Welcome to the Sean McVay Moment

Welcome to the Sean McVay Moment

SEARCHING FOR A vodka soda, Sean McVay walks me through the expansive refurbished kitchen of his new 9,000-square-foot house in a double-security-gated Hidden Hills community that also is home to Drake, Miley Cyrus, the Jenners and Kardashians just up the 101 Freeway from Los Angeles. It’s a May afternoon, in the spring after he got everything he ever wanted. He and his soon-to-be wife, Veronika Khomyn, have just moved in. Boxes are scattered. Shelves and walls and rooms are vast and mostly empty; a soft echo accompanies conversation. He just got home from work and wants to unwind. Where the vodka sodas are stored, he’s unsure. He walks to a built-in cabinet and presses the door. It doesn’t open. He presses it again. Nope. He moves to another. It opens, but it’s empty.

“Where …?” he asks.

He wheels into a pantry area and scans a shelf. Success. He then heads to the backyard, which has an infinity pool and a TV tuned to an NBA game. It’s golden hour, the air cool but the ground warm. To the side of the patio is his home office. A Lombardi trophy is on one of the desks. At 36, McVay is the youngest head coach ever to win one. In the coming months he’ll receive a proclamation of recognition from his hometown city council in Atlanta, and his alma mater, Miami University in Ohio, will announce that it’s going to build a statue of him.

He stares at the scenery and takes a pull off his drink.

Only recently has McVay been able to catch his breath after the most fun and stressful months of his life. There was, of course, the Super Bowl win over the Bengals. Then an opportunity to leave coaching for the booth, if he so desired. Wedding planning, after delays due to the pandemic. The dull panic that the Rams are behind the rest of the league, after the long playoff run in the longest season in NFL history. And then the texts: Veronika is Ukrainian and still has family outside of Lviv, an initial and repeated target. Both of them check their phones constantly during the night. Half of Veronika’s family won’t be able to attend the wedding at the Beverly Hills Hotel, including her dad. It’s been surreal for McVay to reach the pinnacle of his profession, watch his wealth exponentially increase, move from one beautiful home into another, all set against the backdrop of war. A lot of feelings are in the air, some that McVay can articulate and some that he can’t, but today as he stares at the new house, he’s reflective.

“Still can’t believe we live here,” he says.

McVay is a young man but a veteran coach, with hair always gelled, forearms always swollen, scruff always at two-day growth — he shaved himself clean once and “it scared Veronika,” he jokes — and eyes that default to a sort of worried look. He leans back into his white patio couch, trying to enjoy the life he’s built through a game that he bent to his will — and that he knows might destroy him. He still has unfinished work from today, because there’s always unfinished work — passing-game film to break down, which he’ll do either tonight or in the morning, depending on how the evening goes.

“Dropback install,” he says. “Got 208 clips to go through.”

THE MORNING AFTER he won Super Bowl LVI, McVay woke up and looked in the mirror. Running on fumes and semi-hungover, he saw his career, and his life, with weird clarity, as if he had finally understood something essential about himself. He had imagined and considered what it would feel like to join the exclusive list of coaches with at least one ring. After losing Super Bowl LIII to New England in 2019, he had sat with Veronika in a near-catatonic state. “I can’t believe it,” he kept saying, mostly to himself. He told his family not to worry; they worried anyway. The game itself was a blur, a schooling by Bill Belichick so thorough and traumatic that to this day, McVay hasn’t watched it in full. He felt he coached “like an amateur … so in over my head,” and he swore that it would never happen again.

It didn’t. But McVay’s first glimpse of himself after L.A.’s 23-20 win over the Bengals was odd. He didn’t feel like a better coach, aside from having accumulated the knowledge of having coached another game, another book in a growing library. He didn’t feel like the living truth of his outstanding résumé: that he, in only five years — without a day under .500; with playoff wins over Pete Carroll, Bruce Arians and Sean Payton; with his own football tree, four head coaches strong — has a chance to be one of the greats, maybe the greatest ever.

No, like Vince Lombardi and Belichick on mornings after some of their championships, McVay felt grateful and humble, reduced at the moment when his presence to the world was bigger than ever, overwhelmed with the reality that his life would change and benefit from events beyond his control. He knew that if not for defensive coordinator Raheem Morris’ counsel during dark times in the winless month of November, if not for the brilliance of Aaron Donald, Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp in high-leverage moments, if not for overcoming his own mistakes, none of this would have happened.

Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, left, and McVay celebrate after the Rams defeated the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI. AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Months after that morning, as he sits at a table and describes it, McVay is certain of one thing: If they had lost to the Bengals, he definitely wouldn’t have this new house. Would Amazon have courted a two-time Super Bowl loser, offering a booth job for $20 million a year, after word on the street was that he had finally burned himself out coaching? McVay isn’t convinced. Either way, he wasn’t ready to leave his job, and he received a raise.

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Otherwise, he’d still be in his previous home, high in Encino Hills with a view of San Fernando Valley, a place he loved but that both he and Veronika had outgrown — or, rather, his fame had outgrown. It was in a dense neighborhood. People would buzz, asking for autographs or money. A burglar had once stolen more than $100,000 of stuff, and McVay had to build a fence and hire security. This feels like more of an adult house. McVay wanted to bring the basketball hoop from the pool to the new place, but it felt childish. “Gotta leave it,” Veronika told him.

And now, all that’s left is the rest of his life. McVay has always tried, with varying success, to think beyond the next game. He can imagine kids running around his backyard one day, a happy family. He can hear it. But then he wonders: Who will he be when that day arrives? Will he be retired, with a cushy booth gig, fully engaged with his family — or will he still be a coach, secretly thinking about 208 dropback install clips or a hundred other tasks, present in body if present at all?

He isn’t the first to suffer from the game’s “mental mind f—” that “I can’t distance myself from,” as he puts it. But McVay is trying to understand what success is, or happiness is, or how a finish line looks, if it even exists. His goal was to be the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl. But did he “ever have a goal of winning the most Super Bowls of a head coach in NFL history, or winning the most games?” he says. “No. Now, what that means, I have no idea.”

The problem is, he knows.

“I’ll be sitting here when I’m 60,” he says during another quiet moment, with deep resignation. “And we’ll be saying, how the f— are you still coaching?”

I SPENT MANY days with McVay this offseason, at his home and at work, watching a man at odds with himself. He wanted to process out loud, knowing that many of his predecessors in this profession, his heroes, guys he studies and steals from and tries to match, extreme personalities and legends, are like him, happiest when unhappy. Since the Super Bowl, McVay has been consumed by trying to understand the job and himself, and what it means for his life. He wants to understand his own wiring, sometimes feeling powerless over it — feeling “intrinsically motivated to the point” that he’s “sick,” he says one morning.

“It’s not a choice,” he says. “I don’t make a choice to be driven.”

When I explain all of this on a May evening over dinner in the Atlanta suburbs with his parents, Cindy and Tim, they laugh. Welcome to their world raising him. As a 3-year-old, Sean went to a roller-skating party. He had never skated, but he took off on the rink, leaving the rest of the kids behind, until he crashed into the boards and looked back to see whether the group was gaining on him, before taking off again.

“We looked at each other like, ‘Oh my god,'” Tim says, smiling. “What have we created?”

A young Sean McVay suited up and ready to go. Photo: McVay family

But Sean’s ambition is more than just something he’s carried with him since he was a boy. It’s a force without a clear destination, both toxic and enriching, rooted in trying to be great at a coin flip of a game and addicted to the high of the feeling of improvement, even if — especially if — it’s invisible to the outside world. As a kid, he was exposed to football’s blessings and costs, and he internalized not the hokey sanitized version of the game but what it truly takes to author a legend. Some of Sean’s earliest memories are of attending San Francisco 49ers walk-throughs with his grandfather — former executive and five-time champion John McVay — and speaking with Steve Young and Jerry Rice. But Sean also watched his own father steer away from that life, aware of its dangers.

Tim played football at Indiana, and considered going into coaching. But he knew what it took to be successful, growing up with a loving father but one who was always at the office, working for the legendary Bill Walsh, who revolutionized the game at the expense of not only his own happiness and sanity but also those around him. Tim chose television instead. “He wanted to be able to raise his family,” Cindy says. “To be able to be around his family.”

Sean knew as a young adult that he would pursue a career in sports. But when he told people he wanted to coach, his parents and some friends saw all of the warning signs, with his compulsive personality coupled with a spectacularly unhealthy profession. Did he want to be his grandfather or his father? He decided on both — with his own belief that someday, however noble and naive, he might find a way to make life in pro football palatable.

A string of leg injuries in college at Miami University ended Sean’s life as a receiver, accelerating his coaching career. He landed an entry-level gig at Jon Gruden’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2008. He left college before classes ended, finishing remotely. Cindy went with him to Tampa to help him find a place to live. He had to learn the basics and had a long way to go. The first time Sean stood in front of the staff to draw the O’s for an offensive play, Gruden cut him off. “Your circles are the s—tiest f—ing circles I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Still, McVay was hooked on coaching. In 2010, he joined Mike Shanahan’s staff in Washington, starting as a quality control coach before moving to tight ends coach for Kyle Shanahan, who was offensive coordinator. From Mike, McVay learned how to set a vision for an entire football operation, with no detail too small. From Kyle, he learned how to reimagine offense, exploiting holes in the defense that others couldn’t see. When that staff was fired and McVay stayed on with new head coach Jay Gruden as offensive coordinator, he learned how a leader can provide not only opportunities — McVay was only 27 years old — but also protection. Washington went 4-12 that year, and Gruden publicly took the blame for the poor offense, shielding McVay. If McVay had been blamed, his entire reputation would have been altered. The rising star would have been tagged as another overmatched legacy hire.

The next season, when the offense improved, Gruden credited McVay’s design and execution. Buzz ensued. McVay’s rise had been fast, but he was proud that even with family connections, he hadn’t skipped any steps, from grunt work to position coach to coordinator. He felt like he had willed and whittled 20 years of work into 10, and it set him up for head coach interviews in January 2017 at age 30. After the Rams meeting, McVay called his parents, at 2:30 a.m. in Atlanta.

“It went really good,” Sean said. “I’m going to get this job.”

“Are you ready?” Cindy asked.

“I’ve been ready my whole life,” he replied.

McVay, sitting for portraits in his new home in L.A. Shayan Asgharnia for ESPN

THIS PAST JANUARY, on the day after the regular season ended, when franchises jettison failing coaching regimes, Veronika asked Sean, “What would you do if you were on one of those teams that wasn’t winning and you might get fired?”

“Well, that just wouldn’t f—ing happen,” he replied. “Why would you ever think that way?”

He knew it sounded cocky, as if he were somehow immune to the fate of all coaches, even elite ones. But underneath it was a stark fear, not of being fired — he knows that it’s part of his chosen life — but of the losing that would precede it. Before the Super Bowl, McVay found a deeper admiration for Bengals coach Zac Taylor, his buddy and former quarterbacks coach. Taylor stomached six total wins his first two seasons before guiding the Bengals to the final game. “I’ve never really had to lead in circumstances that were real adversary,” McVay says now.

McVay has only won, just enough to keep him sane. In his first year, the Rams — an organization that had gone 14 years without a winning season and was slow to appeal to fans in a new market — went 11-5, led the league in scoring and hosted a playoff game. But McVay was essentially a glorified offensive coordinator rather than a complete head coach, calling plays, trying to establish a culture and not in the weeds on defense or special teams.

In college, McVay had interned at KTVU-San Francisco, where his dad was the general manager. He watched how Tim led an organization, how he knew the names of every staffer, something he learned from John, who learned it from Walsh. Tim “showed me a path, whether I realized it or not, of being able to lead in a way that’s authentic to my personality,” Sean says now.

He tried to apply it to his new job. Even if he excelled with his eye for creating space and confusion on offense — and even if he was “a phenomenal leader” who took “extreme ownership and accountability,” says Green Bay head coach Matt LaFleur, at the time the Rams’ offensive coordinator — it was still brutal at times. Rams executives were stunned at how McVay, after being jovial all offseason, seemed to switch personalities as soon as the games began. If a staffer or executive stopped by his office, McVay sometimes said, “What the f— do you want?” But on the spectrum of raging head coaches, McVay was still on the generally decent end, and he’d usually later apologize.

And to think: “Ignorance was bliss,” McVay ‘says. If he truly knew all of the pains of the job … the time management, contract disputes with coaches and players, staff nitpicking and arguing with him on every decision, the way McVay himself used to do with Jay Gruden … he might not have survived. During one practice, there was a disagreement between offensive line coach Aaron Kromer and LaFleur. McVay entered the fray, weighed in, backed Kromer and went about practice, not thinking much of it.

Later that day, LaFleur entered his office, livid that McVay had sided with Kromer. “You showed me up in front of the players,” LaFleur said. “With all due respect, you should just fire my ass right now.”

McVay felt his blood pressure rise. The Rams were playoff-bound — and LaFleur, one of his best friends, was complaining about this?

“You know what?” McVay replied. “I f—ing hate this job. I’m f—ing quitting. F— this s—. I hate myself. I hate that I’m treating you like this …”

“No!” LaFleur said. “You can’t do that!”

McVay hugs his father Tim McVay and mother Cindy McVay during pregame at Super Bowl LIII against the New England Patriots. Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

What LaFleur felt was a ninja management psychology move by McVay — “He flipped the switch on me,” he says now with a laugh — was actually rooted in desperation. McVay was irritable and overwhelmed, and hated that he was irritable and overwhelmed. The Rams reached the Super Bowl the next year and lost, and his ego and insecurity grew, widening his mood swings. He had always gotten good press: He was successful, and enjoyed hanging out with reporters, mostly national ones, trading gossip and inside stories. But he admits now that he had gotten “reliant” on all the praise.

“I’m at my best when it’s not about Sean,” McVay says. “And it’s been about me more than I probably ever would like to admit.” The Super Bowl loss had fundamentally altered the narrative around McVay, from boy wonder to another lovely tombstone in Belichick’s graveyard. He spoke to Brad Stevens, Steve Kerr and Andy Reid after the loss, learning a way forward. And McVay entered the 2019 season hellbent on proving that he could take the final step as a coach. If he came off as an a–hole in the building — if he was an a–hole — so be it.

“I lost my humanity a little bit,” he says. “I let the frustration of the expectations be more about me than I’d ever want anyone to know.”

The Rams went 9-7. It was McVay’s worst season. “So miserable,” he says. He let it carry over into 2020, when the Rams went 10-6. McVay was trying to grow into a total head coach. McVay won, but he began to lose faith in the quarterback on whom he had once bet his career, Jared Goff. As Goff struggled, McVay coached him harder. It backfired, destroying the quarterback’s confidence, about which McVay still feels guilty. He felt his intentions were right but the execution was wrong, and he retreated inward, trying to fight his internal storm alone. He worked more from home, not only due to COVID-19 protocols, not only due to the efficiency of it, where nobody could stop by, but also because he felt it was how he could best get his head right — all while feeling on the verge of a breakdown. “It was just that constant torment hanging right here,” McVay says, touching his stomach. “Like you have a f—ing problem and you’ve got to fix it, but you don’t know how to f—ing fix it. Nobody puts more pressure on themselves than I do of me, but I think a lot of that pressure is a result of when I lose sight of what matters. If I had listened to the advice I give our players all the time, I would eliminate a lot of my own internal struggles.”

After losses, Veronika would drive Sean and his parents home, his mood so dark it became atmospheric. “Worrisome for a parent,” Cindy says. Veronika would mostly be silent. “I never know how he’s going to be, because sometimes he’s upset after a win,” she says. “He likes us to be around but not ask too many questions.” Cindy would ask them anyway, diving into the game’s critical plays. Tim would try to offer perspective — that the Rams were winning, on their way to the playoffs again …

“I don’t want to f—ing hear it right now, Dad. I don’t want to hear any pep talks.”

McVay would eventually calm down. “I’m so glad you’re here,” he’d tell his family. They’d share a few drinks before hitting the sack. Still, Tim knew his son well and felt that Sean was losing his way. Then, sometime in the middle of the night, the McVays would hear Sean tiptoeing to his home office, too sick to sleep.

Sean McVay and wife Veronika Khomyn. Shayan Asgharnia for ESPN

“WHO THE F— wakes up at 3:45 in the morning on a Tuesday in the offseason?” McVay says in his Rams office in Thousand Oaks. It’s dark and quiet. He has a cup of instant coffee, two bottled waters and two flavored seltzers. On the wall behind him is a sign that says URGENT ENJOYMENT.

“Cheesy as hell,” he says. “But a reminder for myself.”

A lot of coaches are up this early on a Tuesday in the offseason, of course. For sure the best ones, as if hours logged can force a fumble to bounce a certain way — or maybe reduce fumbles altogether. No matter how many conversations league executives have at hotel bars about the burnout rate of coaches, of why the stress and demands and the unsustainable nature of the job has likely led to the trend of younger hires, and no matter how many head coaches pledge to change this destructive way of life, after so many divorces, unhappy marriages and children essentially raised by a single parent, it remains irrevocably broken. Diminishing returns are acknowledged but aren’t an excuse. America doesn’t care. The game demands what it demands. McVay knows no other way, an obsessive grinder who studied obsessive grinders. He’s at heart a creative, the game a creative challenge.

Possibilities are endless, and he believes that he can find the answers, after all his dedication and curiosity, after all the coaching books and documentaries and podcasts and conversations and thought over the years. McVay also needs to believe. Coaches can’t control the games they’re paid to control, so the default is to try to control everything else, sociopathic neuroses layered upon relentless anxiety, driving themselves and everyone around them crazy. It would be hilarious if McVay didn’t have one life to live. Then on game day, he and other coaches preside over a series of mostly random events that profoundly impact their families and happiness. No wonder, as McVay puts it, “we’re all f—ed up.”

Sleep has always been a struggle for McVay, and his heroes have never needed much of it. He witnessed Gruden arriving at 3:30 a.m. He watched as Mike and Kyle Shanahan spent long days over months reinventing offense to utilize Robert Griffin III, then long days over a week to switch to a completely different style for Kirk Cousins. He’s gotten beers with Belichick, and is floored by his staggering football knowledge attained by singular devotion and ethic. The templates from those men reinforce McVay’s own cadences and obsession and “competitive stamina,” he says. The more he learns about football, the more he has to learn.

McVay’s lack of sleep is one of the main topics of discussion with his father, who not only is worried about his son but also believes that he will make better decisions if fully rested. “It’s not a badge of courage for you to get 3-4 hours,” Tim once told Sean. “For you to be at your best, you have to prioritize sleep.”

At first, Sean was dismissive. “I don’t need that much. I wake up at 2:30 and I’m just laying there. Why should I just lay there?”

But Sean tried to adjust. He listened to a podcast about banking sleep over the course of the week, averaging out to seven hours a night. On Monday through Thursday during the season, the goal is four to six hours. But sometimes he’s up at 2:30 anyway, no alarm, “mind racing,” and so he goes to the office. On Fridays and Saturdays, he aims for eight hours to be rested and sharp on game day. After games, he’s either too keyed up or too pissed off — and not just after losses — to turn off his brain.

Then he starts the week all over again, watching film, not just to check a box but to reach that magical realm of focus when time seems suspended and background noise all but disappears. It sometimes takes a while. McVay has always been envious of Belichick and Shanahan, “cyborgs” who can concentrate for hours, he says. McVay can’t. People are always interrupting him. His phone is always buzzing; answering texts and emails only creates more texts and emails. He has to clear his mind and then reset. He used to disappear to the sauna, until he learned that his phone could withstand the heat. So now he hits the steam room, where phones don’t function well. Then he dives back into film study, helping him win 67% of his regular-season games and 70% of his playoff ones, a life that feels sustainable or not, depending on the day.

“I’m not going to burn out coaching,” McVay insists. “That’s not going to happen.”

Are his parents worried about him burning out?

“Yeah,” Tim says.

“Of course,” Cindy says.

McVay with Matthew Stafford and Andrew Whitworth in Cabo, Mexico. Courtesy Kelly Stafford

SAME TOPIC BUT different day, Veronika overhears our conversation and smiles out of the side of her mouth, knowing where it’s headed. The costs in Sean’s life are also costs in her life, and even if she signed on for it, even if it’s brought blessings beyond belief, even if she graduated from George Mason with a degree in international business and earned a master’s in global management from Arizona State and now has her own career in real estate, McVay still feels guilty about it — and guilty about his competing desires, as if he’s cheating both his personal and professional lives if he attempts to find balance.

On this June evening, two days before their wedding, papers are scattered on the counter, detailing seating assignments and schedules for the reception. Yesterday they signed their marriage license.

“Not having second thoughts yet?” Sean asks her.

“Too late now,” she says.

“When did you first realize I’m crazy?” he asks during a different quiet moment.

“First date,” she says.

They got serious in 2016, when they were both in Washington. After the Rams hired McVay, his buddies begged him to stay single for the first year. They had a plan: All of them would share a home in the hills and hunt around town as a pack, a football Entourage. It was a staggering misread of McVay’s ambition. He wanted to be a great coach, only a great coach. Veronika was essential to that plan. McVay asked her to move to L.A. with him, the unofficial-official beginning of their marriage. She not only helped enrich his life but also simplified it. In Washington, McVay was a prolific but unhappy dater. She provided not total balance, because that’s impossible in the NFL, but “a bit more balance,” McVay says.

Veronika didn’t care about football — when he introduced her to various team owners at a league party, she was unfazed — but she did care about its role in Sean’s life. Whether the Rams won or lost didn’t affect her soul, her sense of self, her essence, like it did for him. She is patient and supportive — patiently supportive. Cindy once told her that she would have been a better mother to Sean if he had handled games the way Veronika does, with steady calm. McVay might not be happy all the time in this job, or even a lot of it, but he’s happier with Veronika and has had his best professional years since they fell in love.

“Not by coincidence,” he says.

Veronika was with Sean in Cabo San Lucas in January 2021 when he at his darkest, so down as to be broken. The Rams had just lost to the Packers in the divisional round. He had hit a wall with Goff, and knew he needed to move on from him, but didn’t know how — not with the four-year, $134 million extension that Goff had signed a little over a year earlier, a deal McVay had championed.

Smart opposing coaches, especially in New England, were as impressed with how McVay managed to solve for Goff’s limits as they were confused by the contract the quarterback received. Everything McVay wanted to be seemed to be slipping away, and he was not blameless. He later fired a few staffers he had invested in, and even if he felt it was the right decision, he still felt guilty. Then, McVay’s mood perked up: He found out that Stafford was vacationing at the same resort — and that he wanted out of Detroit.

Sean McVay at his new home. Shayan Asgharnia for ESPN

They met for drinks poolside, talking football. A bond forged over sun and booze. McVay returned to his hotel and, “a few tequilas in,” he says now, hopped on a FaceTime with Rams brass, unleashing a plea that’s now legendary around the team’s office. “Here’s the f—ing deal, OK? We can sit here and exist, and be OK winning nine to 11 games, and losing in the f—ing divisional round and feel like, ‘Oh, everything’s OK.’ Or, we could let our motherf—ing nuts hang, and go trade for this f—ing quarterback, and give ourselves a chance to go win a f—ing world championship. You ready to f—ing do this or what?”

Laughs followed, not pushback. Stafford was an obvious upgrade. And within days, he was a Ram. That acquisition, coupled with the Rams’ general indifference to high draft picks, prompted them to be labeled as the NFL’s first superteam since John McVay’s 1994 49ers — all-in for one year, championship or nothing. Sean chafed at the label but not the stakes. The Rams started 7-1, then lost all three games in November, just the second time in McVay’s career that he had lost three straight. Throws that Stafford had hit in his sleep in September and October suddenly became pick-sixes. McVay likes to deploy a hurry-up attack when his offense struggles, but injuries to receivers and new players in new positions essentially killed that option. McVay started down a familiar dark path.

“It was a f—ing joke how pissed and how — I can’t even articulate. The disgust. The sickness. The constant pit in your gut. You have to fight what you’re feeling. You have to get up and lead and really authentically be able to demonstrate the strength that I think is a responsibility and necessity for a good leader — while not minimizing that I’m a human being too, and I f—ing hate this s—.”

McVay didn’t want his mood to affect the entire building, so he often retreated to his home office. It created a void. The team didn’t crack — cornerback Jalen Ramsey’s leadership helped — but it was in danger of it. It needed more of McVay at a time when he was barely hanging on. The only coach who could tell this to McVay was Raheem Morris, one of his best friends since their Washington days.

Morris is a ruthless competitor but knows that there’s something bigger than football at stake, which McVay intellectually understands but often struggles to practice. Years ago, McVay’s Rams beat the Falcons, where Morris was an assistant, and Cindy and Tim hosted a postgame party at their Atlanta house. Morris arrived with his family, smiling and gracious. Cindy later asked Sean whether he would have shown up if the roles were reversed. “Sure,” he said. Then he fessed up. “No.”

One day in November, Morris asked McVay, “You all right?”

Both men knew the answer. Morris reminded McVay that he gets lost inside his own head, alienating himself.

“Think anybody else knows?” McVay asked.

“Absolutely,” Morris said.

“Sometimes people need you,” Morris told McVay. “Sometimes when your voice is around, you give people comfort. Make them feel better. You make them want to go play.”

McVay had forgotten something essential about himself, something that is as responsible for his success as his ambition, his ethic and near photographic memory, the way he imagines formations and anticipates action and is able to simplify those ideas into teachable concepts: He’s magnetic. People like talking to him and enjoy his presence, at least when he’s at his best, and they like how he can laugh at himself, especially after he screws up. It not only gives the rest of the team permission to admit mistakes, but it also reminds everyone that they’re all imperfect and in it together.

McVay had grown accustomed to people quieting when he entered a room, aware and wary of the boss. He reminded himself that he has always told the team that “it doesn’t have to be miserable in the pursuit of greatness,” and resolved to embody it, making himself more available. He watched videos of Tom Brady’s postgame news conferences after losses in 2020, looking for clues into the positive mindset required to rally and win it all.

And on the Monday before the three-game skid ended, McVay met alone with Stafford. An impromptu meeting turned into a two-hour session. “It was basically like we were each other’s counselor,” McVay says. The most hyped union in the offseason had reached an impasse. They were true friends — McVay not only went to Stafford’s house for Easter but even brought his parents — but both felt insecure, and were internalizing the pressure, almost afraid to acknowledge its existence.

“This isn’t too much,” McVay told Stafford. “But it’s a f—ing lot.”

Stafford spoke, and as he did, McVay realized that he had lost sight of an important tenet as a playcaller: to simplify the quarterback’s job. Stafford’s presence had given McVay a passer whose talent was equal to the coach’s play innovation, but both men felt enough outside pressure, and the constant throwing on offense added to it. McVay promised Stafford that they’d run the ball more, then added: “Who gives a f— what everyone else says? Let’s enjoy it, let’s compete to the best of our ability, let the chips fall where they may, but nobody is going to get more criticism and scrutiny than we are.”

“It was as honest and as good a conversation as I’ve had with a coach or teammate ever in my football career,” Stafford says now.

Sean McVay sits for a portrait in his LA home. Shayan Asgharnia for ESPN

L.A. won nine of its final 10 games, including two playoff fourth-quarter rallies by Stafford against the Bucs and 49ers. Late in the divisional-round game against the Bucs, the Rams had blown a 27-3 lead in less than a half and took over tied with 42 seconds left. It looked dire, a repeat of the Patriots-Falcons Super Bowl. But McVay knew from study that Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles would give him one Cover 0 during hurry-up drives. Sure enough, on second down, Bowles played to tendency and called a blitz. McVay had a deep route to Kupp called, and Stafford hit him for 44 yards to set up the winning field goal and send Tom Brady into a monthlong retirement — one of the best answers of McVay’s career.

In the Super Bowl, injuries to Odell Beckham Jr. and two of the Rams’ tight ends kept the game closer than McVay expected. Offensively it was down to Stafford and Kupp, and McVay scheming of ways to get Kupp open with the entire football-viewing world knowing that the ball was headed his way, which amazed coaches around the league. All of them delivered, for the third straight time. And on Cincinnati’s fourth-and-1 with 43 seconds left, Rams up three, McVay crouched over, saw a running back split wide — a giveaway that it was a pass. McVay dropped his eyes and thought, Oh my god. “Aaron Donald is going to make a play,” he said over his headset. After Donald forced an incompletion, McVay knelt and hugged Stafford, neck to neck. The quarterback tapped the coach’s leg a few times, triggering something deep in McVay. He finally let go. McVay doesn’t cry often, but when he does, the tears arrive fast. His eyes dampened almost instantly, reddening his face.

After the postgame interviews and before the team party, McVay sat alone in his stadium office, showered and in a suit, with the Lombardi trophy and a stiff headache, trying to decompress. His head pounds after most games, his focus so intense that it almost seizes him.

Morris, suffering a headache of his own, stopped by. Stafford and Kupp arrived, both still in partial uniform. Other players and staffers filtered in, followed by Stan and Josh Kroenke. The group posed for a photo, index fingers at the sky. McVay was almost prouder of how he — and the team — survived November than the Super Bowl win, conquering his worse impulses.

A few months later, McVay spoke to the business side of the Rams’ building. “Everybody’s talking about, ‘Hey, superteams never work.’ F— you, motherf—er! It f—ing worked!”

Just barely. And now it has to work again.

AT 4:45 ON a dark spring morning, McVay is cleaning leaves. He has a plant near the foyer of his house, and the combination of sun and breeze from the door opening and closing causes the plant to shed. The pile on the floor triggers his compulsion. He sweeps them, then walks outside and into his Aston Martin SUV, trying to figure out something on the dashboard before giving up.

“I can’t keep up with all this technology,” he says.

He steers out of his neighborhood and onto the freeway as the sky lightens.

“Ah, man,” he says, staring ahead.

The Super Bowl gave McVay a measure of peace, of accomplishment, of license to see whether there are ways to make the job more sustainable — or at least feel more sustainable. Like many post-pandemic setups, his home office has turned into his primary one. It has all of his binders and material, with screens both on his desk and mounted on the wall. His facility office is windowless and the shelves are empty. There’s no trace that anyone works there, except for his stationery, which reads COACH McVAY.

At home, he can watch film, walk outside and absorb some sun, pop in and out of conversation with Veronika or houseguests, before returning to the clicker. He’s trying to learn the lessons from last year: to be more present at the office but also have a chance of a life. He wants the same for his staff. This spring, McVay all but ordered assistants to leave the building in the early afternoon, forcing family time. “I don’t want the guys to be there,” he says. “We work too hard during the season.”

As we enter the facility, McVay subtly changes. He turns on film of all of the team’s screen passes, ready to dig in. Something primal kicks in, the fierce bottom line of his work. Are the Rams good enough to repeat? Is he good enough?

“Last year has zero to do with this year,” he says.

After the Super Bowl, McVay glanced at the Amazon opportunity because of the money. But he didn’t actually take any meetings. There “was no way” he was going to leave coaching. Why? “The people,” he says. He’s got Stafford, Kupp and Donald in their primes. He loves his staff and appreciates general manager Les Snead and COO Kevin Demoff, even when all of them want to kill one another. He wonders what life would be like on the other side, discussing the game rather than coaching it, with more sleep and income, with children, supporting his family after Veronika spent so many years supporting him.

Sometimes when he discusses it, he sounds like he’s testing out how it sounds, not to us, but to himself. Could he live without coaching? Could he live with himself without coaching? He wonders whether it might be the right time to retire when Stafford walks away, whenever that is. But then he circles back to that thing inside him he can’t live without. He has few hobbies or outlets. He reads mostly coaching or leadership books. He sometimes swims in his pool — at 3:30 a.m. Anchoring a broadcast crew, even if collegial, isn’t the same thing as leading a football team. Rams execs have joked with him that if he had to broadcast a blowout, or a game between two bad teams, he’d hate the job, and hate himself for taking it, so much that he would kill every player and decision, burning every bridge, an act of public self-sabotage to reverse-engineer a return to the sideline, where he belongs.

“There are times I say to myself, what the f— am I thinking? Would I have done it differently?” he says a little later. “Yeah, probably. But those are temporary feelings. I wouldn’t know what to do if I had too much time on my hands.”

The pain of last November comes up again. “You can only really replicate that misery when you’re in that moment. Working through all that …” He shakes his head. Then he smiles.

“But I need that, too. There’s a part of me that, you love your f—ing misery.”

He laughs at himself, not because it’s funny but because he knows it’s futile, pointless to fight. Veronika rolls her eyes whenever he talks about broadcasting. “You’re a coach,” she says. Of course, if he stays in coaching, it will mean the inevitable losing season. If you ask McVay what will happen if the Rams go 4-13, he scoffs, as if you mentioned something cosmically inconceivable. But when you ask his parents:

“That’s when announcing sounds really good,” Cindy says.

THAT AFTERNOON, McVay stands at a counter holding a folded piece of thin cardboard. It’s the playcalling sheet from the biggest game of his life, titled: Game #21 Bengals Super Bowl 2/13/22. The type is tiny. Plays are broken down by situation, down and distance and level of disaster, with one category called GBOT: Get Back on Track.

Along the bottom are handwritten reminders. “Notes to myself,” he says. “Nobody else sees this but me.”

See the game one play at a time

Trust Yourself & Everyone Around You

LMMAIOYP (Lord Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace)

Present & Still is Key

Patient & Joy

He hangs on joy for a moment. “I actually did a pretty good job of that,” he says.

He looks it over, a document that explains so much about who he is and wanted to be, the pinnacle of something, worthy of preservation. The card’s ink is smeared, its edges wrinkled, vaguely worn and damaged. I suggest that he should frame it before it’s too late.

“Ha,” McVay says.

Nope, not now. He wants it handy, needs it handy, should the Rams face the Bengals this season. “For reference,” he says as he carries it back to his office. Maybe it’s wise, or tragic, but most of all, it’s inevitable.

Later that night, just past 9 p.m., McVay looks at his watch. He likes to stay on East Coast time, so right now his body clock is past midnight and into tomorrow. Veronika was downstairs with us earlier, snuggling with Sean on the couch as they drank red wine and watched playoff basketball. But the game ended, and she’s retired for the night. It’s quiet and still. McVay is tired, not literally but existentially. He checks his phone one last time for the evening, making sure there’s no Ukraine news or work drama.

A task still hangs over him: the 208 clips of dropback install.

He walks behind the bar, inserts a stopper into the wine bottle and stands for a moment, wondering what to do. Straight ahead is his office; to the right are stairs to the bedroom.

He climbs to the second floor, with the answers he needs for tonight.

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