Yes, Sean McVay is an offensive genius
But what is the Rams coach doing that others aren’t? Let’s break it down
It’s widely accepted that Sean McVay is a football genius, which is a characterization that is almost exclusively reserved for older white offensive coaches. McVay’s age, 33, challenges only one element of the mold. But he has earned his reputation.
In 2015 and 2016, the Los Angeles Rams were dead last in the NFL in offensive efficiency, with an EPA (expected points added) of minus 88 and minus 159, respectively.
In 2017, McVay’s first season as head coach, the Rams’ EPA jumped to plus-59, which was good for eighth in the league. In 2018, the offense improved to an EPA of 175 points, which ranked third in the NFL this season.
Those numbers are the results of his genius. Those numbers are why NFL teams are hiring coaches who resemble McVay.
But what are the on-field tactics that produced those results?
The answers are much simpler than you might think.
RAISING THE GENIUS BAR
First, let’s dissect the foundation of the Rams’ success on offense: It’s outstanding offensive line play, a dual-threat running back and the effectiveness of the play-action pass. But that’s not the work of a genius. That’s just conventional wisdom. Any fan or high school coach could point to those things as important factors.
And as good as this offense is at the fundamentals of football — blocking, running and passing — nothing the Rams do in those areas is novel.
McVay didn’t bring zone blocking on running plays to the NFL; that was Mike Shanahan in the ’90s. McVay just calls those plays on game days, like every other coach in the NFL.
McVay’s use of Todd Gurley in the passing game is awesome but also not an example of genius thinking. The Rams’ Marshall Faulk was named NFL MVP in 2000 because he had 81 catches and 830 yards receiving to go with his 1,359 rushing yards. Since then, every team in the league has looked to involve its running back in the passing game more and more. This season, four different running backs had 81 or more receptions; Gurley had 59.
As for the Rams’ passing attack, McVay’s play design is first-class. His ability to draw up can’t-miss route combinations that paralyze defenses and perplex coordinators shows an invaluable understanding of defensive schemes and keen play-calling instincts. Admittedly, I’m awestruck when I see a “McVay special,” like the 70-yard touchdown pass to Cooper Kupp in the second quarter of the Rams’ Week 4 shoot-out with the Minnesota Vikings. After a successful first-down run, McVay called play-action to the left on second-and-5, pulling the linebackers up and sending Kupp on what started out as a shallow cross from the left slot against man coverage. The nickel released Kupp to the linebacker after a couple of steps so as not to get picked. That’s normally a wise choice — however, the route wasn’t actually a shallow cross. Once Kupp had the slower linebacker on him, he turned upfield, creating separation and an easy pass for quarterback Jared Goff.
In the fourth quarter of last week’s NFC Championship Game, McVay did it again. This time, using formation and motion to compromise the New Orleans Saints’ cornerback in Cover 3, he got receiver Josh Reynolds an uncontested 33-yard catch, which set up the game-tying field goal.
But while those types of plays are necessary and display McVay’s football intelligence, they are not the core of their passing game, or examples of genius. Those plays happen infrequently, and several other offensive minds in the league have also shown an ability to cook up defensive dilemmas just as often. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, McVay’s plays create open receivers (defined as 3 yards of separation) 44 percent of the time. Fifteen teams had a higher percentage this season.
The core of their passing game is conventional play-action passes, such as bootlegs and waggles with traditional route combinations. Despite the fact that the Rams led the league with 177 play-action pass attempts and 1,779 yards from play-action passes, there is no reason to believe they are executing them at genius levels. On play-action, Goff has the 25th-best completion percentage and 11th-best QBR in the league.
TRUE GENIUS AT WORK
Genius is creativity and ingenuity. In football, it is exploiting an advantage that other teams have yet to find.
The first genius tactic McVay has used this season, which will be copied by teams next season, is putting receivers in tight alignments and creating condensed formations. While many coaches are just starting to accept that spread offenses are not just for college football, McVay is doing the opposite: contracting. With the help of ESPN Analytics and NFL Next Gen Stats, I discovered that 60 percent of the Rams’ formations are less than 20 yards wide at the snap. The second team on that list is at 37 percent.
Condensed formations benefit the Rams in several ways. They shorten the edge of the defense for outside runs. They also allow receivers to block in the running game. On bootlegs and waggles, they allow receivers to down-block on the defensive end, ensuring that the quarterback can roll out of the pocket and have more time to throw. And when teams have adjusted by putting the defensive end outside of the receiver, they’ve left a large running gap for the offense.
Condensed formations also facilitate picks and crossing routes that can’t be stopped in press man coverage. So teams don’t press the Rams, giving their receivers free releases off the line. And teams will play a lot more zone against the Rams, which is weak against the flood concepts that the Rams run most often. Zone coverages also give defenders more rules and responsibilities, which means there are more opportunities for McVay to create mismatches and contradictions that can result in blown coverages.
The other thing that the Rams are doing way more than the rest of the league is quick snaps. According to ESPN Analytics and NFL Next Gen Stats, the Rams rushed to the line and snapped the ball in less than five seconds after the ref set the ball 127 times this season. Most other teams didn’t quick-snap more than 40 times this season.
The advantage the Rams get from quick-snapping is obvious to even the untrained eye, which can see defenders scramble to get lined up properly, resulting in D-linemen getting blown off the ball on running plays and receivers going unguarded on passes. The benefits show up in the numbers too. On quick snaps, the Rams’ EPA per play is 0.31. That may not sound like much, but it means the Rams are adding 0.3 points to their total every time they quick-snap. On regular snaps, when the Rams snap the ball after five seconds, their EPA is a less impressive but still very good 0.12.
Their EPA on regular snaps is probably improved by the very real threat of the quick snap because defenses are less likely to disguise their coverages if they fear that the Rams will quick-snap and catch them out of position. So McVay has the advantage of knowing the defense while still having plenty of time left to communicate his thoughts to Goff before the play clock gets to 15 seconds and the coach-to-quarterback communications are shut off.
In the Super Bowl, McVay won’t be taking on just any coach. He is facing off against the best coach in modern NFL history, Bill Belichick, who has been finding ways to give his teams the edge since his first Super Bowl win as a head coach in 2002. So if McVay is going to defeat Belichick and the New England Patriots, he will need to put on the best coaching display of his young career.
The Rams’ offense has been the driving force behind this very successful season. And McVay’s ability to coach them up on all the fundamentals of offensive football, combined with the talent on their roster, has made them a good offense. But his capacity to manufacture advantages in areas where most NFL coaches aren’t is what has made him an outstanding coach. Not his age or looks.