To Succeed In Los Angeles, Young Sean McVay Would Do Well To Be Mindful Of His Family’s Worst Football Mishap
For nearly a century now, the professional football fan has been able to hang his hat on a traditional label system that seemed reliant on a timeless – and not entirely ageless – number system. The following institutions are easily recognizable to the trained mind. The 30-year old quarterback that is said to be in his prime. The 30-year old running back that is historically well past it.
But on Thursday, every humble presumption that had ever been tied to the britches of the 30-year old aspiring assistant coach was emphatically erased and re-written. Thanks to the rudderless eagerness of Stan Kroenke to bring a credible football institution to the City of Angels, youth is now an accepted element at the head coaching position on an NFL sideline.
We should have seen this coming. Kroenke hasn’t exactly distinguished himself recently as a conservative strategist. He could have kept his football team in St. Louis. He could have fired Jeff Fisher before giving him a contract extension, rather than two weeks after. And he could have spent his time this past month pursuing the well-respected mind of Kyle Shanhan to fix what has long ailed his franchise.
But it’s a little late for second thoughts. What Kroenke didn’t do isn’t nearly so important as what he did, yesterday announcing that 30-year old Sean McVay would be the next head coach of the Los Angeles Rams, a franchise that hasn’t had a winning season since 2003.
Bold move? Sure.
Smart move? Possibly.
Intriguing move? Definitely.
A case will be made, and has already by many media personnel across the nation, that McVay isn’t seasoned enough to hold the position. But, be of good cheer Mama McVay, being baby-faced is about the only negative charge that the public will be able to drop on him. Your son is now a head coach because he displayed a rare ability in recent seasons around Capitol Hill of making more out of less.
McVay dealt with a toxic situation in Washington the past three years as offensive coordinator of a Redskins team that witnessed one franchise quarterback (Robert Griffin III) get benched and another (Kirk Cousins) experiment with a holdout. Despite all of the drama, McVay was able to get enough out of Cousins so that the Redskins posted their first back-to-back winning seasons since 1996-97. (Moral: Making the Redskins look good is hard to do, and an accomplishment that is deserving of a reward.)
McVay won’t have to wait very long for a helping hand at his new post. As the youngest head coach in NFL history, McVay will surely be a target for advice in the coming days. Former players will offer insight on how to captain a locker room filled with men older than himself. Former coaches will provide pearls of wisdom on how to assemble a complementary staff (hiring Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator was a nice start). His mentor, Jon Gruden, may even call him up and submit a few foundational pointers as to how to go about fixing franchise quarterback Jared Goff.
The fans in Los Angeles currently targeting McVay with something other than well-intended advice need to realize that they aren’t referring to the average 30-year old. McVay is steeped in football doctrine well beyond his years. Football is much more than just his passion. It’s his heritage.
His grandfather, John, was the vice president of football operations in San Francisco for fifteen years, working alongside Bill Walsh and George Seifert during a run that saw the 49ers win five Super Bowls. Before landing in the Bay, John had a short, forgettable stint as head coach of the New York Giants, which was preceded by an even less-enjoyable two years as head coach/general manager of the World Football League’s Memphis Southmen.
So it’s safe to assume that, over the years, Sean has learned from his grandfather to recognize many of the pitfalls to avoid at football’s highest level. Such as aging veterans, superfluous handoffs at the end of games, and a capricious front-office.
But John’s most important tale for his grandson’s benefit just happens to be a lesson in explosives and the art of damage control. It happened during the summer of 1992, with the regular season fast approaching. The high-profile quarterback controversy between Joe Montana and Steve Young that had sapped the energy out of the San Francisco dynasty in recent seasons appeared to have been settled, leaving the 49ers poised to re-claim their customary position at the top of the NFL.
The only problem remaining on John’s watch was a troublesome defensive end named Charles Haley. Haley had grown disgruntled in San Francisco to the point of being out of control, publicly saying and doing things of a highly improper nature.
Anxious to avoid another season of Haley’s maniacal behavior, John picked up the phone to call a Johnson in Texas. And that’s when he made the biggest mistake of his career. On the cusp of adding a third leg to a 49ers dynasty that reached all the way back to 1981, John inadvertently gave it all away at the bargaining table.
Had this situation arisen four years earlier when Bill Walsh was still around, the mistake would never have happened. Walsh understood better than most the value in a competitive profession of locating the enemy. And no enemy ranked higher on his list during his ten-year run as San Francisco head coach than did the Dallas Cowboys.
Walsh despised the Cowboys, as much for their success and their worldwide fan following as that infernal blue star and the clean-cut image of their legendary head coach. To many who followed professional football in the 1980s, Tom Landry was a god. To Walsh, who viewed the Man in The Hat as the man in the way, Landry might as well have been the devil. Consequentially, Walsh went out of his way to avoid doing Landry and the Cowboys any favors.
The Dallas head coach that John McVay conversed with over the telephone in 1992 was certainly different than Landry. Jimmy Johnson was in his fourth-year on the Cowboys sideline, and rather than a fedora like Landry, he was known for silver, bulletproof, sprayed hair.
But Johnson was much more than just a model head coach. He was the genius behind a fast-paced reconstruction project in Dallas that saw the Cowboys go from 1-15 in 1989 to 11-5 two years later. To Johnson’s way of thinking, the Cowboys were one pass-rusher away from being a Super Bowl caliber team. Who could have known that McVay would all but give one to him?
Johnson recalled the incident in his 1993 autobiography Turning The Thing Around. Wrote Johnson: “John McVay, one of the 49ers vice presidents, called me just at the end of the 1992 training camp, and we were actually talking about trading other players. John mentioned Haley. I said there was an interest there. (Talk about trying to keep a poker voice in a conversation! Charles Haley was the premier pass-rusher in the league. We’d been busy shoring up our secondary, but if we could get Haley in the defensive front for passing situations, that would be a leap in our pass defense that we hadn’t anticipated.) John and I talked about it initially, and then Jerry Jones and Carmen Policy, the 49ers’ president, finalized the trade.”
With Haley now on their side, the Cowboys traveled to Candlestick Park later that January and upset the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. One year later at Texas Stadium, Haley and the Cowboys ended the 49ers’ season again. To a man, players on both teams have admitted that Haley’s presence was the one factor that put Dallas over the top in the early 1990s.
Had McVay followed Walsh’s guidelines about dealing with those America’s Team types, then the 49ers would very likely be remembered as the Team of The Decade. Instead, Dallas won three Super Bowls from 1992-95 to reestablish themselves as pro football’s media darlings.
For young Sean McVay, there’s a redoubtable lesson in an infamous family tale such as this. No matter the situation and no matter your pedigree, it always pays to know your competition. Because the joy of building a dynasty is not to be compared to the misery of giving one away.
And that’s a truth that everyone of a competitive nature can understand. Steve Young. Jimmy Johnson. Even the youngest man that ever dared to call himself an NFL head coach.