Opinion: Sean McVay vs. Zac Taylor puts NFL's coaching revolution in Super Bowl spotlight

Mike Jones

As Sean McVay and his Los Angeles Rams take center stage against Zac Taylor and his Cincinnati Bengals Sunday, the meeting also will serve as a reunion between two coaches who helped guide the Rams on a Super Bowl quest that fell just short against the New England Patriots three years ago.

McVay was in his second season as head coach. Taylor, meanwhile, served as Los Angeles' quarterbacks coach, and he accepted the Bengals’ position the day after that loss to New England. 

Now, they’ll engage in a chess match that will test their familiarity with one another’s strengths and weaknesses – factors that could make or break their teams’ fortunes.

But the Super Bowl also represents more than just a showdown between friends.

The meeting between McVay, 36, and Taylor, 38, lends further credence to the notion that this new wave of coaches, for which NFL teams have developed an infatuation, can indeed deliver championship results although they lack extended experience. And, the success of each – regardless of Sunday’s outcome – will likely lead to the continuation of the hiring trend.

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Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay looks on during the second half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a NFC Divisional playoff football game at Raymond James Stadium.

Back in the offseason of 2017, the Rams ranked among the first teams to pounce on the idea of turning their franchises over to young, charismatic coaches with bright offensive minds in hopes that their fresh ideas and relatability could draw maximum results out of their players. 

McVay, hired two weeks shy of his 31st birthday, became the youngest head coach in the modern era and. In his first season teamed with general manager Les Snead, he transformed the Rams from a 4-12 squad to NFC West champions. Then came the trip to the Super Bowl, which helped propel Taylor to the head coaching ranks. 

In five seasons, McVay, who came to the Rams with only three years of coordinator experience, has never posted a losing record, and his teams have reached the playoffs four times. Now, he is favored to deliver the Rams the Lombardi Trophy they have craved ever since the disappointing loss to the Patriots. 

The Bengals hired Taylor, a former standout quarterback at Nebraska and 2006 Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year, even though he never served as a full-time coordinator in the NFL. (Taylor did have a five-game stint as interim offensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins in 2015, but he never called plays under McVay.)

However, during his four seasons in Miami, college stints at Texas A&M and Cincinnati and his two seasons with the Rams, Taylor developed a reputation of being a bright, detail-oriented, hard-working coach full of innovative ideas. 

That his relationship with McVay certainly helped his credibility during the 2019 NFL hiring cycle is not lost on Taylor.

“The joke is if you have a cup of coffee with Sean McVay, you’re going to be a head coach in the NFL,’’ Taylor chuckled in a news conference last week. “And there’s a ton of truth to that. Because if you spend time around the guy, he gives you a ton of confidence in yourself.”

Taylor called his two seasons under McVay “two of the best years of my life.” He added, “It was fun. You loved coming into the building every single day.”

Former Rams coworkers describe Taylor as “a grinder” who worked just as tirelessly in a less-than-glamorous assistant wide receivers coach role as he did as quarterbacks coach. Taylor fed off of McVay’s energy and used the head coach's constant quest to expand his football knowledge to grow his own. Taylor also closely studied McVay and his methodology and leadership philosophies. 

McVay is big on relationship building, something he learned from his grandfather John McVay, a former NFL head coach (New York Giants, 1976-78) and executive (San Francisco 49ers, 1980-96), and from his studies of Hall of Fame basketball coach John Wooden. 

“You never want to lose sight of the real purpose for why you do it: for these players, for these coaches that you know and care about,” McVay said.

As he has worked to establish a culture in Cincinnati, Taylor has used a similar approach. 

“That's a lot of our messaging to our building and our staff and our players,” he said. “We want guys who are willing to come in here and work, but they enjoy the process of walking into this building with a smile on their face every day."

Expounding on lessons learned from McVay, Taylor said, “He’s really shown a lot of young guys that you can do it in your own way. It doesn’t have to be the way it’s always been done for the last 20 years around the league. There can be a different way of doing things, and so I think that we all saw that from Sean. He was very open about how he did things, why he made certain decisions. And so that has allowed myself and a lot of other guys to go off and feel very comfortable leading a team because of the impact he made on all of us.”

McVay downplays the praise, however, as well as his role as a potential kingmaker, setting up talented assistants up for future head-coaching jobs.

Yes, Taylor is relying on many of the lessons learned from his time in Los Angeles, and many of the same offensive concepts utilized by the Rams are recognizable in the Bengals’ schemes. And it’s true that with Taylor, former offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur (Green Bay Packers), former defensive coordinator Brandon Staley (Los Angeles Chargers) and current offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell (Minnesota Vikings, who cannot officially hire him until after the Super Bowl) having accepted head-coaching positions in the last four years, McVay has a growing coaching tree.

But he prefers to view the success of the Rams and his assistants differently. 

“I almost think it’s a little ridiculous when you talk about the ‘tree’ because these guys are co-workers where we positively pour into one another," McVay said during a news conference last week.

McVay explained that the work ethic and poise he observed in Taylor from afar during that interim offensive coordinator stint in Miami was what drew him to his eventual assistant. McVay recognized leadership qualities and offensive concepts that led him to believe Taylor could help improve not only the Rams, but himself as well. 

"I just happen to be in the role that I’m in,” McVay said. “But whether it’s Kevin, Brandon Staley, Zac Taylor, Matt LaFleur, I learned more from them than those guys have from me. And I think they’ve been instrumental parts of what has been right. The players are what makes this place so special, and then when you have success because you’re around great players and great coaches, that leads to opportunities that I’ve been so fortunate to be a part of here, and it does create some opportunities for those guys to grow their careers.”

Regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s game, either McVay or Taylor will make history. The former would top the Pittsburgh Steelers' Mike Tomlin as the youngest coach to win the Super Bowl, while latter would be the second-youngest to do so.

And given the fact that three of the last four Super Bowls have featured teams led by coaches who were 40 or younger (McVay in Super Bowl 53, Kyle Shanahan in Super Bowl 54 and now this season), there’s a good chance that the NFL’s youth movement is more than just a passing phase. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.