Sean McVay has never really slept well. His mind races constantly, so he spends most of his nights tossing and turning, waking up almost every hour and finally lifting himself out of bed before the sun rises.
“But this has been a week where I’ve gotten a little less sleep,” McVay said. “I’m a little more irritable than normal.”
McVay’s Los Angeles Rams begin their season this weekend, so irritability is probably justified. They’ll kick off against the Indianapolis Colts at 1:05 p.m. P.T. on Sunday, at which point McVay will officially become the youngest head coach in a game in modern NFL history. He is less than eight months removed from his 31st birthday, and history hasn’t necessarily been kind to those who came before him. The four youngest Super Bowl-era coaches before McVay — a list that includes Lane Kiffin, Raheem Morris, David Shula and Josh McDaniels — went a combined 52-115 before being fired by their respective teams, with no other head-coaching jobs in sight.
McVay shrugged that off in a recent interview with ESPN. He doesn’t know where they all went wrong, but he seems to have a firm grasp on how he won’t.
“The biggest thing,” McVay said, “is trusting the people around you.”
McVay isn’t merely a bright coordinator, as most young head coaches tend to be. He is a natural and a continually developing leader who’s fascinated by the art of relationship building. He has injected the Rams with a jolt of energy and has brought some much-needed innovation to the way they run their offense. But McVay knows he’ll have to do more than that to succeed in a position like this. So he wants to be accountable, he wants to communicate clearly, he wants to remain consistent and he wants to empower others.
“For whatever reason, I’ve always been interested in those types of things, leadership books, and different ways to connect with people in a real, authentic, genuine type of way,” McVay said. “The consistency is really important. You don’t get a lot of sleep; stressful things come up. But you have to make sure that you’re always even-keeled, you’re always the same.”
McVay was raised by a grandfather, John, who was a distinguished executive with the San Francisco 49ers, and a father, Tim, who has long held high-ranking positions with ABC affiliates. He became close friends with Jon and Jay Gruden, who brought him into a world of strong, capable NFL leaders. And McVay spoke to several of them in the weeks leading up to his first training camp.
Their biggest advice?
“Don’t try to be like anybody else,” McVay said. “Do it your way.”
McVay has a lot on his shoulders these days. He’s calling plays for an offense that has been the NFL’s worst over the last two years and steering a franchise that hasn’t had a winning record since 2003. The Rams not only need to get on track under McVay, they need to capture the attention of the nation’s second-largest media market, with three years left before they join the neighboring Chargers in the world’s most expensive stadium.
McVay will tell you that the most surprising aspect of being a head coach has been “the amount of things that come across your plate that you can’t anticipate,” the most notable of which is Aaron Donald’s prolonged holdout. Through that, McVay has tried his best to keep things simple and has grown more comfortable entrusting his assistant coaches. To him it’s easy, because Wade Phillips is one of the game’s most accomplished defensive coordinators and John Fassel is as good as it gets running special teams.
Security with oneself is a requirement for empowering others, but so is humility. And many will point to that as one of McVay’s best traits, because he’s so comfortable admitting what he does not know.
“The more that I’ve done this,” McVay said, “the more I’ve realized there’s a value in experience.”
That thought resonated with him a couple of years ago, when he started calling plays as the Washington Redskins’ offensive coordinator. McVay always believed he could, but it became more difficult than he ever imagined. He made mistakes, and it humbled him. He listened to more experienced people around him, and it helped him grow.
“I think once you stop learning, you’re going to stop growing,” McVay said. “You always want to surround yourself with better people than you.”
Phillips, involved in the NFL for five decades, is a prime example. When McVay landed the interview with the Rams, he asked Phillips if he would join him as his defensive coordinator. Phillips agreed largely because he thought so highly of what McVay could become.
“The more I’m around him,” Phillips said, “the more I have that feeling.”
Phillips worked under and ultimately replaced Marv Levy, who’s now in the Hall of Fame. He also spent a lot of time around Dan Reeves and Marty Schottenheimer, who won a combined 390 games.
“This guy is potentially that kind of coach because he’s got a clear message,” Phillips said of McVay. “The players know what to expect, and that was the thing that [Levy, Reeves and Schottenheimer] had.”
McVay replaced the ultimate player’s coach in Jeff Fisher, so he understood that he probably had some ground to make up in the locker room. But he stayed true to himself. He met with each player individually, and veteran offensive lineman Rodger Saffold said he “made you fall in love with the way that he wants to coach.”
The learning curve is real, and McVay will make mistakes along the way. He knows this.
Jon and Jay Gruden taught him something about that.
“Don’t be afraid to say, ‘Oh, hey, my bad,’” McVay said. “Take accountability yourself. I think a lot of times we talk about asking our players to be accountable. But I know that I’m imperfect. And if I can’t admit a mistake, then what does that represent to our guys? The best leaders that I’ve seen have that accountability.”