Column: Rams coach Sean McVay must beat nemesis Kyle Shanahan – Los Angeles Times

Five seasons later, he’s the face of professional football in Los Angeles, the lightly bearded guru working the levers on this city’s extravagant championship dreams.

It’s hard to believe Sean McVay is still the youngest coach in the NFL.

“I look like I’ve aged 40 years since then … I definitely feel like I’ve aged more than five years,” he said.

Five seasons after he was hired as the youngest coach in NFL history, the 36-year-old is the hottest coach in town, four playoff appearances, one Super Bowl appearance, one win away from advancing to another Super Bowl.

It’s hard to believe Sean McVay still has so much to prove.

“‘Spry’ is definitely not a word that I would use to articulate how I’m feeling right now,” McVay said.

He’s accomplished so much, yet there’s so much left unfinished. He’s an old soul, yet still needs to grow. He’s excelled, but is still evolving, and this Sunday will be an important indicator of how much he’s truly developed.

McVay needs to lead the Rams to victory over the San Francisco 49ers and his nemesis Kyle Shanahan in the NFC championship game at SoFi Stadium. He needs to guide the Rams to a Super Bowl being played on a $5-billion home field built by his owner Stan Kroenke just for this occasion. He needs to show he can succeed with hand-picked quarterback Matthew Stafford and a dizzying display of All-Pro talent collected by a win-at-all-costs front office.

Anything less and Sean McVay is still just an excitable kid doing canned soup commercials.

Anything less and he continues to fall short of being on the short list of Los Angeles’ great homegrown sports bosses.

By his fifth season, Tommy Lasorda had already won a championship. So had Mike Scioscia. And Pat Riley. And John McKay. And John Robinson.

OK, so it took John Wooden 15 years to win his first title, but that was a different era, that was before so much importance was placed on new and now and next.

McVay has had a great run, but to be considered a truly great coach in this environment, it’s time for him to actually finish the race.

“We’ve got some more things that we want to try to be able accomplish and we know what a great challenge it’s going to be to do it,” said McVay in a videoconference with reporters earlier this week. “But, our guys are excited about attacking it the right way.”

He’s attacked these big moments before, but never quite tackled them.

In the 13-3 loss to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII after the 2018 season, McVay was outsmarted at every angle by legendary Patriots coach Bill Belichick, and the youngster admitted it.

“I’m pretty numb right now,” he said afterward. “I definitely got outcoached.”

The following year, the Rams were clearly in danger from suffering from a Super Bowl hangover — only three of 52 teams had won the Super Bowl the season after losing it — yet McVay consistently scoffed at the notion of a jinx.

“I really haven’t looked too much into it,” he said before the season.

He should have looked closer, as the Rams finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs.

Then, in 2020, the Rams advanced to the divisional playoffs against the Green Bay Packers, where they trailed by only one touchdown in the fourth quarter. But once again they couldn’t close, losing 32-18, and McVay took the heat.

“That’s why I’m think I’m so sick is … because it was an opportunity where we got it to a one-possession game,” he said afterward. “You wanted to make sure we gave ourselves a chance as a team, that was my responsibility, and I didn’t come through there and I think that’s what is going to really sit in my gut.”

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford talks with head coach Sean McVay.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, left, talks with head coach Sean McVay during the second half of an NFL wild-card playoff game against the Arizona Cardinals on Jan. 17 at SoFi Stadium.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

He’s been sucker punched in big games, and occasionally lost his grip during big moments.

There was his erratic use of injured running back Todd Gurley during the 2018 season, which affected locker-room chemistry and on-field consistency.

There was his open disdain of quarterback Jared Goff late last season, an unusual show of public frustration from a coach who constantly preaches togetherness.

Then there has been his general refusal to hold his players publicly accountable, as he continues to take the blame for every team failing, which is noble until it starts to feel forced and overly protective.

“You guys know I’ll never run away from some of the decisions that I know I can make better,” McVay said, adding, “I’ll never pretend to think that every decision I made was exactly right and that you don’t learn from it.”

He certainly won’t be running away from the face across the field on Sunday. Looming almost as large as the question of whether the Rams can beat the 49ers is the challenge of … can Sean McVay beat Kyle Shanahan?

The 49ers coach and McVay’s former mentor has defeated him six straight times and seven times in 10 meetings. It seems as if Shanahan knows McVay’s playbook, scripts McVay’s defense and owns a great deal of space in McVay’s head.

The Times’ Gary Klein asked McVay that precise question in a videoconference Wednesday, saying, “Is Kyle in your head at all, in terms of trying to get past these guys?”

McVay answered, “No. What I do have is respect for these guys. … Kyle’s an excellent coach, they’ve got great players, great coaches, good schemes and so this is why they’re in the NFC championship.”

No matter how he frames it, McVay will have to spend Sunday resisting the urge to make it personal. To pull this off, he has to stop trying to show that he’s smarter than everyone else. It’s an understandable trait, considering he is generally smarter than everyone else, but it’s ill-advised when a heated situation sometimes calls not for a brain teaser, but common sense.

For example, in the divisional playoff win last week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it was common sense that he should replace fumbling Cam Akers late in the game with Sony Michel, who had fumbled once in 208 carries this season. But McVay stuck to his script — Akers got 24 carries, Michel carried the ball once — and Akers nearly handed the game to the Bucs.

“I think we’re at our best when you get both those guys involved,” he said this week. “Cam ended up getting the bulk of the work, but I think for us to continue to go in the direction that we want and give ourselves a chance to win this game against a really tough opponent, both those guys are going to have to be contributors.”

He once said the same thing about weird usage of Gurley and C.J. Anderson, so we’ll see.

Then there was McVay’s inexplicable call of a timeout late in Tampa Bay’s game-tying touchdown drive. The pause allowed the frantic Bucs to set up Leonard Fournette’s nine-yard touchdown run.

The timeout didn’t cost them, but it is this sort of forced overcoaching that could hurt them against the solid 49ers.

“I’ll never claim to make all the perfect decisions, but I think the biggest thing that you’ve heard me say that we’ve talked about before is, is the intent right?” said McVay. “And not just exclusively a result of what the outcome is, but was the process in alignment with the thinking?”

Intent, process, whatever, now it’s all about that outcome.

Enough of the educating and progressing and maturing.

It’s time for Sean McVay to grow up into a champion.