Rodrigue: Why Sean McVay’s decision whether to return in 2023 is so complicated

SEATTLE – As the perceived permanence of a long NFL season ended for the Rams on Sunday night, so did the perceived permanence of their head coach.

Sean McVay is in the process of deciding whether he wants to return to the team in 2023, and has been gathering perspective on the matter from confidants, advisers and friends, multiple team and league sources with direct knowledge of the ongoing situation told me about the last week. The people who spoke with me were granted anonymity so they could be candid.

McVay’s mind is not made up, they said.

There are those within the Rams organization who believe he will take the break we all knew was coming at some point. McVay is a both-ends candle-burner who struggles to integrate rest and task delegation into his duties as a head coach. There are also people within the organization who believe he will stay. One league source said that the next two weeks will be pivotal to the Rams’ next steps as an entire entity.

McVay has been openly courted by broadcasting companies for years. They keep throwing bigger and bigger sums of money at him, including up to the moment he signed a contract with the Rams through 2026 this summer that puts him in the company of the highest-paid coaches in the NFL. This, the people who spoke to me universally agreed, is not really about a desire to immediately start a broadcasting career, although McVay has been public about wanting to seek out that path eventually.


The Rams won the Super Bowl in Sean McVay’s fifth season in LA A year later, the Rams finished 5-12 after their loss to Seattle on Sunday. (Joe Nicholson/USA Today)

McVay enjoyed an all-out sprint of success with little criticism, ever since his catalytic 2017 entrance to the league at age 30 as the engineer of an offense nobody could stop, to his remarkable winning percentage since his rookie coaching season. He has never had a season like this, humiliating and out in public for everyone to see like this just months after winning the Super Bowl. He’s never had an offseason like this, where he has had little to no control over an unprecedented short recovery timeline for himself and for players, and few answers to a league rapidly adjusting to combat everything he (and the front office) have built — there simply has not been enough time to find them or to identify the staff he wants to help him problem-solve. McVay has openly referred to this Rams season as a “professional failure,” and said the experience has forced him to admit “insecurities” of which he was not previously aware.

His personal life has carried worry and loss. He and Veronika, his wife, sat on their couch in the spring and watched as her native country of Ukraine was invaded just days after the two giddily drank champagne on the rooftops of Super Bowl parade buses. In the fall, McVay lost his grandfather, John — a man who epitomized being whole and human and empathetic even when under intense pressure. Those are qualities McVay prizes in people and works to mirror. When McVay nearly wept at his press conference after the funeral, he also openly addressed the fact that he wouldn’t even have close to the career he has had without his grandfather’s connections throughout the NFL.

Who is McVay when circumstances he can’t control — such as the Rams’ catastrophic streak of injuries through the 2022 season — occur within an environment he has spent the last five-plus years meticulously honing to his every specification, at times even to the point of self-insulation? Who is he without his job? Does he know? Does he want to know? Success can be complicated if a person gets stuck in the wheel they built.

Even now, he has all of the autonomy here. The Rams, two people who spoke to me said, are totally open to whatever he needs to do, whether he stays or steps away — inclusive of making large-scale changes among his assistant coaches and the roles he delegates to them, or any personnel or work habit changes. One person with direct knowledge of the Rams’ contingency plans for either option, who was granted anonymity in order to speak freely, said that even if McVay decides to step away in 2023, the organization does not believe he would permanently retire from coaching.

McVay does not have a timeline for making this decision, nor does he have a deadline from the Rams, multiple people with knowledge of the process said.

As a human, he should take the time he needs to untangle his mind. I have so much respect for people who feel their feelings and work to understand who they are in the world and in their own heads. But there are layers to this. It’s not simple.

If he takes a break, it’s not guaranteed that other high-profile players will stay (depending on who the Rams choose to fill his role). Quarterback Matthew Stafford, who is scheduled to speak to us Los Angeles beat writers Monday morning, has said publicly that he is not retiring after this year. But McVay and Stafford aligned themselves financially and schematically, and while Stafford would take a significant financial hit if he decided to walk away altogether, that wouldn’t be the only option on the table if he didn’t feel invested in any coaching change ( remember, Stafford came to Los Angeles to win a championship, not to get abused behind a tattered offensive line and to play for McVay). Similar to speculation surrounding McVay and any broadcasting opportunities being an annual conversation, retirement speculation annually swirls around three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald since he legitimately considered the option after the Rams won the Super Bowl. If McVay takes a break, who gives the Rams their best shot at keeping Donald around? Or do they blow the whole thing up in the short term and hand McVay back the keys when he’s ready and their trajectory shifts back towards the positive?

If I were in players’ or assistant coaches’ shoes, I would feel a certain sense of frustration about this entire situation while also wanting the best for McVay. Both can be true, but let us not forget the significant physical, emotional and circumstantial adversity most players have gone through to make it to the NFL, often from backgrounds much different than their own. Let us not forget that until McVay makes a decision, many assistants may not know their own futures, nor will their families.

It is necessary to feel empathy and concern for what McVay is working through, while also feeling empathy and concern for those affected by this decision. According to people familiar with his thought process, McVay is cognizant of the large-scale impact any decision he makes will have on people who, unlike him, do not have their financial or professional futures guaranteed. He can walk away and come back with a major contract still in place. Nobody else affected by this situation can say the same.

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“You gotta control what you can control,” said Bobby Wagner, whom McVay says he has leaned on because of Wagner’s consistency and leadership in a spiraling season, after the Rams lost their final game of the season in Seattle. “Obviously, there are a lot of things that he has to figure out, things of that nature. I’m not in his shoes. So, you just control what you can control and react to whatever happens. … He has an eternal friend in me.”

Quarterback Baker Mayfield, who started for the Rams after joining the team in Week 14, has gotten to know McVay more closely since their initial meeting on a flight to the NFL combine ahead of his rookie season in 2018. Multiple players said postgame that they are ‘t sure what will happen with McVay, and Mayfield noted further, “(McVay) is so truly invested in (putting) everything he has into this game. Everything he thinks about is about football.

“That’s why you see the toll that it takes on him.”

Sunday night at Lumen Field, as the Rams’ season formally ended, McVay stood at the lectern with that toll — with that emotion — printed all over his face. Normally, I can see his open frustration with a loss, or his thinly-veiled bravado after a win. For years, we’ve joked about how he has no poker face; you can see exactly where he’s at, good or bad or in between.

This time, I saw a person who wants badly to discern answers that won’t reveal themselves to him. A person on the verge of something – tears? An angry outburst? Even here, he didn’t seem sure; seemed at odds with his feelings and it was fitting because that’s exactly where he is. There is no question in my mind that McVay isn’t simply navigating burnout or the sting of losing for the first time in his life. There is no question in my mind that McVay is working through something more important psychological, that perhaps he doesn’t fully understand yet.

I wondered, then, what it must be like to be a person who believed he would truly find himself once he reached the mountaintop, who might now be fearful of realizing that even when he did, he remained lost.

(Top photo of Sean McVay: Jane Gershovich/Getty Images)

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