After a long, adventurous season the Super Bowl is upon us. The Los Angeles Rams will face off against the New England Patriots in what should be a memorable game. Both rosters are loaded with talent but it is the coaches who will make this game most intriguing.
The Rams Sean McVay has one of the brightest offensive minds in the NFL while the Patriots Bill Belichick has been a defensive mastermind for decades. Before the game begins it would be worthwhile to look at the differences between the two coaches and the journeys they have taken to develop their philosophies.
McVay’s education in football began at the feet of his grandfather, John McVay, who was head coach of the New York Giants for three seasons and later General Manager of the San Francisco 49ers for three Super Bowl victories during the 1980s. He helped build the franchise from the lowest realms of the NFL into one of sports greatest dynasties. Those 49ers teams had a substantial amount of talent and McVay was a key evaluator of that talent, with Bill Walsh leading the charge.
Sean McVay entered the league as an offensive assistant for Jon Gruden’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2008. After a year-long hiatus out of the NFL with the Florida Tuskers, McVay was hired by Mike Shanahan while he was head coach for the Washington Redskins. He learned under the offensive mastermind until Shanahan was fired after the 2013 season. Starting in 2014 McVay put his education to use as Washington’s offensive coordinator.
At the time Washington had a quarterback dilemma having drafted both Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins in 2012. After tearing his ACL in the 2012 playoffs, Griffin had lacked the excitement which had gotten him drafted second overall.
Meanwhile, Cousins continued to show promise in practice and in scattered game appearances. This trial by fire experience would establish a core principle of McVay’s offense. An offense cannot survive without a competent quarterback who can be a leader through thick and thin. After a year-long battle Cousins won the starting job and led the team to the playoffs in 2015. Griffin’s career spiraled downward and he is now a third-string quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens.
Another principle of McVay’s offense was finding an all-around running back. The Redskins had Alfred Morris and Roy Helu carrying the load during the season. Their usage was quite different as Morris mainly ran the ball and Helu was primarily used as a pass catcher.
The following two seasons saw their production dip due to poor play and injury which forced McVay to concentrate more on his passing attack. As a result of this Cousins threw for 4,166 yards in 2015 on 543 attempts. The following year was even worse on the ground and Cousins threw for 4,917 yards on an astounding 606 pass attempts.
Along the way Cousins became known as one of the NFL’s most accurate quarterbacks by maintaining a completion percentage of over 67 during McVay’s final two years in Washington. This leads to the third principle of McVay’s offense which is diversity in the passing game.
The Rams noticed McVay’s influence and hired him as their head coach prior to the 2017 season. He quickly molded his franchise quarterback in Jared Goff and recognized Todd Gurley as the all-around running back he lacked in Washington.
The Rams immediately took the NFL by surprise and won the NFC West for the first time in more than a decade. Their offense was a major reason for their sudden success and McVay was named Coach of the Year by season’s end. While the Rams lost in the first round of the playoffs they attracted a large number of talented free agents and quickly reloaded for a championship run in 2018.
They added receiver Brandin Cooks in the offseason and their passing attack flourished as a result. Cooks had 1,204 yards receiving along with five touchdown catches while his counterpart, Robert Woods, had 1,219 yards and six touchdowns. Cooper Kupp was also an effective weapon in the passing with 40 receptions for 566 yards and six scores before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
Goff threw for 4,688 yards and 32 touchdowns during the season. Gurley made the offense roll with 1,215 yards rushing, 580 yards receiving and 21 total touchdowns.
Defenses were bewildered for much of the season as the Rams overwhelmed them with explosive plays and creativity. When the playoffs began it was clear that the Rams were ready to become champions. The Dallas Cowboys put up a fight but the Rams outlasted them 30-22 thanks to the electric play of Gurley. The New Orleans Saints had a 13-0 advantage early in the NFC Championship Game but the Rams gutted out a 26-23 victory in overtime due to Goff’s leadership.
The Rams offense has broken many defensive coordinators who cannot figure out how to stop such a diverse attack. Will the Rams solve the great defensive mind of Belichick?
Belichick has been a part of the NFL since the mid-1970s. He has seen the game change from the ground to the air. He has adapted well over the years and has seven Lombardi Trophies as evidence of his brilliance. Along the way, he has developed some core philosophies about how his defense should play.
After a number of stops as an assistant with several NFL teams, Belichick was hired by the Giants in 1979 as a defensive assistant. He was the linebackers coach a year later and developed one of the best units in the NFL until 1984. Head Coach Bill Parcells saw potential in the young linebackers coach and promoted him to defensive coordinator in 1985. The NFL quickly took notice of his potential as he built one of the stingiest units in the league.
Much of his early success was due to the greatness of Lawrence Taylor who single-handedly changed the game while terrorizing quarterbacks from the blindside. With Taylor wreaking havoc on the edge, Belichick had the freedom to experiment with the 3-4 defense which was not standard at the time.
Typically teams would line up in a 4-3 defense which is usually better equipped to stop the run in the run-heavy NFL of the 1980s. Harry Carson, Gary Reasons, and Carl Banks lined up alongside Taylor to form a formidable mixture of speed and instincts among the linebackers.
The key to his 3-4 defense was the defensive line which featured George Martin, Jim Burt, and Leonard Marshall. The 1986 season was arguably his finest coaching effort as a defensive coordinator as four members of his defense were selected for the Pro Bowl. Taylor was not only named Defensive Player of the Year but also NFL MVP after recording a then NFL record 20 sacks. The defense overwhelmed the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl and the Giants won 39-10.
After another Super Bowl victory in 1990 Belichick was hired as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns and primarily used a 4-3 front while constantly tinkering with the lineup. The lone constant in the midst of the change was defensive tackle Michael Dean Perry who collected a combined 23 sacks in his first three years under Belichick and was invited to two Pro Bowls.
It was during this stint with the Browns that Belichick demonstrated his admiration of older players. In his last two years in Cleveland, he injected former Giant Banks and Pepper Johnson into the starting lineup. While neither contributed much statistically, they added valuable experience for a maturing unit. This affinity for experienced players would be demonstrated even further in New England.
Belichick was fired from the Browns after the 1995 season and spent the next few years following his mentor, Parcells, around the NFL while further developing his defensive philosophy. Belichick was hired by the Patriots in 2000 and saw a similar opportunity which was available in Cleveland. He would have one last chance to develop a defense as a head coach.
Several key players were already on the Patriots roster including Lawyer Milloy, Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi and Ty Law. These players would prove to be the backbone of the Patriots dynasty of the early 2000s. This is a critical part of Belichick’s philosophy. He wants true leaders on his team, men who are self-starters and are willing to put in the work on their own in order to win championships. While his numerous defensive schemes have bewildered many offensive coordinators, it is his players who put in the work to make the plays which win championships.
After winning Super Bowls in 2001 and 2003 the Patriots drafted massive defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. This is where Belichick’s defensive philosophy truly comes to fruition as it features massive defensive tackles to plug the middle as the more athletic defensive players swarm behind them to collect tackles and turnovers. The Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2004 but took a 10-year championship hiatus and did not win again until 2014.
When 2014 began the Patriots had a very different roster than 2004. The defensive leaders of the past three championships were gone but they reloaded with talent. They added cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in the offseason to stifle passing attacks. They also had a number of excellent pass rushers including Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower.
The lone defensive holdover from the original dynasty was Wilfork who was still among the best at plugging the running lane. After 10 years Belichick had at last fully adapted to the changing times and was primed for a Super Bowl run.
After a rough 2-2 start the Patriots marched to the Super Bowl where they faced the Seattle Seahawks who had won the championship the previous year. It was a hard fought game and the Patriots were ahead 28-24 when the Seahawks brought the ball to the 1-yard line with seconds remaining. Undrafted rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler made the play of the year when he stepped in front to intercept Russell Wilson’s pass at the goal line. Butler did his job and the Patriots were Super Bowl Champions again.
The Patriots failed to make the Super Bowl in 2015 but reached it the following year. Their roster was different from two years earlier. Wilfork signed with the Houston Texans after the 2014 season and Jamie Collins was traded to the Cleveland Browns in the middle of the season. The team had added defensive end Chris Long and drafted defensive tackle Malcom Brown to bolster their front seven. Both played well and were a driving force for the league-leading defense.
The Patriots stormed to the Super Bowl and played against the Atlanta Falcons and their white-hot offense. The Falcons blew out the Patriots in the first half and took a 28-3 lead midway through the third quarter. The defense had to step up and they did not disappoint. In the remaining minutes of the game, the defense allowed the Falcons to reach Patriots territory only once. The defense stepped up with a sack on that particular series and the Falcons were forced to punt rather than kick a game-ending field goal.
The Patriots came back from a huge deficit and forced overtime. Their defense didn’t see the field after regulation as Brady led the offense on a drive which resulted in a game-winning touchdown. The defense did their job by making plays when they were most needed and the Patriots won the Super Bowl for the fifth time.
The Patriots shuffled their roster around in 2017 and saw Long go to the Eagles in the offseason. While the defense was still good, it was not great and they had no answer for the Eagles in the Super Bowl. The Patriots lost in a shootout 41-33.
The 2018 season was not a record-breaking year for the Patriots defense. Part of the reason was a lack of a pass rush. Only Trey Flowers had more than five sacks and as a result, their defense suffered at the hands of elite quarterbacks while allowing 246.4 yards passing per game which ranked 22nd in the NFL. The team was still able to secure the second seed in the playoffs due to a great offense and weak competition the final two weeks of the season.
Still, this is the New England Patriots coached by a renowned defensive guru who has seen every kind of offense imaginable throughout his NFL career. They will hear the Belichick credo “do your job” and will make plays when it counts the most. This leaves one question unanswered: Can they withstand the offensive onslaught of the Los Angeles Rams?