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NFL coaches on Sean McVay, burnout, pressure to win

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORN.  - TEN.  January 25, 2022. Rams head coach Sean McVay watches the team warm up before the game.

Little things went right for head coach Sean McVay after the Rams’ championship season. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

The season is over for the Rams, but the worry is heading into overtime.

What will Sean McVay do? Will he continue to coach the team? Will he take a TV job? How about a license on a beach in St. Somewhere?

Whatever McVay decides — and it could happen at any time — there’s a community of former NFL coaches, some of them Hall of Famers, who are all too familiar with the pressures of the job. They understand the notion of burnout, even among those with incredibly high-paying and coveted jobs.

“There are only a few Bill Belichicks or Andy Reids out there,” said Dick Vermeil, citing two of the league’s longest-serving coaches. “There are only a few Don Shulas or Bud Grants out there. I think Coach McVay has proven that he’s at that level of talent. He is a potential Hall of Fame coach. But if he doesn’t have that personality, it’s not his fault, so it might not happen.”

Vermeil understands. He was Philadelphia’s head coach from 1976 to 1982 and led the Eagles to the Super Bowl. But then he left for a TV job — doubling his $75,000 salary — and didn’t return to coaching until he took over at St. Louis. Louis Rams in 1997. There, he won a Super Bowl with Kurt Warner and the “Greatest Show on Turf,” before ending his coaching career with the Kansas City Chiefs from 2001-05.

Eagles head coach Dick Vermeil frowns as he prepares to answer a question during a press conference in 1982.

Eagles head coach Dick Vermeil frowns as he prepares to answer a question during a press conference in 1982. (Rusty Kennedy / Associated Press)

He said he retired from coaching for the first time because the euphoria of victory had evaporated. He was only relieved when his team won, depressed when they lost.

“Defeat hurt a lot more emotionally than victory affected you positively,” said Vermeil, 86, enshrined in Canton last summer. “I found myself thinking about what I should have done last week to win, when I should have been thinking about what I had to do to win next week.”

The idea of ​​an NFL coach burnout isn’t going to garner much public sympathy. These coaches are not saving lives and can earn as much in one season as five teachers can earn in their entire career. However, coach burnout happens and the topic is particularly relevant for the Rams, who have enjoyed tremendous success with McVay at the helm.

Tony Dungy played for and later worked as an assistant to legendary Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Chuck Noll, who oversaw the organization for 23 years. Rather than being an old-school, sleep-in-the-office coach, Noll was ahead of his time in supporting work-life balance for people in the organization. These coaches left work early once a week to play golf and often had family days at team headquarters.

“One of the first things Coach Noll told us when I was a rookie player was, ‘Don’t make football your whole life. If you do that, you’ll be disappointed when you leave the game,’” said Dungy, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016. “He told us that as players, and I saw him demonstrate that in the 10 years I was there.

“I’ve worked in a few other places where it wasn’t necessarily like that and where guys were like, ‘I’ve got to make sure everything runs perfectly.’ If you take this approach, it can get to you right away. Because there are too many things to manage and oversee. If you have to be aware of everything, and everything happens at your desk, it can wear you down and wear you down.”

Winning has always been the bottom line for NFL coaches. That’s not news. But with the league’s popularity, 24/7 news coverage, fantasy football and everyone feeling like an expert, the spotlight on coaches has never been brighter.

“Today it is almost unfair to compare the longevity and resistance of [the coaches from 30 to 40 years ago] with what work is like today,” said Vermeil. “Because the evaluation process became so intense, so expanded. It’s like comparing a 1980 Cadillac to a 2023 Cadillac. They all move forward, but the technology and everything within it is totally different. … I think today it is more difficult for coaches.

McVay, hired at age 30 in 2017, was the youngest head coach in NFL history and remains the youngest of the 32 currently employed. He made the Super Bowl in his second season, and his team won it all in February, lifting none other than the Lombardi Trophy at SoFi Stadium. He inherited a 4-12 team that ranked 32nd in scoring and reversed that in his inaugural season, when the Rams were No. 1 in that department.

“I only sat down and talked to Coach McVay once,” Vermeil said. “The only thing I remember saying to him was, ‘You won too fast, too soon.’ All the teams I took over were losing, especially the Eagles and the Rams. Whatever you did – make a first down and they applauded you.

“But when you start as fast as Coach McVay, it gets harder every year. Even after winning everything last year. Our. What do you do to prove that you still have the ability to do this? It is hard.”

This season’s Rams took a dramatic fall from last season’s dizzying heights, finishing 5-12.

“It’s not the workload,” said Rick Neuheisel, a former college coach and offensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens. “You get up in the morning, you come to work, but you never look at the clock. Ever. You are just doing what you love to do.

“The problem is the pressure to win and the weight it puts on you when you don’t. For Sean McVay to go through the past year, after the euphoria of the year before, it’s a feeling of exhaustion. He has never been through such an exasperating road.”

Even before and shortly after the Super Bowl victory, there was rampant speculation that McVay might leave for a TV job. This season saw a revolving door of Rams forwards, almost never the same group from week to week, and an injury list that included the club’s biggest stars: quarterback Matthew Stafford, receiver Cooper Kupp and defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

“You know all that next man stuff? That’s just coaching language,” said Steve Mariucci, former head coach of San Francisco and Detroit, speaking generally about the loss of star players. “That’s like false bravado sometimes. The next man is not as good as the guy he follows, okay? This is the reality. When you have too many men nearby, you’re going to get your ass kicked. Let’s face it. Let’s talk real here.”

And no matter how convincing a coach may be when talking to his players, at some point those messages wear off.

Said Mariucci: “When I was signed by the Niners, [team president] Carmen Policy says, ‘Coach, you’re not going to be here forever. Bill [Walsh] wasn’t here forever. George [Seifert] wasn’t here forever. There will be a lifetime for each trainer. That’s how it works in this championship. Enjoy it while you can. It will be the trip of your life.

“He was very direct in knowing full well that in his mind the message gets a little boring or stale and needs to come from someone new every now and then. Bill lasted 10 years, George lasted eight, and I was six. Not everyone is Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin or Pete Carroll. This is the exception to the rule.”

McVay isn’t lending a helping hand. He wants time to reflect on his future, and the Rams want to give him that. There are strong indications that they are willing to give him a leave of absence, a sabbatical to restart, but they want him back when he is ready to return. They don’t want to train against him.

And there’s no denying TV’s appeal to him. He only has to look at former New Orleans head coach Sean Payton, who worked as a studio analyst for Fox this season and whose coaching stock has exploded. He is the most coveted coaching candidate out there.

Said McVay of the network’s interest: “It’s flattering. Those are always going to be things that you anticipate and hope will come up, because I don’t shy away from the fact that in the future, or whatever it is, it’s something I’m interested in.

Analyst Tony Dungy speaks on set before an NFL football game.

Tony Dungy says NFL television is fun work, but it doesn’t compare to the satisfactions of running a football team. (Associated press)

Dungy took a job as a studio analyst for NBC after retiring from coaching at the age of 53. He was not conflicted about stepping down as manager; He was ready to go. He loves working in TV, but the job doesn’t tick the same boxes as coaching.

“It’s not the same thing,” he said. “You are involved in the game. You start seeing your friends. You can talk. You start thinking about strategy and all those kinds of things. But it’s not the same thrill as getting an organization together, pulling everyone in the same direction, chasing that goal and knowing at the end of the year that only one of us is going to reach it and 31 that will come a little short, but try again next year.

“The satisfaction you get from building a team and taking it to the playoffs, winning playoff games. TV is great, it’s fun, but that’s not it.”

Ultimately, for Vermeil, the allure of coaching proved too strong. He had to go back.

“You miss being the king,” he said. “You miss being the boss. You miss making the decisions. The only thing you don’t miss is the pressure.”

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.