It was just seven years ago that the Rams, recently relocated to Los Angeles and having just fired longtime head coach Jeff Fisher, settled on Washington offensive coordinator Sean McVay. Becoming the youngest head coach in NFL history, McVay quickly proved to be one of the brightest offensive minds in football, going 11-5 his first year on the job.
McVay took the Rams to the playoffs in four of his first five years, reaching the Super Bowl twice and winning it the second time around. His ascension up the coaching ranks resulted in darn near every NFL team suddenly trying to find the “next McVay,” either by hiring an up-and-coming offensive coach to pair with a veteran defensive coordinator, or by simply hiring anyone who had ever so much as breathed the same air as McVay.
That’s the type of coach the Cowboys are about to go up against, coming out of their bye week with a home game against McVay’s Rams. But these Rams aren’t the same as the ones McVay dominated the league with, not even close.
Los Angeles famously went all-in on building their Super Bowl team, trading top draft picks for Matthew Stafford and several other big players. It worked, and they won the big game two seasons ago, but the reality of mortgaging their future set in almost immediately.
Last year, injuries and old age leveled this team, and they finished 5-12. It was the first losing season of McVay’s career, and it coincided with several losses on the offensive side of the ball. The Rams lost four different coaches: offensive coordinator Liam Coen, assistant head coach/tight ends coach Thomas Brown, running backs coach Ra’Shaad Samples, and offensive line coach Kevin Carberry.
McVay had become synonymous with the style of offense popularized by Kyle Shanahan, who assumed control of the 49ers the same year McVay arrived in Los Angeles. Both coaches run the West Coast variant that’s heavily based on the wide zone run. Both coaches feature lots of pre-snap motion, play-action passing, and a hyper-focus on marrying the run game to the pass game. For a while, the biggest difference between McVay and Shanahan came down to personnel: McVay utilized a ton of 11 personnel due to his deep receiver room, while Shanahan made greater use of 12 personnel due to the presence of George Kittle and a talented fullback in Kyle Juszczyk. Other than that, though, the schemes were more or less the same.
However, McVay has shown to be more willing to change when necessary. After Stafford became the quarterback, McVay dialed back his use of play-action and incorporated more shotgun sets into the offense, as Stafford preferred those looks more. And after his first losing season as a head coach, McVay embraced the opportunity to change some more.
He hired Mike Lafleur, brother of the Packers head coach, as his offensive coordinator; LaFleur had been the Jets offensive coordinator for several seasons, but mostly came up under Shanahan in San Francisco. McVay also brought in Nick Caley to coach tight ends and Ryan Wendell to coach the offensive line. Caley’s NFL experience was limited to just the Patriots, while Wendell had played in New England before coaching under Brian Daboll with the Bills.
These hires brought philosophical changes to the Rams offense in multiple ways. The biggest change, by far, has seen the Rams pivot from their wide zone running scheme to a gap scheme. In fact, the Rams run gap-blocking schemes at the highest rate in the league right now, a stark departure from their normal methodology.
McVay has also ratcheted up his use of motion. While his previous offenses made frequent use of motion in the run game, using it to throw off the run fits and confuse defenders, McVay has seen a significant increase in the use of motion for passing plays as well. Specifically, he’s been using the speedy Tutu Atwell on short motion concepts designed to give the receiver a running start on his routes. That’s led to Atwell tallying more yards through seven games than he’s had in his first two years in the NFL: 340 yards on 26 catches for three touchdowns.
It hasn’t all been on Atwell, though. Rookie Puka Nacua has set the football world on fire with 58 catches for 752 yards in just seven games. In fact, if he catches just one pass this Sunday, he’ll set the NFL record for most catches in a player’s first eight games. Nacua’s size and reliable hands have made him a monster in McVay’s offense, and he was recently rejoined by Cooper Kupp, who started the season on the injured reserve. Kupp’s first game back was slow, but he’s gotten up to speed since then, hitting 7+ catches and 115+ yards in each of the last two weeks.
Of course, the guy facilitating this all is Stafford. The 35-year old clearly isn’t in his prime anymore, but he’s still capable of playing winning football. He’s second in big time throw rate and, crucially for the mistake-prone Stafford, boasting the third-lowest turnover worthy play rate. Stafford is also being pressured at the eighth-lowest rate in the league, though he’s still the eighth-most sacked quarterback.
Regardless, Stafford has looked better than he did a year ago with these changes on offense, and McVay is once again reminding everyone how great he is at running an offense. The Rams rank seventh in both offensive DVOA and EPA/play, a testament to how good they’ve been despite some talent deficiencies along the offensive line.
McVay is one of the very best offensive minds in football, and he’s been squeezing the very best out of this uneven group of players this year. They’re not as explosive as they have been in recent years, but the Rams offense remains dangerous. They will present a very good test for the Cowboys defense this week, contrary to anyone who overlooks them due to their record.