Sean McVay was 'outcoached' in last Super Bowl trip, but lessons learned can help him win now | Opinion

Mike Jones

LOS ANGELES – As he and his team have approached Super Bowl 56, Sean McVay has worked to strike a challenging balance. 

The 36-year-old coach will draw on lessons from his first Super Bowl appearance – a defeat at the hands of Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots three years ago – in which he said he was "outcoached." But he also is trying to guard against letting those memories take him captive to the point where he overreacts and makes rash decisions as a play-caller and leader.

McVay puts it like this: “You’re always trying to evolve, and I think you want to be able to learn from previous experiences but not allow it to inhibit your ability to move forward. … You view it as a blessing to have been in that game, but I don’t think you press when you do get another opportunity to be on this stage again. You take some of those learning lessons and apply it and then, let’s go cut it loose and play to the best of our ability, and me, coach to the best of my abilities as well.”

Although he has moved on from the sting of that Super Bowl 53 defeat, the lessons gained that night have helped McVay guide his team back to this grand stage. 

If able to display a mastery of those lessons, McVay and the Rams should prove successful in this Super Bowl quest.

That loss to the Patriots represented a humiliating and crushing blow for the Rams and their coach.

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Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay, left, and New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick shakes hands before the NFL Super Bowl 53 football game between the Rams and the Patriots Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019, in Atlanta.

In only his second season at the helm, McVay led the Rams to a 13-win season while quickly establishing a reputation as one of the brightest offensive minds in the game. The Rams boasted one of the most prolific offenses in 2018, trailing only the Kansas City Chiefs in yards and points.

But none of the usual fireworks were on display in that 13-3 loss to New England. The Rams couldn’t get their run game going, they couldn’t convert on third downs (3-of-13), and they couldn’t score. They totaled just 260 yards.

Belichick had a read on everything his young counterpart wanted to do. McVay had no answer, and his heralded offense mustered only three measly points -- a far cry from the 32.9-point average it produced during the regular season. 

McVay pinned the loss squarely on his own shoulders because of his inability to adjust to New England’s tactics and deliver his team to victory.

“I’ll never run away from the fact that I didn’t do a good enough job for our team within what I feel like my role and responsibility (are) to those guys,” McVay said this week. “I think you say, ‘OK, if you had it differently, what did you learn as far as the decision-making, as far as the ability to be totally in the moment during the game, and be able to make those adjustments quicker than what we were able to do?’”

As he reviewed the game, McVay recognized his strategic deficiencies. He embarked on a mission to make the Rams more versatile both from schematic and personnel standpoints. He wanted his offense to be able to counter-punch regardless of what a defense threw at it.

That mission has taken three years to complete, and the acquisition of quarterback Matthew Stafford represents a significant catalyst for the Rams’ advancement, McVay and general manager Les Snead believe. 

Yes, McVay has expanded his playbook and strategies. But the coach saw Stafford as a much-needed upgrade over Jared Goff because of the 13-year veteran’s ability to go off-script and create additional opportunities for the offense when defenses take away first and second options. 

This 2021 regular season had its ups and downs, but part of that stemmed from McVay and his offense working through growing pains necessary for achieving that improved versatility. But now, McVay believes he and his team are better equipped for a prime performance on Sunday because of the growth they experienced.

“That’s kind of what this year has reflected,” McVay said. “It’s a balancing act. You want to solve some of the problems beforehand, make sure we have answers and some all-purpose things that we can present based on whatever they want to kind of activate towards us. Going back to that 2018 game, our guys have done a great job of evolving and morphing to where you do have a little more that you can present based on what the defense decides they want to commit to or stop. …. (With) the way Matthew sees the game and the way our guys understand the intent behind what we’re trying to get done, whether we want to run the ball or throw it, I have a lot of confidence.”

McVay’s ability to make adjustments on the fly will prove especially crucial on Sunday as he faces a former assistant in Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor, who has great familiarity with the Rams’ offense. 

Because of his respect for his opponent, McVay predicts that at some point, the Bengals defense will figure out a way to take away one of the elements of the offense. And that’s when he’ll have to find alternate ways to attack and remain a step ahead in ways that proved unsuccessful in Super Bowl 53.

McVay has a shot at redemption within reach, and he treasures that.

“Very grateful for it,” he said. “What you do realize as you accumulate experiences is how difficult it is to be in these situations. Our players did a great job on being able to deliver. I’m surrounded by a great coaching staff that I feel really fortunate and blessed to be around. So, you don’t take these opportunities lightly. But there’s a fine line of when you want something too bad, making sure you don’t press at all. It’s cliche but it’s the truth. Let's be in the moment, let’s prepare to the best of our ability, let’s use these experiences to apply the right types of preparation, processes and procedures as it leads into Sunday. But enjoy it, and be in the moment.”

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