In his fourth season, Sean McVay has become part of the woodwork in the Seahawks-Rams division rivalry. It’s easy to take the Los Angeles Rams coach for granted, mostly because he’s not a cartoon character, as were NFC West coaching predecessors Jim Harbaugh and Jeff Fisher.
But since his coaching record against Pete Carroll is 5-2, taking him for granted would be a mistake. McVay has changed this little corner of the football world. Before he was hired in January 2017 at 30, the youngest head coach in the NFL’s modern era, Carroll was 8-6 against the Rams. Going back to 2005, the Seahawks were 18-6, including some St. Louis years.
But the longtime sick man of the NFC West is better now.
Carroll would never admit to any lingering angst over the current deficit, certainly not ahead of the game at the Loo Sunday in which a win will give Seattle the NFC West title.
Nor would McVay dare poke the bear, his senior by 35 years, with mockery. Particularly not after his stunning career start has slowed a bit, hitting its nadir Sunday with a loss at home to the previously winless New York Jets, a team the Seahawks beat 40-3 a week earlier. McVay called it “embarrassing.”
In 2017, McVay took the NFL’s worst offense and made it the top-scoring outfit on the way to 11 wins, the club’s first winning season since 2003 and first playoff appearance since 2004. The run included a 42-7 win in Seattle that is largest deficit in Carroll’s Seattle tenure.
In his rookie season, McVay was named coach of the year. The next year, the Rams won 13 games and went to the Super Bowl.
But since that 13-3 loss to New England, things have not gone as well. Last season’s 9-7 record missed the playoffs. If the Rams lose Sunday, as well as their finale against 8-6 Arizona, they could be shut out of the postseason again.
At a world-weary 34, McVay is discovering his child-genius crown weighs a little heavier.
“The longer that I do this — not that it’s been that long — what coach Carroll has done, the more appreciation I gain for the consistency at which they operate,” he said Wednesday on a Zoom conference with reporters. “What he does as a head coach, you see the identity show up. They always kind of find a way.
“I just have tremendous respect for him. But I don’t think that we have any sort of secret sauce. We’re gonna go try to see if we can get a win this week. We know what a great challenge it’s gonna be.”
Some of McVay’s respect developed well before he even dreamed he would be coaching against Carroll near the summit of the game. He learned the respect from his grandfather, John McVay.
It’s a name well-known to older generations of fans. But to those 12s who think football was invented when Carroll arrived in Seattle in 2010, McVay is the old guy with a bicep made large by bearing the weight of five Super Bowl rings.
John McVay was the personnel executive behind legendary coach Bill Walsh’s 49ers dynasty. From 1979 to 1995, and then a second tenure from 1998 to 2003, McVay was credited with finding 50 All-Pro players and 41 Pro Bowlers during his time in San Francisco, where the 49ers won Super Bowls in 1982, 1985, 1989, 1990 and 1995.
McVay was the man responsible for drafting, among many other stars, Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Jerry Rice and Charles Haley, and trading for Fred Dean and Steve Young, to build the best teams of the 1980s and 1990s.
“His true forte – besides being totally selfless – was that he was an absolutely brilliant talent evaluator,” former team owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. told the Sacramento Bee. “We wouldn’t have had the success we had if Bill didn’t have John, and they didn’t work so well together.”
Participating in 1995 and 1996 was Carroll as the 49ers defensive coordinator, eager for whatever wisdom the self-effacing McVay was willing to share.
“Gentleman John,” Carroll called him Wednesday. “I did spend time with John, hung out with him some, just to get to know him. He was a really big, significant part of all of that success they had then.
“He was still kind of the guru, kind of the wizard . . . he had come off all of his years with the longstanding Niners tradition . . . he had the background, the history and kind of the lore to it.”
When Carroll worked there between head coaching gigs with the Jets and Patriots, McVay’s grandson was 9 and 10 years old, running around practice, but spending no time hanging with “old” coaches.
“I just remember Jerry Rice, Joe Montana and Deion Sanders, the 1994 defensive player of the year,” said McVay, recalling he and Carroll never met then. “I do know my grandfather holds coach Carroll in extremely high regard. I know how much respect and how much he appreciates the way Pete treated him, and also treated me. Coach Carroll is a great coach and great man.”
A linebacker under Carroll in San Francisco was Ken Norton Jr., who moved in the NFL’s first season of free agency in 1994 from Dallas to the 49ers, where in 1995 he was named first-team All-Pro.
Now the Seahawks defensive coordinator, Norton smiled Wednesday when asked if he recalled John McVay’s rugrat grandson.
“A lot of coaches had their kids there — even one who’s now head coach of the 49ers,” he said. Indeed, Kyle Shanahan, son of Mike Shanahan, then the 49ers’ offensive coordinator, was a frequent observer of practice, along with Sean McVay, albeit seven years younger. Mike Shanahan would eventually move on to win back-to-back Super Bowls in Denver.
Kyle Shanahan, then 37, was named head coach of the 49ers the same year as McVay took over the Rams. In 2019, Shanahan succeeded McVay as coach of the NFC’s champions. Carroll was left to spectate.
“They were just little young bucks at that time, just running around,” Norton said of the time when paths intersected in San Francisco. “It’s fun to see the guys grow up and do as well as they are. You could tell early age that they were just football gym rats. It’s good to see that they grew up to be fine young men.”
Now the grandson and son of Super Bowl-winning eminences show up on consecutive weekends of the holiday schedule to attempt to outsmart a senior Super Bowl-winning eminence.
The kids may have a combined seven Super Bowl rings in the family trees. But they must make their own history. The edge for now goes to the guy, as McVay put it, with the consistency of operation. As well as a 2-5 record that likely chaps him more than we’ll ever know.