Conventionally speaking, the success of the Los Angeles Rams is anathema to 49ers fans. You don’t want your division rival and sole in-conference, in-state competitor to win at a higher rate than any other franchise over any stretch of time.
This is a unique situation, though. In the Rams — and, most specifically, in their 32-year-old head coach Sean McVay — the49ers can, hopefully, see their own future.
In the space of two years, McVay has become the Vitruvian Man of NFL head coaches — a perfectly proportioned ideal of youthful energy and age-belying wisdom; of detail-obsessed offensive wunderkind and stately, big picture-minded CEO.
Precisely how and why this has happened involves the league’s increasing tilt towards offensive football and the Rams’ (and others’) recent success, and is best told in detail in another column (ideally by another writer). Proof of the trend is all over the league in the events of the last 12 months, though.
It is already a running joke that dining with Sean McVay is enough to get a guy interviewed for the latest coaching vacancy, but that didn’t stop the Arizona Cardinals from citing an ill-defined relationship with the Rams’ coach as a qualification for newly-hired Kliff Kingsbury in the team-issued press release announcing the move. That surreal document calls McVay an“offensive genius” (Kingsbury merely has “creative offensive ideas”) and actually quotes the division-rival head coach issuing compliments to a man with whom, as far as I know, he has never shared a room.
Matt LaFleur, who coached under McVay in 2017, was handed the keys to the remainder of Aaron Rodgers’ Packers career despite having the full responsibilities of an offensive coordinator for just one season. Rams QB coach Zac Taylor is reportedly in line to take over in Cincinnati before his 36th birthday, and without a full season of employment as an NFL coordinator.
Even last offseason saw offensive coaches with relatively limited — but very recent — records of success earn head coaching gigs. Notably, both the Bears’ Matt Nagy and the Colts’ Frank Reich led their new teams to surprisingly successful seasons and playoff berths.
A key point which perhaps I should have mentioned earlier: A little over two years ago, Sean McVay was a guy the Rams interviewed while they waited for their top candidate, Kyle Shanahan, to finish his season. Had bad weather not forced theRams to cancel an earlier interview with Shanahan, who knows what might have happened.
Alternate timeline scenarios aside, there is a reason Shanahan was the 49ers’ choice, a reason they were almost universally applauded for giving him a six-year contract to steer the franchise back to respectability. As far back as early in the 2016 season, Shanahan was the hot name in the NFL coaching rumor mill. By the time his Falcons were preparing for their eventual Super Bowl run, everybody wanted him.
That well-earned demand laid a pretty clear path for the current climate. Shanahan was such a popular candidate for the same reasons that McVay got the job in LA, and similar (though frankly much better) reasons than those used to justify many of this year’s hires.
Like Shanahan, McVay’s NFL debut was as an offensive coach for Jon Gruden’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers (four years after theNiners coach). Like Shanahan, the younger McVay became an NFL offensive coordinator before his 30th birthday.
Both coaches come from much-ballyhooed NFL stock — McVay the grandson of vaunted 49ers GM John McVay, Shanahan the son of vaunted 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan. Both received early attention for coordinating the offense in Washington.
McVay, just like Shanahan, earned the bulk of his reputation with creative offensive play-calling that turned mediocre offenses into some of the better units in the league. The chief difference is that Shanahan consistently impressed pundits and personnel managers as a coordinator for nearly a decade; McVay held that job for just two years.
It would be easy to look at the teams’ respective win-loss records over the last two seasons and write this column off as the ravings of a foolish optimist. There’s no defending Kyle Shanahan’s results to this point — but results can be highly overrated in a sport that rarely gives us a representative sample size of anything.
While McVay and Shanahan had very similar paths to their current positions, their fortunes in the time since being hired have been quite different. McVay took over a team with a top overall draft pick at QB, a stud running back and arguably the best player in the NFL anchoring his defense; Shanahan took over a reeking mess polluted with Trent Baalke’s red-shirt experiments and poor first-round investments.
McVay’s Rams splurged on top-level veteran talent last offseason to stack their defense and improve their offensive weapons. Shanahan’s 49ers added a reasonably priced running back they were very excited about (who immediately got hurt) and invested in a young quarterback they were very excited about (who got hurt shortly thereafter), then saved the bulk of their money for this offseason.
Shanahan has nevertheless distinguished himself in the areas that made him appealing. He has consistently shown the ability to scheme players open on offense, even when those players are rarely above average.
He has fostered a remarkably positive locker room environment despite having relatively little on-field success. That is likely related to the qualities that helped him sell straight-shooting veteran Richard Sherman on his vision for the franchise after a6-10 start to his head coaching career, and should be a great help in luring a veteran pass rusher or two this summer.
It’s true that the Rams made their big turnaround in the first year of McVay’s tenure, but he arrived to a much better roster that was being held back by the perennially 7-9 Jeff Fisher. If the 49ers can get last offseason’s acquisitions healthy and use their excellent draft position and wealth of cap space to augment the roster further this summer, there’s no reason their 4-12to 11-5 resurrection can’t happen in 2019.
So enjoy this Rams run, 49er faithful. If your division rival takes home the Lombardi Trophy, cherish that moment as your own. In the near future, it very well might be.
Everyone is scrambling to find the next young coaching superstar, but the 49ers have the original. Perhaps the next Sean McVay is the Sean McVay from before Sean McVay was Sean McVay — Kyle Shanahan.
Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix inBerkeley. You can hear him on the Bay Area sports radio station 95.7 the Game, 5a-6a every weekday morning. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.