On Feb. 3, 2019, Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams faced off against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII. McVay’s Rams were an offensive juggernaut. They scored 30 points in six of their first seven games and didn’t lose until Week 9. That year, LA beat the Minnesota Vikings 38-31 in a Thursday night showdown for the ages. The Denver Broncos held them to 23 points in Week 6, and the Rams got stuck in the mud at Chicago in Week 14. But outside of that, they had a unit that couldn’t be stopped.
That is until they faced Bill Belichick’s Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Belichick held McVay and the Rams’ defense to a field goal in a 13-3 contest that 100 million people watched mostly for the commercials. It was a defensive masterclass, one that hardcore football fans adore and the rest of the human population despises. McVay hired Kevin O’Connell as his offensive coordinator a year later, and they won it all together last season. But despite the near-universal praise McVay has earned from fans around the nation, he was roundly criticized for how he handled being on football’s largest stage in 2019.
Shortly after Super Bowl LII, USA Today ran an article claiming that McVay had lost the big game before it even started. Citing NFL Films audio from before the game, writer Andrew Joseph avers that Belichik had to have known he had the game won before kickoff. Why? Because McVay gushed about Belichick’s coaching pedigree in an exchange prior to kickoff.
Below is USA Today’s transcription of the exchange:
McVay: So much respect for you.
Belichick: Likewise, you’ve done a great job. OK.
McVay: So great — you always do though. You always do — you know, you’re the best, man. So.
Belichick: (Expletive), you’re taking over, buddy.
McVay: No, no, hey — the way that you guys are able to shift your identity and really still be able to figure it out, I mean, week in and week out, it’s unbelievable.
McVay: Really, so much respect for you and the way you do it, man. You’re what’s right about coaching.
Belichick: Thank you.
McVay: Preciate you, coach.
McVay comes off as a superfan, while Belichick is his typical sardonic self. For context, McVay was 32 at the time, younger than some of the players on his roster. He was in his second year with the Rams, a wunderkind taking on Belichick in his 19th year coaching the Pats. It’s only natural that McVay would be enamored with Belichick. He’s the gold standard of NFL coaching. But it’s probably unwise to offer that so forcefully before the game, then coach conservatively throughout it.
O’Connell is a big Belichick fan, too. Belichick is also New England’s general manager and selected O’Connell in the third round of the 2008 draft. The Patriots waived O’Connell a year later, but Minnesota’s 37-year-old head coach still has a lot of positive things to say about Belichick. Now he’ll get to face him on a short week after losing to the Dallas Cowboys, 40-3.
“Yeah, I’ve mentioned that I was lucky enough to play there,” O’Connell said after Tuesday’s practice. “He is one of my coaching influences regardless of [if] I knew I was going to get into coaching [at the time] or eventually become a head coach. Those characteristics, those foundational things you learn there, even in the short time that I was there, have stuck with me.
“I still have old notebooks with team meeting notes and things like that that are always great to go back and look through throughout that season, throughout the offseason, training camp. So as I’ve said many times, it’s been a huge part of my football journey to be able to experience being there for that period of time, and helped me grow tremendously.”
Almost every coach says something positive about the coach they’re facing that week. None of them want to create poster board material. They also know how hard the job is, and many of them run in the same circles. Still, O’Connell is going above and beyond with his praise.
I’ve had the chance as an assistant on some other teams to have some dialogue with him pregame and different interactions with him, whether at the owners meetings or things like that. You really can’t put any kind of term on how much respect I have for him as far as the person, the coach, the leader, what he’s meant to this league. And ultimately, the challenge that I know it’s going to be to prepare your football team on a short week to play against the New England Patriots.
It’s worth monitoring how O’Connell handles this challenge. He won eight of his first nine games as head coach, wringing the best out of a roster that was .500 last year. However, the Dallas Cowboys shellacked the Vikings last week, further revealing Minnesota’s Achilles heel. The Washington Commanders nearly beat the Vikings using a talented front four that frequently got into the backfield and tormented Kirk Cousins. The Cowboys digested that film and sacked Cousins six times using only four rushers.
There’s no way that escaped Belichick.
Dalvin Cook had a solution for all the pressure Cousins faced last week, and plainly stated the approach they’re going to this week.
“Well, we men,” he said. “We don’t want Kirk to hit the ground. Us as men, we’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror and correct that. That’s the type of bunch we’ve got in this locker room, a bunch of grit, resilience. I’m looking for the guys to rebound this week and keep him off the ground.”
Furthermore, Belichick famously sells out to stop an opposing team’s best player and forces them to beat them with everyone else. Dallas held Justin Jefferson to 33 yards receiving a week after he put up 193 on the Buffalo Bills. The Cowboys aren’t the only team to hold Jefferson in check, either. He only had 48 yards in Minnesota’s Monday night loss to the Philadelphia Eagles and 14 against the Detroit Lions. Before the Dallas game, Jefferson reiterated his intention to eclipse 2,000 yards and suggested that they use him in the short passing game to allow him to create yards after the catch against New England.
Jefferson wants to be a big part of the game plan. He wants to be the reason Minnesota wins on Thursday. He was built for prime time. But the Vikings are playing it coy when reporters have inquired about how they will get Jefferson involved.
“Yeah, again, a lot of these questions are really, a) I don’t want to give away our game plan and b) maybe in the offseason, we can talk football at a restaurant without a microphone in my face, and we can have a great time,” Cousins responded when I asked how he’d balance getting Jefferson involved and taking what the defense gives him.
But right now, with the lights on me, I’m just going to be dumb and act like I don’t know football. Also, with a lot of these [issues], coaches are handling this. I know what they’re coaching me to do, and I’ll go do that. But they put together the plan and ‘How are we going to that?’ and ‘What’s our answer for this?’ and ‘What’s our answer for that?’ and they kind of disseminate that information to me, to the rest of the team, and then we go execute it. So it’s really a joint effort, and I think that’s part of the plan. On a short week, that plan is even more important and unique in how quickly you have to pull it off.
Cousins put the game plan on the coaches while acknowledging his role in executing it. How will we know if O’Connell is overly deferential to Belichick? A big tell will be if he takes him on using his best offensive player, or if he tries to win without meaningfully involving him. The Vikings have offensive talent outside of Jefferson, but Adam Thielen and K.J. Osborn haven’t been the second coming of Three Deep. T.J. Hockenson has been a positive edition, but he’s not a one-for-one replacement for Jefferson.
Will O’Connell dig deep into his playbook to scheme Jefferson open, or will he try to win the game with everyone else? The former is probably the only way to win this game.
The Vikings can lose this game and still have a successful season. By winning tight games early, they’ve bought themselves some cushion. The New York Jets will provide a similar challenge next week. They also have an inept young quarterback but a stout defense. But the schedule lightens up considerably after that, and a 12- or 13-win season is a significant accomplishment for a rookie coach.
Still, how much faith are fans going to have in this team if O’Connell gushes over the grouch? Won’t he have trouble against other elite coaches in the playoffs? To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, if you shoot the king, you better kill the king. And what better weapon does O’Connell have in his arsenal than his receiver who one-upped Odell Beckham Jr.’s catch in Buffalo?