Soon after the Los Angeles Rams beat the Minnesota Vikings in September last year, the phone of 33-year-old coach Sean McVay pinged with a text message.
"Man, you guys are really explosive and impressive and fun to watch," it read. "Congratulations – keep it rolling."
The sender was New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who at 66 is exactly twice McVay’s age. It’s very un-Belichick, who I’ve seen this Super Bowl week referred to as "the dark lord of the NFL" and "colder than a Maine winter".
The master and the apprentice: Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay (left) shakes hands with New England’s Bill Belichick in the lead-up to the Super Bowl.Credit:AP
The Rams kept rolling, of course, all the way through the rest of the reason, then the play-offs and, on Monday, to Mercedes Benz Stadium where they will square off against Belichick’s Patriots.
There are plenty of intriguing storylines floating around this match, but it’s the showdown between the two coaches that stands out. McVay, the youngest Super Bowl coach in history, eyeballing the mad scientist of the NFL.
McVay, the offensive genius, up against the man whose defensive strategies have helped lead his team to five championships. One more on Monday and they equal Pittsburgh’s record of six.
To put into context the disparity in experience between McVay and Belichick, consider this: McVay was just short of his 14th birthday when Belichick left the New York Jets to start his dynasty at the Patriots in 2000. When Belichick and a fresh-faced quarterback called Tom Brady won their first Super Bowl two years later – against the Rams, ironically – McVay wasn’t yet 16.
Winning formula: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Bill Belichick celebrate their Super Bowl win in 2015.Credit:AP
It’s hard not to obsess about McVay’s age. Two of his players, Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan, are older than him. Brady is eight years his senior. Patriots receiver Julian Edelman, 32, played college football against him. "I mean, he’s a stud," Edelman said.
McVay hugged Belichick briefly when they met on Super Bowl week's "opening night" and then started gushing like a teenager who’d just met his boyhood idol.
"For him to even take the time to text me after a game, it means a lot because of the respect I have for him," McVay said. "He's been doing it at such a high level for so long, it means a lot and you respect your peers and he's somebody I have a lot of respect for.
Leader of the pack: Sean McVay talks to his players during practice for the Super Bowl.Credit:AP
"It meant a lot because our players did such a great job playing in that Thursday night game [against Minnesota], getting a big win early on in the season and for him to even take the time to say, 'hey, great job, congratulations on the win' with all the things he's got going on, it means a lot. That's really what it was, but to be able to even just have that rapport and the way that he's treated me and the little bit of dynamic and interaction we've had, it means a lot."
Watching the two coaches from close range in Atlanta this week has been fascinating.
McVay, with spiky hair and perfectly groomed stubble, talks a million miles an hour, barely stopping to breathe. Belichick has the emotion of an Easter Island statue, although tone-deaf questions hardly help.
"Kind of a unique question for you," one reporter said.
"Great," Belichick grumbled.
The reporter wanted a selfie. No, Belichick is not a selfie guy.
No, what Belichick is is a football guy. Nothing more. He has little time for anything outside of coaching his team.
When I think of the NFL, I think of the story about the late San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh. He had his arm slung around the shoulders of his wife while watching a movie at the cinemas one evening. Midway through the film, she became angry: Walsh was drawing noughts and crosses with his finger on her shoulder, running plays through his head.
Belichick isn’t as frozen as he’s often made out to be. He actually cries in the ESPN documentary The Two Bills, which examines the 40-year relationship between Belichick and Bill Parcells, who won Super Bowls in 1986 and 1990 while in charge of the New York Giants with Belichick his defensive coach.
In one scene, Belichick walks into the old Giants Stadium locker room, he looks around the dungeon and it transports him back to the 1980s. He reminisces about the hours and hours of video he and other members of the coaching staff pored through in this very room.
Then he becomes emotional.
"I’m sorry," he says, choking up. "Just a lot of memories here."
Not many people get emotional about video analysts, but Belichick does.
Later in the documentary, Parcells says Belichick has the "wherewithal to maintain concentration over an extended period of time". In other words, he doesn’t have a life.
"Obviously, Bill was a great defensive coach," Belichick says. "He taught me the three-four defence that we used at the Giants and that, fundamentally, we’ve used [with the Patriots]. He has been a great friend and a great mentor, and I’m proud to have coached for him."
In December, after a loss to Miami Dolphins, NFL experts were declaring the Patriots dynasty was on the verge of collapse. Belichick, of all people, told the Pats faithful to get some perspective.
"Nobody died," he grumbled.
Rival fans were already dancing on their grave. For all sorts of reasons, not least "Deflategate" and "Spygate" and perhaps the organisation’s synergy with US President Donald Trump, the Patriots seem to be everyone’s least favourite team.
Many experts were writing them off before the divisional play-off against the Los Angeles Chargers. Belichick’s side dismantled the Chargers and then snuffed out the Kansas City Chiefs in overtime in the AFC championship game, sending them to their third Super Bowl in a row. Turns out the Patriots’ demise was just an internet rumour.
The NFL is designed to make successful teams lose. It has a draft and the salary cap in 2018 was $177.2 million.
But Belichick, an economics major, makes it all fit by squeezing every bit of talent out of players not wanted by other teams. An example: his all-important offensive line is worth $17.3 million, which is ranked 26th out of 32 NFL teams in terms of salary-cap expenditure.
The reason Belichick finds himself up against McVay is possibly because of Patriots owner Robert Kraft, according to a piece in the New York Post this week.
In the visiting owners’ box at Gillette Stadium in December 2016, Kraft offered some friendly advice to Rams owner Stan Kroenke, who has a portfolio of sports teams that includes EPL powerhouse Arsenal and the NBA’s Denver Nuggets.
A Rams source who was in the box told the Post that Kraft told Kroenke he needed to a new head coach, suggesting that Jeff Fisher was not the coach who was going to lead the Rams to a Super Bowl. Eight days later, Fisher was sacked and in came McVay.
The grandson of former Giants head coach John McVay, McVay was a star quarterback in high school. "He was so much smarter than the other kids with regards to understanding football," said Mike Maloney, his youth coach and friend of the family, "even at that age".
Having worked his way through the offensive coaching ranks at the Tampa Bay Buchaneers and then the Washington Redskins, Kroenke hired McVay with his franchise on its knees. In just two years, McVay has turned the Rams and their quarterback, Jared Goff, into the most potent offensive team in the NFL.
One of the main beneficiaries has been running back Todd Gurley, who says this of his coach: "It’s crazy. It’s like the dude don’t sleep. Like you come in the next morning, the next morning and the next morning, and it’s always something new. He’s always coming up with new ideas. He’s a genius."
As a result of McVay’s success, young coaches have become the new black of the NFL.
The Green Bay Packers hired his former offensive co-ordinator, Matt LaFleur, who is 39, to be their head coach. The Cleveland Browns have signed Freddie Kitchens, 44, and an "offensive guru", to lead them. The Arizona Cardinals hired 39-year-old Kliff Kingsbury and said in the media release that Kingsbury was friends with McVay, as if some of the Rams coach’s magic dust may have been sprinkled on him.
For all his success, there’s also been a slight whiff of condescension about McVay’s Zen-like methodology. When he arrived at the club, the walls were bare. He had signs like "The standard is the standard", "Our rule – be on time", "Coming to a theatre near you" plastered on the walls.
They call them McVay-isms. Another printed on team shirts: "We not me". There’s the "Anger Sharks", a reference to the movie Anger Management. When McVay starts circling his hand around his head on the practice field, he’s referring to the anger sharks in his head. The players love it.
"It's hilarious," offensive tackle Rob Havenstein told ESPN. "Just cause coach can get fired up every now and again and he'll kind of bring himself back down with, 'That's why we practice. That's why we practice.' And we'll kind of joke about it after."
Anger sharks. Can you imagine Bill Belichick doing that?
Andrew Webster travelled to Atlanta as a guest of ESPN. Super Bowl LIII is live on ESPN on Monday, February 4, from 9.30am.
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