In professional football, the name of the game is winning. So much so that one good season is enough to make you The Next Big Thing, the one who can do no wrong.
Exhibit A for this is the Los Angeles Rams’ young coach, Sean McVay, who happened to be in Kansas City for a major event just one day after news broke surrounding the Rams’ trade for star Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters.
McVay, who was at the 101 Awards on Saturday at Westin Crown Center to receive his NFC coach of the year honor, smiled wide and spoke enthusiastically during the press conference before the event.
Positivity and enthusiasm are part of his ethos as a coach, and after the 32-year-old guided the Rams to a seven-win improvement in 2017 — while simultaneously working wonders with a previously-horrific offense — who’s to say there’s anything wrong with that?
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Certainly not other coach-needy NFL teams like Indianapolis and Chicago, which spent the last few months seeking offensive-minded head coaches just like McVay in hopes of a similar turnaround.
So in the NFL, when you’re The Next Big Thing and things are going well, you can take chances. And don’t think for a second that the Rams’ acquisition of Peters, which cannot be finalized until the start of the new league year on March 14, isn’t rooted in confidence born in the Rams’ success this season.
“Right now, just because of where we’re at in the league year, you can’t make it official, so you have to be careful with some of the tampering,” McVay said, when asked directly about Peters. “But in a quick nugget, he’s a great player.”
There’s little doubt about that. Since 2015, Peters’ rookie season, no NFL cornerback has intercepted more passes than Peters, the mercurial Oakland native, who’s penchant for diagnosing routes and making plays is practically unmatched. At 25 years old, Peters is among the best cornerbacks in the league at a position of critical importance, one who could have been retained by the Chiefs for fairly reasonable sums the next two years.
Still, the Chiefs opted to punt on making him the league’s highest-paid corner in the near future, trading him Friday in a move that’s been in the works for three weeks. That little fact — of Peters likely garnering a big payday in the future — seemed to scare away several teams, as sources told The Star that only the Rams and 49ers stepped to the plate with interest.
It’s not a coincidence both are West Coast teams with young head coaches with leadership skills, as Peters’ preference for being close to his beloved hometown of Oakland has been long-established, while his coachability has been a question dating back to college.
But for McVay and the Rams, whose worst-to-first turnaround has rightfully inspired confidence in their system, the trade for Peters is essentially playing with house money. With Peters needing a new deal, he’s likely to play well, and is likely to be on his best behavior as the new kid on the block.
“These are grown men, and it starts with the mutual respect that exists, where they know it’s about developing and building relationships,” said McVay, who fosters that by being honest when he messes up too. “If we’re going to ask our players to be coachable, we’ve got to be coachable as coaches as well. That displays an ownership and an accountability that we try to all have and makes the players more receptive to the messages we try to implement.”
When it comes to discipline, McVay said he believes in establishing clear-cut boundaries, which could factor into his eventual handling of Peters, whom Chiefs coach Andy Reid suspended in late December for one game due to a combination of Peters’ on-field and off-field behavior.
“They know exactly what the expectations are, what our standards are, and they know what it is to do it the right way,” McVay said.
That’s why star defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who was also in Kansas City on Saturday to be honored as the NFC’s defensive player of the year by the 101 Committee, believes in the Rams’ ability to accommodate just about any personality.
“He’s a coach — he’ll get after you when you do something wrong,” Donald said of McVay. “Don’t let that smile fool you. I’ve seen that man change.”
One other thing the Rams have going for them is the presence of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. While Peters often appeared to be frustrated at the on-field calls by Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton late last season — at least until his suspension — Phillips’ gravitas is real. Though Phillips is quiet, he also has a knack for putting his players in position to make plays, and when you throw in all the great players he’s coached — and don’t forget, Phillips was the guide of Denver’s Super Bowl-winning swashbuckling unit of a few years, which was one of the best in recent history — he’s got the command and respect of the entire locker room.
“Every little thing he says, it makes you want to listen to it and take the coaching,” Donald said.
But players ultimately set the tone in a locker room, and McVay likes the alpha males who establish the Rams’ football culture, especially defenders like Alec Ogletree, Connor Barwin and Donald, all of whom McVay explicitly mentioned by name.
“Special players like this have a real good influence, especially when they’re producing,” said McVay as he nodded toward Donald, who was sitting directly to his left.
Donald prefers to lead by example, and he noted the Rams have a lot of guys like that, who work hard and have helped McVay establish the right way of doing things.
Even former Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez, who is now an NFL analyst, thinks a new team will be good for Peters, whose sometimes-explosive temperament caused more attention than his on-field play did at times last season.
“Sometimes a change of scenery will do a player good, and I hope that for Marcus, because he’s a phenomenal football player,” Gonzalez said. “But sometimes with personalities and situations, change is good. That’s why coaches get fired, players get traded. You’ve just got to move on and make it good.”
But in the meantime, the Rams are taking a chance after a winning season, a chance that makes sense. It’s a gamble for sure, but it’s one you can take when you’ve got the league copying your blueprint for success.
“When you’re looking at the way we want to operate philosophically, you can never have enough guys that can cover and be able to play some of the man principles that (defensive coordinator) Wade (Phillips) loves to implement,” McVay said.
“Anytime you have guys that can cover and do different things as far as matching up with receivers like Antonio Brown, that gives you a chance to be versatile and maybe mix some things up in terms of the pressures that you want to bring.”