The Rams are the biggest surprise story of the NFL at midseason.... No, check that. The rookie coach behind those Rams, SEAN MCVAY, is the biggest surprise story, and he's already running mental laps around the competition
THIS MUCH YOU likely know: At 31, Sean McVay is the youngest head coach in NFL history. This part you likely don't: McVay is already the league's best offensive mind. Period. That mind is what earned him his job with the Rams last winter, and it's what has those Rams sitting atop the NFC West at 7--2.
L.A. scored a mere 14.0 points per game last season, easily the fewest in the NFL, and finished below .500 for a 10th straight season. Through Week 10 of 2017, McVay's Rams have more than doubled that average, up to 32.9, notching 72 more total points already than in all of '16. (If the season ended today their points-per-game increase would be the biggest in the modern era.) And this all looks sustainable, given that Jared Goff, the No. 1 pick last year, has seen his passer rating climb from 63.6 (dead last in the league) to 101.5 (No. 7).
If the Rams reach the playoffs in January, marking their first postseason in 13 years and one of the biggest surprises of 2017, they will have McVay to thank.
THE RISE HAS been uncommonly swift: Three years playing receiver at Miami (Ohio); straight to the NFL in 2008 as a low-level assistant under the Bucs' Jon Gruden; a year in UFL Siberia; then a quick ascension with the Redskins—tight ends coach under Mike Shanahan, offensive coordinator under Jay Gruden, who eventually let him call the plays. Gruden's long leash was crucial in McVay's development, but the Shanahan years seem to have been the most formative.
Shanahan believed in marrying his running and passing games, such that all of his plays initially looked the same. The scheme that best fits this approach begins with an outside-zone ground game, where your offensive line moves in unison. Here, a defense typically flows with the zone blocking, which makes the scheme particularly conducive to play-action.
The best zone offense in recent memory? That belonged to the 2016 Falcons, coordinated by Shanahan's son, Kyle, who'd been on that old Redskins staff with his dad... and McVay. Three days after Shanahan's Atlanta offense played in Super Bowl LI, last February, McVay snapped up the Falcons' quarterbacks coach, 37-year-old Matt LaFleur, to be his own offensive coordinator. (LaFleur was also on that Shanahan staff in Washington.) Together, McVay and LaFleur have adopted many of Atlanta's zone-running and play-action concepts.
The play-action, in particular, has helped Goff immensely. The run fake (against predictable first- and second-down defensive looks) slows down pass rushers and manipulates linebackers and safeties. Under McVay, these are timing and rhythm throws, almost always with reads to just one side of the field. And it's paying off. This season, according to Football Outsiders, the Rams are using play-action on about 25% of their dropbacks (fourth-most in the league) and averaging 8.5 yards on those plays (11th-most).
Much of that play-action success stems from McVay's play-calling rhythm. His feel for this is uncanny. Watching Rams film can be like reading a story with a great motif; everything correlates to an underlying theme. McVay will run plays on his third series that look like plays he ran on his first and second series—but only initially. They morph as they unfold.
McVay is a master too at conjuring up downfield route combos that complicate and blur the responsibilities of zone defenders. That feeling you get when you're walking down the sidewalk and you realize your path is shared with an oncoming stranger—that's how playing zone coverage against McVay's offense feels. As a defender, it can put you in a bind.
SO CAN MCVAY'S formations. This team, more than any other, aligns its receivers tight to the formation, inside the field numbers. Those tighter splits eliminate the sideline (an imposing 12th defender), giving each L.A. receiver a two-way go. Defenders must cover more ground and more route possibilities; because of the clustered spacing, they're more susceptible to rub and pick routes. McVay builds a lot of these rubs and picks into the beginnings of his plays by aligning receivers close to one another, and those receivers get open quickly. It's what the Patriots have perfected in recent years. It's how you beat man coverage.
Something else McVay pilfered from the Pats: the use of presnap motion. Often, a Rams receiver will align wide and motion down into the clustered tight split. This puts defenders on their heels. They must play with more cushion, and their response almost always tells Goff whether he's facing man or zone coverage. If a defender follows the motioning receiver, it's typically man; if he doesn't, it's zone. This information is particularly valuable in McVay's system, in which he'll often have two sets of route combinations: man-coverage-beaters on one side of the field, zone-beaters on the other. He has an answer for almost everything.
LET'S BE FAIR about this all: As primed as McVay is to take L.A. to the next level, he is overseeing a more talented group than the one Jeff Fisher led in 2016. Goff is a year older, the O-line is stabilized by veteran free-agent pickups at left tackle and center, the receiving corps is totally revamped.
The biggest difference, though, is the way this offense is being orchestrated. A commanding play-caller makes a quarterback more comfortable. And a comfortable quarterback is one who will play with pocket poise and decisiveness in those critical moments when play design alone isn't enough. The Rams are still rebuilding, but with a gifted coach, the foundation for excellence is already in place.