Monday, 18 December 2017 10:16

Sean McVay guides focused Rams to cusp of division title

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SEATTLE -- A little more than an hour before the biggest game of his very young life, Sean McVay bounced across the CenturyLink Field turf like an old-school hype man

on a hip-hop stage. "Let's go!" McVay kept repeating to various people in his line of vision, pumping his right fist with abandon, his eyes ablaze with energy.

With NFC West supremacy -- and potentially much, much more -- on the line, the Los Angeles Rams' 31-year-old rookie coach could barely contain his enthusiasm. Soon, he would make a pregame speech, and there was so much to say about this mid-December rematch against the Seattle Seahawks, a team which had narrowly defeated the Rams two months earlier, but which suddenly seemed more vulnerable than at any time since rising to prominence in the Pete Carroll era.

Yet when he jogged back to the visitors' locker room and considered the demeanor of his players, McVay abruptly called an audible.

"I could feel it before the game -- these guys were so ready for this moment," McVay said long after the game as he changed into a custom three-piece suit in his small dressing room in the visitors' locker area. "It was the same feeling I got before we played the Arizona Cardinals in London (a 33-0 Rams victory), and I loved what I saw: they were locked in, focused, determined and pumped. And that's when I knew I didn't really have to say anything at all."

According to a witness, McVay kept it short and sweet, telling his players, "Nothing needs to be said. We're ready. Let's (expletive) go!"

Then the Rams (10-4) went out and rolled the Seahawks (8-6) in shocking fashion, cruising to a 42-7 victory that all but locked up a division title -- and which may well have marked the end of an era.

Led by a pair of young stars, defensive tackle Aaron Donald (three sacks, two tackles for loss, four quarterback hurries, one forced fumble and approximately three hours of residence in the Seahawks' backfield) and running back Todd Gurley (21 carries, 152 yards, three touchdowns; three catches for 28 yards and a receiving TD), L.A. raced to a 34-0 halftime lead and continued a dramatic one-year turnaround under the guidance of McVay, who when hired last January became the youngest coach in modern NFL history.

The Seahawks, meanwhile, looked like a shell of their former selves. With four Pro Bowl defenders sidelined by injuries and a fifth, middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, hobbled noticeably by a sore hamstring, Seattle forced second-year quarterback Jared Goff into a turnover but otherwise offered little resistance. They were outplayed on special teams as well, as Rams punt returner Pharaoh Cooper set up one touchdown with a 53-yard runback and had 128 yards overall. And Donald and friends kept Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (14 of 30, 142 yards, one touchdown; five rushes, 39 yards) from inflicting any meaningful damage.

It was a miserable Sunday for the 69,077 fans at CenturyLink, especially given how accustomed they have become to seeing the Seahawks summon heroic efforts in such circumstances. Since Carroll arrived in 2010, Seattle has made the playoffs in six of seven seasons, won four NFC West titles (including three of the previous four), captured one Super Bowl in dominant fashion and, painfully, fallen less than a yard short of winning another.

Two weeks earlier in the same stadium, the Seahawks had shown their mettle once more, ending the Philadelphia Eagles' nine-game winning streak with a resounding, 24-10 victory. But the Rams, who lost at home to the Eagles last Sunday, sucked the air out of the heart of a champion storyline from the outset, leaving the Seahawks to ponder the approach of what may turn out to be a jarring offseason.

While the Seahawks, who have a road game against the Dallas Cowboys next Sunday before playing host to the Cardinals on Dec. 31, technically have a chance to extend their current streaks of five consecutive playoff appearances and double-digit seasons, the mood following Sunday's game was decidedly bleak.

"You've gotta think about who we were missing on defense -- given all the injuries, it was gonna be tough," said one of those players, star cornerback Richard Sherman, as he hobbled off the field on crutches after the game. "It was a game where we had to make very few mistakes, and we made a lot of them, and it turned out to be one of those days. Eventually we'll get our people back, and it'll look a lot different with a full cast of characters."

Sherman's hopeful tone was inspiring, but reality bites -- and next year, in all likelihood, the Seahawks will look very, very different. It's something the front office has refrained from referring to as a rebuild, instead preferring the word transition. Yet given the Seahawks' salary-cap situation (the team is currently pressed up against the spending limit) and the wear and tear on so many of their defensive stalwarts, big changes could indeed be coming, including a death blow to the Legion of Boom.

Most of the expected turnover is on the defensive side of the ball, with one notable exception: Former Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham, acquired in a trade before the 2015 season, will be a free agent this March and would likely be re-signed only if he takes a significant cut from his current $10 million annual salary.

Of the four Pro Bowl defenders who missed Sunday's game, only outside linebacker K.J. Wright is likely to return in 2018. Safety Kam Chancellor's season-ending neck injury, suffered last month, could be career-threatening; if he does try to keep playing, it likely wouldn't be in Seattle. Chancellor, who signed a three-year, $36-million contract extension in August, could save the Seahawks significant cap dollars if he decides to retire, rather than force his likely release.

Fellow Legion of Boom stalwart Sherman, who tore his Achilles tendon in November, will be 30 next spring and is due to make $11 million (with a $13.2-million salary-cap number). The Seahawks shopped him in trades a year ago and are expected to move forward without him in 2018.

Avril, who turns 32 in April, suffered a season-ending neck and spinal injury in early October which may end his career; either way, his time in Seattle is probably done. Improbable as it sounds, it's possible the Seahawks would also move on from another accomplished defensive end: 32-year-old Michael Bennett, a versatile player who signed a three-year, $31.5-million contract extension last Dec. 30.

Most daunting of all is the possibility that perennial All-Pro safety Earl Thomas, the team's biggest difference-maker -- and the last Legion of Boom stalwart standing -- could also be gone after this season. After breaking his leg last December, Thomas tweeted that he was considering retirement, though he came back for what has been a productive but frustrating 2017 season.

Thomas, who turns 29 in May, suffered a hamstring injury in a late-October victory over the Houston Texans and missed the next two games. His contract runs through the 2018 season, and sources familiar with the All-Pro safety's mindset believe he may seek a raise that will put him at or above the $13-million annual average commanded by Chiefs counterpart Eric Berry, who signed a six-year extension in February.

The Seahawks could sign Thomas to a long-term deal, but if they balk and anticipate a potential holdout, they conceivably might look to trade him after the season.

"We can only control what we control," Thomas said after the game. "The truth always shows. Guys just didn't play within the scheme today."

Earlier, Thomas told a group of reporters that he believed Wagner -- who was forced out of the previous Sunday's 30-24 road defeat to the Jacksonville Jaguars after straining his hamstring -- shouldn't have played against the Rams "because the backups would have done just as good... He just couldn't do it today."

Wagner clapped back on Twitter, saying, "E keep my name out yo mouth. Stop being jealous of other people success." He deleted the tweet soon thereafter.

In fairness to Thomas, Wagner was largely ineffective. When healthy, however, Wagner is one of the NFL's best players, and he's clearly the defensive leader around whom the Seahawks intend to build during their transition.

Can they pull it off smoothly? With an elite quarterback in Wilson and a legitimate defensive leader in Wagner -- and given general manager John Schneider's strong record in identifying and acquiring talent -- it's at least plausible that Seattle could remain competitive as the roster is retooled.

However, it will be a significant challenge, and it begs a legitimate question: Will Carroll, 66 and blessed with a bulging bank account, be motivated to preside over such an ambitious home-improvement project?

If Carroll, the NFL's oldest coach, does stick it out, he'll have to contend with the red-hot rookie running the Rams who is three-and-a-half decades his junior. In turning around a franchise that went 4-12 in 2016 and hadn't had a winning season since 2003, McVay has energized L.A. with an innovative offensive scheme and a knack for pushing all the right motivational buttons at the most important times.

After each of the Rams' defeats, they've responded with impressive outings, scoring an average of 34 points in four victories, two of them over the playoff-bound Jaguars and NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints.


Last week, McVay reminded his players about one of those losses -- a 16-10 setback to the Seahawks on Oct. 8 at the L.A. Coliseum, which ended with rookie receiver Cooper Kupp nearly catching a crisp pass from Goff at the goal line. He convinced them they were capable of much more in the rematch, and they delivered in a huge way.

On Sunday, as he finished putting on his sharp suit and prepared to leave the stadium, McVay once again summoned his inner hype man while discussing his team, which can clinch the NFC West next Sunday with a victory over the Tennessee Titans in Nashville, or (if the Seahawks beat the Cowboys) the following week at home against the San Francisco 49ers.

"We had come so close against them last time, and we have so much respect for the Seahawks," McVay said. "You look at their record, the way they beat Philly two weeks ago, and all the amazing things Russell Wilson has done, and we knew we had to be at our best today.

"And you know what? I thought our guys had their best performance of the season. It's a great demonstration of our team coming back after a tough loss (to the Eagles), gathering ourselves together and playing a complete game in our biggest game of the year."

As their coach correctly surmised while going through his pregame paces, the Rams were ready. Now, they're potentially on their way to bigger and better things, while Carroll and the Seahawks -- after a fruitful and inspirational run of excellence -- are staring at a far less certain future.

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