LOS ANGELES — It was Week 3 of the 2017 season, in the aftermath of an exhilarating Thursday night game between the Los Angeles Rams and the San Francisco 49ers. The two division rivals combined for 80 points, accumulating four touchdowns within the final 13 minutes. The Rams stopped the two-point conversion that would have tied it, then fumbled the ensuing onside kick and needed a fourth-down, Aaron Donald sack to win a game that at one point seemed destined for a blowout. Emotions ran high in the coaches’ locker room immediately thereafter, exhaustion and adrenaline clogging the air. Wade Phillips casually strolled inside and cut through all of the tension with one sentence.
“We sure kicked their ass, didn’t we.”
The Rams’ coaches burst into collective laughter. Sean McVay, only three games into his rookie season as a 31-year-old head coach, couldn’t help but smile. It was a moment that captured the very essence of Phillips, the now-72-year-old defensive coordinator who never lets the stress of his job sap any of the joy that he extracts from it.
“He always enjoys the moment,” McVay said. “And I just think that’s such a good reminder, because people feel that.”
McVay was asked if his personality would ever allow him to do the same — to take the ebbs and flows in stride, laugh off the inevitable struggles along the way, even take a moment to appreciate his place in the world from time to time.
“I don’t think so,” he said, “but I think it’s a good measuring stick.”
McVay is one of boundless energy and unbridled enthusiasm, the type that sticks out within a profession composed of the hyper-obsessed. But he is also an unrelenting perfectionist. The smallest indiscretions — misused timeouts, botched playcalls, inefficient practices — ceaselessly gnaw at him. It is both his gift and his curse.
“He would probably say he’s got a little ADD or something,” Phillips’ son, Wes, said. “He’s just on all the time.”
Phillips navigates through life with distinct ease and calm. An urgency lies within it, but one enveloped by perspective, upheld by a mantra of enjoying successes without lamenting failures. Nothing seems serious enough to dwell on.
“Wade’s got a really neat, easygoing way about him that camouflages he’s one hell of a competitor,” McVay’s father, Tim, said. “He’s a great competitor, but he’s a real cool customer about it.”
The two coaches reside on opposite ends of the spectrum, both in age and in personality, which is what makes their dynamic so fascinating.
“The yin and the yang,” is how Rams assistant head coach Joe Barry described McVay and Phillips.
“Totally different personalities, totally different coaching styles on the field,” Wes said. “But I think philosophically they’re very similar in how you treat players, how you approach the teaching aspect of the game, and how you ultimately get players to play better is to show them respect, give them the knowledge, and motivate them to want to do it for their team and do it for themselves.”
Wes, now the Rams’ tight ends coach, had an office next to McVay’s when the two were on Jay Gruden’s staff with the Washington Redskins from 2014-2016. Wes was constantly getting called over to check out a new play McVay had either drawn up or seen on film. McVay spoke so passionately, so thoroughly, so quickly. He’d ask a question and move on to a different topic before Wes could summon an answer.
Wes can understand how his father might struggle to get a word in with McVay.
“I don’t know that he wants to get a word in either,” Wes said with a laugh. “He’s fine just letting Sean go.”
When Phillips agreed to join McVay’s staff in 2017 — a pre-arranged deal simply because McVay asked and Phillips wanted to work — he also vowed to remain in the background, to never be overbearing. If McVay had a question, he could ask (and often, he did). OtherWISe, Phillips would let him be. His only advice was to address the entire team rather than focus exclusively on the offense.
His approach reminds McVay of his grandfather, John, the decorated former 49ers executive.
“He’s always been so willing to share, but it’s never pushed on you, and Wade’s very similar,” McVay said. “He’s got experience, and he’s got his hands on everything, but I think there’s a refreshing security that he has in himself, that he doesn’t have to prove himself. He just wants to be an advocate to help our football team, and me, in this role.”
Phillips was quickly blown away by McVay’s work ethic and leadership ability. Over time, he came to appreciate his understanding of defenses and his constant willingness to shoulder blame. He never saw himself as a critical sounding board for an up-and-coming coach, and he recently dismissed the notion of providing a necessary balance for McVay.
“I mean, he’s a terrific coach now,” Phillips said. “And he’s a terrific head coach. I think that’s the key thing. He’s not only a really good coach and he’s really smart — he’s a terrific head coach. He’s a great leader that the players follow. And I’m just one of the guys that follow him.”
Phillips once famously made a joke about how the Rams were the only team with a defensive coordinator on Medicare and a head coach in day care. When McVay became a viral sensation for naming all 11 of the Chicago Bears’ defensive starters, Phillips came back the next day and named all 11 offensive starters. When the Arizona Cardinals made it a point to note that their new head coach, Kliff Kingsbury, is “friends” with McVay, Phillips quipped that his son, Wes, knows McVay “real well.”
They banter with one another, but with a mutual respect that is ever-present.
“I just like their ability to have a conversation that’s very constructive,” said Rams special teams coordinator John Fassel, who served as a ballboy for Phillips when he was in high school. “Everybody can, but they talk a lot. And the conversations are very constructive, always about what’s in the best interest of the team. It’s really as simple as that.”
McVay, who led a downtrodden franchise to back-to-back division titles and a Super Bowl appearance through his first two seasons, quickly became a dynamo in the head-coaching ranks. He is considered an offensive genius and a master leader, at an age that allows him to relate to players in ways few head coaches ever could. Phillips never had the outgoing, magnetic personality that could so easily rally a group. He had to find his own voice within a laid-back personality.
“It’s always been a challenge to me,” said Phillips, who fully intends on coaching beyond this coming season. “I’m not a holler guy, so I’ve gotta do it a different way. I gotta tell them that I’m disappointed in them, and it’s gotta mean something.”
In Phillips, McVay has found what he lacks — what he might forever lack. He sees someone who is always even-keeled, who seamlessly transitions from one play to the next and who is constantly present in the moment. He sees the same passion in a complete different package.
“That’s something that has definitely helped me, where I’m always struggling with the balance,” McVay said. “Watching the way that he’s been able to sustain such a high level over a course of time; I think you’re seeing why — because he enjoys it, he really has fun with it, and he doesn’t take it too seriously. He’ll never forget that it’s a game.”