Sean McVay's rise to become the youngest head coach in NFL history wouldn't have been possible without the Redskins or Jay Gruden. Now Washington will face McVay in only his second game as Los Angeles' head coach.
Kirk Cousins couldn't exactly believe at first that Sean McVay was one of the Washington Redskins' coaches during his first few days in the NFL.
When Cousins was selected in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft, the former Michigan State product was just months away from his 24th birthday. McVay, meanwhile, was a 26-year-old entering his second season as the Redskins' tight ends coach.
But the two were sharing a football field at the Inova Sports Performance Center at Redskins Park in Loudoun County, Va., that spring as one was trying to pick up an NFL offense for the first time while the other was beginning an ascent up the professional coaching ranks.
"I thought that was just unique, because where I had come from at Michigan State – which is all I had known at the time – we didn't have coaches that were that young, position coaches," Cousins said. "We had Matt LaFleur, we had Kyle Shanahan – all those coaches were young at that time, but they were all sharp. You could see right away, Sean, as he coached the tight ends – not only was he sharp, but he knew his material inside and out. There was a conviction when he taught it that what this guy is saying, not only is correct, but it's going to help me become a better player.
"Regardless of his age I think guys listen to him right away and people who were older than him were willing to be coached by him because they respected his knowledge for the game and his desire for them to succeed."
Despite being younger than some of the players he was coaching, McVay clearly had a coaching pedigree that was bound for success.
In his first season as Washington's tight ends coach in 2011, McVay guided former second-round pick Fred Davis to the best season of his career as he posted career highs in receptions (59) and receiving yards (796). Two years later, McVay was tasked with getting the most out of a then-rookie by the name of Jordan Reed.
In just nine games, Reed recorded 45 receptions for 499 yards and three touchdowns, both franchise records by a rookie tight end. In a victory over the Chicago Bears, Reed also recorded Redskins rookie tight end records in single-game receptions (nine) and receiving yards (134). The record was previously held by Jerry Smith, who registered just 78 receiving yards on six catches vs. Dallas on Nov. 28, 1965.
After the Redskins hired Jay Gruden to be 29th head coach in franchise history on Jan. 9, 2014, McVay was appointed the team's offensive coordinator at the ripe age of 28.
The two have long-term ties far before their time together roaming the sidelines for the Redskins. Gruden's father, Jim, was a scout for the San Francisco 49ers when McVay's grandfather, John, was the team's general manager. Jim Gruden also coached McVay's father, Tim, while he was a player at Indiana.
The bond between the two families continued in Tampa, first in 2008 with the Buccaneers and then again one season later with the Florida Tuskers of the United Football League.
So even though McVay was young, Gruden felt comfortable handing over some of the offensive duties to him.
"When I first got the job [in Washington], I didn't want to just totally change the entire system," Gruden said. "Some of the terminology in place here in the running game and some of the play-action passes and keepers and all that stuff. So, the drop-back game we tried to implement from what I've known from over the past with my brother and in Cincinnati and Sean has a great idea of that also because he was with us in Tampa Bay for a year and he was also with me in the UFL for one year. So, I felt like just from talking to the quarterbacks, instead of me having to tell him what the call to the quarterback and so forth, it was quicker to let him do it. We came up with the game plans together and situational – type football we came up together and then I still had a little bit of input, but I let him handle it because he was good and did a fine job."
McVay, of course, served as Washington's offensive coordinator for three seasons (2014-16). Last year, Washington's offense became the first unit in franchise history to average more than 400 yards per game (403.4) and notched a franchise record 6,545 total net yards. They also had three Pro Bowlers on offense, as Trent Williams earned his fifth-consecutive nod while Cousins and guard Brandon Scherff received their first selections.
The Redskins also had eight players finish the season with at least 500 yards from scrimmage (DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Jamison Crowder, Rob Kelley, Chris Thompson, Jordan Reed, Vernon Davis and Matt Jones), tying the 2011 New Orleans Saints for the most in a single season in NFL history.
In early January, McVay interviewed with both the Rams and San Francisco 49ers. While most thought McVay was just getting his feet wet in being a head coach candidate, Los Angeles thought otherwise.
On Jan. 12. 2017, McVay became the youngest coach in modern NFL history when the Rams named him the 23rd full-time head coach in their franchise history.
"I wasn't shocked," said Williams, who was drafted by the Redskins the same year McVay joined the coaching staff. "I mean, you sit down and talk to him and he's knows football inside and out. So it's not a position, it's not a scheme that he doesn't know. …I mean, he can sit up there in the box or on the sideline and basically tell you what's happening, what's going to happen and why it happened. And in this game, many times somebody that has that type of knowledge of the game, they're going to be highly sought after."
His impact on Washington's offense was undeniable. Cousins even signed a jersey for McVay and left a heartfelt message about his impact.
"It just said – and there's a lot of people I could say this to but certainly to him – I just said 'I owe you my career,' and then signed it," Cousins said. "I certainly appreciate the hard work he gave to our team and as a result, gave me an opportunity to be successful and it was just a smart hire by Jay to bring him in in the first place at his age. Very smart by Jay to give him the role that he gave him and the opportunities he gave him and, you know, that's one of Jay's strengths – his ability to identify potential in people and believe in them maybe when it's not the common thought everywhere else. It's not an obvious choice.
"Jay clearly made a really good decision there in bringing in Sean and Sean proved him right, and as a result he's a head coach now. So I guess when you make good decisions like that and have success, you could lose those people, but Sean's certainly a great coach."
To this day, even though McVay is now more than 2,500 miles from the Washington, D.C., area, he remains a fan of the Redskins outside of any time Washington and Los Angeles face off. Gruden and McVay remain in touch on a frequent basis, including after their games last Sunday, but both have assured they aren't giving away any sort of competitive advantage.
"Nobody's a bigger Redskins fan every other week than I am just because what some of those people in that organization have done for me and how they've treated me," McVay said. "Can't say enough about Jay Gruden and just really the mentor he's been for me."
This week marks the first time Gruden and McVay will face off as opposing head coaches after the latter made a successful debut last Sunday. The Rams easily defeated the Indianapolis Colts 46-9 in a historic day for Los Angeles.
Despite Gruden's familiarity with McVay, Washington's head coach knows schematically his counterpart will find ways to keep the Redskins on their toes. Gruden said he's been spending a little bit more time with his defensive staff this week in preparation for McVay's offense.
"They're going to give us a lot of different formations, a lot of change-of-tempos offensively, quick counts, speed breaks, no huddle, a lot of different formations, a lot of stacks and they've got a good running game with Todd Gurley and he changes it up with good play-action passes," Gruden said. "I can tell them what he likes, but stopping it is another issue because you stop certain things but then they hit you with the running game or they hit you with the play-pass or hit you with the bunch-stack deal and the quick game and it's a great changeup."
A look back at top images in games between the Washington Redskins and St. Louis Rams.
"We have to be smart and aware that they're very familiar with our scheme and with our personnel," Cousins added. "It is a unique situation, so we have to be aware of that and plan accordingly. In this league that tends to happen week-to-week or year-to-year as people change and move. There's always people in other buildings that have information or experience that they can share to try to help each end. You just have to try to be a step ahead and have a plan to handle that."
Washington's defense will face the 2016 No. 1-overall pick in Jared Goff along with weapons like Gurley and wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who was one of four Rams receivers to record at least 50 receiving yards last week.
"We've got to have our heads on a swivel and play our assignments and our keys," said cornerback Josh Norman. "Understand what they like they to do against us because offense was here and now it's there. Jay runs similar things and we've just got to understand that and know what they like to do and try to take that away from them. Because what you see is what you're going to get."
Mike linebacker Mason Foster knows that the unit must be at its best or McVay's offensive genius will strike early and often.
"He can find different ways to get the matchups that he likes, and that's what he did here," Foster said. "Even when I first got here, and I was playing on the scout team. When I first got picked up, he was always asking me about different defenses I've played in. He's a great coach and you see why he got that job. At the end of the day, it's the Washington Redskins vs. the L.A. Rams and it's going to be a good one. It's going to be cool to see Sean, it was great to see somebody that came from here doing big things, but at the end of the day, we're going down there to get a 'W' and that's it."