Sports | August 24, 2020 10:21 am

Is Sean McVay Actually the Elite NFL Coach We All Thought He Was?

Entering his fourth season as the Rams' head coach, McVay is under more pressure than ever before

How Will Sean McVay Right the Ship in LA With the Rams?
Head coach Sean McVay of the Los Angeles Rams looks on during training camp. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty)
Getty Images

Over the next six weeks, we’ll be preparing for the kickoff of the 2020 NFL season on September 10 by attempting to answer the most important question facing all 32 of the league’s franchises in order of their 2019 finish, from worst to first. Today’s team: the Rams.

No. 14: Los Angeles Rams
2019 Record: 9-7

Points For: 394 – Points Against: 364
Projected 2020 Over/Under Win Total: 8

On paper, the 2019 season for the Los Angeles Rams really doesn’t seem that bad. Coming off a Super Bowl run that ended with a loss to the Patriots, the Rams went 9-7 and finished just outside of the playoff pack. The team had a positive point differential (+30) and finished fourth in the NFL in passing yards per game (281.2) and in the middle of the pack in points scored (24.6, 11th) and points against (22.8, 16th).

It’s when you look a little bit deeper that the blemishes start to show.

Following a 3-0 start, the Rams lost dropped three in a row, including a 55-40 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at home that exposed just how bad a Rams defense led by two-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald could actually be. That issue cropped up again in Week 12 when, needing a win at 6-4 to keep pace in the ultra-competitive NFC West, the Rams hosted the Baltimore Ravens and once again got blown out, this time by a score of 45-6.

The Rams’ offense, second in the league in scoring at 32.9 points per game in 2018, didn’t have enough firepower to help overcome the defense’s shortcomings in 2019, slipping as a unit to average just 24.6 points per game, more than a touchdown less than the year before.

There were many reasons for the drop-off, from 2018 Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley being ineffective out of the backfield to poor pass-blocking to the receiving corps being banged up, but the biggest one was clearly the dip in play from quarterback Jared Goff.

Goff, who threw 32 touchdowns and 12 picks during the regular season prior to LA’s Super Bowl run, had only 22 touchdowns, and tossed a career-worst 16 interceptions. In 2018, the 25-year-old’s yards per pass on play-action attempts was 10.0, which ranked second among all QBs with at least 100 play-action attempts. In 2019, that dropped to 8.4, which wasn’t even in the top 10. While Goff was third in the NFL last year in passing yardage (4,638), he was 22nd in passer rating and 19th in completion percentage.

Some of the blame for that, clearly, falls on the shoulders of Goff, who is being paid like an elite NFL QB (his contract pays him an average of $33.5 million annually) but hasn’t played like one since being exposed by the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.

But some of the blame also has to fall to 34-year-old head coach Sean McVay, who is now three years removed from being the most-hyped coach in the league, and finally facing some pressure to win.

And it’s deserved.

The Rams, after seeing McVay go 24-8 over his first two seasons, have built a win-now roster that is going to have to make do with the pieces already in place. Because the team has made a number of trades to bring in established talents like cornerback Jalen Ramsey, the Rams have not had a first-round pick since 2016, and do not own another one until 2022. They also don’t have a ton of money to spend in free agency, since more than 40 percent of their $203 million budget this year is allocated to four players — Goff, Donald, Gurley (now on the Falcons) and Brandin Cooks (now on the Texans) — with Ramsey also needing to be paid in the near future.

Throw in the like of wide receivers Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods, and on paper, the Rams have the makings of a legitimate playoff — if not Super Bowl — contender. While Goff may never be elite, he’s already proven that he’s capable of leading a well-rounded team with solid skill players to within a few plays of the finish line. But the Rams are also in somewhat of a mess financially. That means it falls on McVay — a coach once anointed for greatness — to get the most out of what he has. If even half the puff pieces that were written about McVay were right, he should be able to.

“I am incredibly honored by this opportunity,” McVay said when he was hired in 2017. “Collectively, we are committed to building a championship-caliber team and I’m excited to start that process and make our fans proud.”

Now, entering his fourth season as the head coach in LA, McVay and his process will need to produce results the way they did in 2018. If that doesn’t happen, he’ll enter 2021 on the hot seat.