowl, you don’t ask what will be on that test. Instead, you just read every last vowel in the available material. You create answers for the unlikeliest of questions. You plan for all contingencies. Because that’s exactly what Belichick counts on you not doing. That’s why he is who he is. And that’s why the Patriots have become the gold standard in Super Bowl history.

When you don’t put in that kind of work (and the Rams didn’t), you lose a Super Bowl 13-3 with one of the worst offensive performances of your career. Then you face visitors coming to your training camp with a familiar question …

When did you realize the mistakes you made preparing for the Patriots?

“During the game,” McVay said. “Right in the middle of it.”

And the lesson?

“If you expect to adapt and evolve, [remember] the teams that did have success against you,” McVay said. “Because you bet your ass you’re going to see that game plan again.”

It should be noted, McVay isn’t downtrodden when he says things like this. Instead, he comes off more like someone who is simultaneously upset with himself and itching to show that he won’t make the same mistake twice.

That’s arguably the biggest positive for the Rams in this training camp. That the undeniably special McVay lost to arguably the best coach in NFL history in Belichick, but walked away with a significant addition to his file cabinet. Specifically, an illustration that a fearless and seasoned team can meaningfully alter its identity in just two weeks of Super Bowl preparation.

And one more lesson for good measure: There is no such thing as a meaningless contingency plan. Because not having one for every scenario is what gets you in trouble.

“The reality is I didn’t give us a chance really to have offensive production, period,” McVay said. “Whether you look at Todd Gurley. Whether you look at Jared Goff.”

To McVay’s credit, there’s something impressive about the persistence of that message. While many coaches have admitted their mistakes in Super Bowl losses, few have continued to openly process the errors for the media five months later.

The biggest moments from Super Bowl LIII everyone will be talking about
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The biggest moments from Super Bowl LIII everyone will be talking about

Celebrities came out to the game, including Kevin Hart, Ludacris, Ellie Kemper in a frankenjersey, and Conor McGregor with his son in matching suits.

(Photos via Getty Images)

It wouldn't be a Super Bowl without Tom Brady yelling "LET'S GO!" after running onto the field.

(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

The roof was opened before the game but was closed for the actual game.

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Gladys Knight made some gamblers happy when she milked the last couple of lines to the national anthem, clocking in at 2:01 from start to finish (although there was some controversy over how many times she said "Brave").

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The Pats got a good return on the opening kickoff, but Tom Brady was picked off with his first pass attempt.

(Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It didn't take long to find controversy as Nickell Robey-Coleman was flagged for hitting a defenseless player on a tackle that most felt was a solid football play.

(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

The Patriots had the first scoring opportunity but missed the field goal. And sure enough, Tony Romo kinda-sorta predicted it.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The first quarter ended scoreless, and people with 0 and 0 in their Super Bowl squares pool were celebrating. The first 15 minutes featured three punts, a missed field goal, and an interception.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The Patriots finally broke through early in the second quarter with a field goal to take a 3-0 lead.

(Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

The game was still 3-0 at the half, tying three other games for the fewest points in the first half this season.

(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

At halftime, the world was treated to Maroon 5 and all of Adam Levine's tattoos.

(Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The second half started much like the entirety of the first half, with a Rams punt. The Patriots held the Rams to a punt on each of their first eight possessions.

(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Things were so boring, Jim Nantz and Tony Romo went nuts when the Rams broke the record for the longest Super Bowl punt.

(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

The Rams looked like they were going to finally break through, but Jason McCourty broke up what looked like an easy touchdown.

(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The Rams finally got on the board when Greg Zuerlein snuck a field goal inside the upright.

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

After two more punts — the 13th and 14th of the game — the Patriots finally scored the first touchdown of the game as Sony Michel busted through from two yards out.

(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Just when it looked like the Rams were starting to get their offense clicking, the Patriots brought a blitz and Jared Goff threw an interception near the end zone.

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

All of a sudden, when it mattered most, the Rams' rush defense failed them and the Patriots marched right down the field in the final minutes, with three rushes over ten yards.

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

With just over a minute to go, the Patriots hit a field goal that sealed their sixth Super Bowl championship, as the ball just snuck inside the left upright.

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)


And yet, McVay just keeps embracing the questions. Not because he’s trying to step up and protect anyone else. But because he actually believes he’s the person who bears the most responsibility. It was his game plan. The offensive flow was in large part manipulated by his calls. And even if players like Goff or Gurley didn’t execute, it was on McVay to make the adjustments and kickstart something.

That didn’t happen, so he was left to answer for it.

Which he has. Repeatedly, openly, almost happily. Each question offering another chance to explain what he has learned and who he has learned it from. Which, oddly, has given him even more credibility in his locker room and everywhere else in the franchise. Because when the head coach keeps dissecting his mistakes publicly, it makes it hard for anyone else to skirt their own shortcomings.

There’s no shame in failure. Or as McVay likes to say, “It doesn’t matter who is right. It only matters what is right.”

If that sounds like a pretty vulnerable statement from an NFL head coach, that’s because it is. Particularly in a league where some coaches insist on always looking like they have the right answers.

“Vulnerability is one of Sean’s greatest strengths,” Rams president Kevin Demoff said. “He’s vulnerable with the media. He’s vulnerable with the players. He admits when he screws up. He admits when he needs to get better. He encourages players to be vulnerable, staff to be vulnerable.

“The organization grows from our mistakes.”

The next few months will test that. Not only for the Rams, but for McVay specifically. Come next February, he still may not have it all figured out. But you can bet he’s counting on being a little closer than he was five months ago.

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