Sean McVay Has One Glaring Flaw as a Head Coach

If Sean McVay isn’t already considered the best head coach in the NFL, he’s at least considered the model for what the modern head coach should be. While finding the next Sean McVay might be an impossible task, the NFL did not hesitate to try this past offseason. Young offensive minds were getting interviews and getting hired for head coaching positions all across the league. The Los Angeles Rams don’t want to be searching for the next McVay, so they just gave him a five-year extension that reportedly puts him among the highest-paid head coaches in the league after just his second season.

These honors, obviously, do not come meritless. McVay has done enough and in a short enough period of time to show he’s clearly doing something correctly. It’s clear to anyone watching what the Rams did before McVay turned up in Los Angeles and what the Rams have done since, McVay had a massive impact. But for all McVay has done as a head coach and offensive innovator, there is one big aspect of his game that has lacked.

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In this era of the NFL, offensive innovation and aggressiveness are commonly thought of as one of the same. But that has not been the case in Los Angeles. One of the lowest-hanging fruits of the analytics revolution has been fourth-down decisions. Teams have gotten increasingly aggressive on fourth downs with the knowledge that converting can lead to longer drives and more points. The Rams, though, have not been among those teams.

During the 2018 regular season, the Rams faced 18 fourth downs with three or fewer yards to go on the opponent’s side of the field. The Rams only went for it on four of those plays and that 22 percent go-for-it rate was the lowest in the league for those situations. The league average was 54 percent and the next lowest teams were the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers, who went for it on a third of those fourth downs. The league also averaged a first down on 64.3 percent of those plays when teams went for it.

This isn’t just a one-year blip, either. The Rams have the lowest rate of going for it on fourth-and-short in opposing territory over the past two seasons.

If you want to know how quickly the NFL can change when something is proven to work, the go-for-it rate over the two-year sample was 47.8 percent and for 2018 alone it was 54 percent, thanks mostly to the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles riding an aggressive fourth-down strategy to a Super Bowl win.

In 2018, the Rams also only attempted a fourth-down conversion on a third of their fourth-and-short attempts between the 40’s, an area of the field numbers would suggest and one of the most obvious places to keep the offense out.

So what about game flow, though? The 2018 Rams were quite good and didn’t face many dire situations where they had to go for it in order to win the game. That is true, but also doesn’t completely excuse the hesitation of going for it. Game score didn’t really seem to matter to the Rams in these cases, either. Two of their four conversion attempts came in the same Week 2 game against the Arizona Cardinals. One came on a 4th-and-goal from the one-yard line with two seconds left on the clock. The result was a Todd Gurley touchdown that put the Rams up 20-0. Then early in the fourth quarter, the Rams had a failed QB sneak on a 4th-and-1 from Arizona’s 15-yard line when up 27-0.

One of their conversion attempts did come when they needed it most, in the middle of the Monday Night Football shootout with the Kansas City Chiefs. On a 4th-and-1 from the Kansas City 37 early in the third quarter, the Rams hit a 10-yard pass to Tyler Higbee when the score was still tied at 23.

But McVay did shy away from being aggressive in two of the biggest games of the season. In the NFC Champion Game against the New Orleans Saints, the Rams faced a 4th-and-1 at the New Orleans 1 down 20-17 with five and a half minutes left in the game. Instead of keeping the offense on the field and trying for the lead, McVay sent the field goal unit on late, took a delay of game, and then kicked to tie the game.

With how good the Rams’ offensive line had been run blocking during the season — first in Adjusted Line Yards, per Football Outsiders — it’s hard to imagine them not having the advantage, even if the previous run from C.J. Anderson had been stuffed. And if the Rams had failed, New Orleans would have started a drive to close out the game on their own 1-yard line. Instead, the Rams kicked and we know how that game ended.

This carried over to the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots. With 3:32 remaining in the first quarter, the Rams faced a fourth-and-3 from the New England 42. Instead of running a play, the Rams sent the punt team on and ran late motion in an attempt to draw the Patriots offsides. When that didn’t work, Los Angeles took a delay of game penalty and Hekker had just a 28-yard punt.

In low scoring games, teams should be more aggressive because the volume of opportunity is low, those chances need to be maximized. Now, McVay couldn’t have known at this time there would be so few scoring chances for the rest of the game, but he should have known from over a decade of history, any team facing the Patriots needs to take advantage and be aggressive in every given opportunity.

Most of these decisions do involve putting points on the board via field goals and some could use that as a defense for the lack of aggression. However, for years, numbers have shown the benefit of going for it in these situations outweighs the safety of three points, but it is a trap McVay has consistently fallen under as a head coach.

Of course, this is just one small aspect of the game and it’s one that can be easily fixed. It will take significantly less work to make McVay a more aggressive decision-maker than it would be to make an aggressive coach as good as McVay in so many other aspects of the job. But this does have to be a point of emphasis for McVay and the Rams in 2019 and beyond and could be a key in taking the team to the next level.