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How Sean McVay changed the Rams' culture

"People joke about him being a millennial, and he is in a lot of ways," Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff said about Rams coach Sean McVay. "But he's also an old soul in a lot of ways." Tim Ireland/AP

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- The large digital clock at the center of the Los Angeles Rams' locker room reads "4:12," and suddenly the players are in a state of chaos. They throw on whatever garments lie in front of them, corral their personal belongings and speed-walk out the door, with shoes untied and belts undone.

Alec Ogletree, a linebacker and a captain, is wrapped in a towel, still wet from a shower and suddenly pressed for time. Sean McVay's meeting starts in three minutes, and Ogletree will be fined -- the maximum amount allowed under the collective bargaining agreement -- if he is even a second late, regardless of his stature. He jumps into a pair of sweatpants, grabs his notebook, wraps the collar of a T-shirt around his neck and hustles away as if pursuing an opposing running back.

Mad dashes like these, now a staple after mid-afternoon practices, are one of many ways McVay has already changed the culture around these parts.

Ogletree, in his fifth year with the Rams, calls it "a totally different vibe."

"Obviously," defensive tackle Aaron Donald said, "we needed a culture change."

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McVay pleased with Rams start

Rams head coach Sean McVay sits down with SportsCenter to discuss his team's 5-2 start to the season.

The Rams entered 2017 with the burden of 10 consecutive losing seasons, a decade-long stretch during which their offense consistently ranked within the NFL's bottom third. They returned to L.A. after a 22-year absence in 2016 and finished 4-12, ending the season with a vacant position at head coach and seven consecutive losses by a combined 136 points.

Given that, McVay, the youngest head coach in modern NFL history, has been the NFL equivalent of a miracle worker. His Rams sport a 5-2 record in their bye week, which qualifies as the franchise's best start since 2003. The offense is humming along and the entire team is buying in, a cooperation that took place long before the winning even started.

McVay joined the Rams with a clear vision for what his team would represent, but he was able to integrate it with the best of what the organization already had. He took control, but he empowered others. He pushed his players, but not harder than he pushed himself. He communicated his message, but he also listened. He built a following, but he never demanded it. He set the standard, but he put the onus on others to uphold it.

Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff calls McVay "an old soul" and is quick to point out the irony.

"People joke about him being a millennial, and he is in a lot of ways," Demoff said. "But he's also an old soul in a lot of ways."

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McVay's beliefs are grounded in books and theories and history, with Bill Walsh and John Wooden serving as his bedrocks.

Wooden's "Pyramid Of Success" helps make up a wall in the Rams' offensive meeting room. Phrases such as "The Standard Is The Standard" and "We Not Me" and "Situational Masters" are clearly visible, too. Another image defines the Rams under McVay: "Mentally And Physically Tough Players Who Are Smart And Love To Compete." There's also a list of rules: "1. Be On Time; 2. Respect Our Players; 3. Live Our Standards."

During exit interviews in January, players were asked what was needed to turn this franchise around and the answers were almost universal: more accountability, higher expectations, greater energy.

In McVay, they quickly saw all of that.

Donald sat down with McVay before he was hired, heard him go through the ways he would hold players accountable and instantly believed the Rams' standards would be raised. Several others realized it when McVay addressed the entire group for the first time in early April, while going over the team's foundation, outlining goals, stressing process over results and saying constantly that "the accountability has to be there."

“That first team meeting, you could tell he came here to be the head coach," Rams special-teams coordinator and former interim coach John Fassel said. "He didn't just come here to make the offense better.”

In his second meeting, McVay quizzed the room on the Rams' core philosophies, coaches included.

“Everybody stood up a little straighter that next day," Rams safety Cody Davis said. "They started taking notes on every word."

The weight room was set up so that every player was visible while they went about their workouts. No more hiding behind machines. Gone were “Victory Mondays,” a staple under Jeff Fisher that rewarded players with easier days following wins. Too much work to do. Everything suddenly had a distinct purpose; time was no longer wasted. Fines, meanwhile, were nonnegotiable and nondiscriminatory.

The message was clear and consistent, the rules unwavering.

"We just have a different mentality," said offensive lineman Rodger Saffold, now in his eighth year with the Rams. "Our main basis is being accountable this year. We have zero tolerance with the rules. You gotta do the rules. By doing the rules and doing what you’re supposed to do, when you’re supposed to do it, you’re helping the entire team. Our whole mentality and the way we just approach everything has changed.”

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The Rams went through a conditioning test at the start of training camp and were told that those who didn't touch the line on a suicide drill would be fined. The coaches went back to look at the film -- of the conditioning drill -- and found a player who did not touch the line. He was fined. If one aspect was slightly off about a play the Rams ran on offense, they did it again, four and five times over while the defense watched. It continued throughout the summer and into the season.

"Even the smallest thing," Rams linebacker Mark Barron said. "If it’s not right, they’re going to re-run it to get it right, to make it perfect."

But it never seems forced or contrived. When McVay disciplines players, it isn't because he's punishing them -- it's because he's upholding the standards that they all agreed upon. He's a perfectionist by nature, one who is so singularly focused that he simply doesn't have time to tolerate anything that falls outside of his plan. It's genuine that way.

"He has a standard, and it’s pretty high in terms of precise football execution," Rams general manager Les Snead said. "He demands it, but it’s an authentic way of demanding it. He doesn't come across negative or oppressive.”

Rams players genuinely liked Fisher, who was fired 13 games into his fifth season. They also understood that they needed someone who would be more consistent in their discipline, who would push them harder and exude more energy. The failures of the 2016 season made them more receptive to change, more open-minded about a new direction. A new voice inherently pushed everyone a little bit harder.

"When a new coach comes in here, you kind of get on your heels a little bit because nobody’s job is really safe," Rams running back Todd Gurley said. "Everybody's gotta work. You don’t know what he’s thinking; he’s not the guy that drafted you. You don’t know if he likes you or not."

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The first thing McVay did was listen. He spoke to all the players and staff members in the three months between his hiring in January and the start of the offseason program in April and sought to work within each member's strengths. From there, McVay and Snead went about building the roster, their focus steered toward bringing in men who could be both scheme fits and culture fits.

Gone were unreliable players such as Kenny Britt, Greg Robinson and T.J. McDonald; in were high-character players such as Andrew Whitworth, Robert Woods and Connor Barwin.

"You definitely have to get guys who are open and willing to be coached," Ogletree said. "I feel like we brought in the right guys to do that.”

McVay was quickly embraced because his football knowledge was so easily discernable. Two traits helped him build trust from his players and coaches: He was quick to place the blame on himself and he wasn't afraid to admit what he did not know.

Three weeks ago, reporters asked about what Jared Goff needed to do to get Sammy Watkins more involved. McVay publicly put that burden on himself as the offensive playcaller, not his quarterback. Hours earlier he had sat down with Watkins, who was frustrated about a lack of targets, and went over every offensive play from their Week 5 game against the Seattle Seahawks.

McVay pointed out the times when Watkins could have run a better route, but he also singled out the times when he could have done a better job to set him up.

Said Donald: "You just want to bust your butt for him."

"He didn’t ask for buy-in," Fassel said. "He just went about his daily business right from the start -- 'this is what we’re doing' -- and the buy-in happened."

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McVay's practices aren't long, but they are intense. Often they'll go unscripted, McVay's best offensive plays against Wade Phillips' best defensive plays. Scores will be kept. Tavon Austin recently said, in a good way, that McVay "works us to death in practice." He wants his players to feel stress in that setting so that the games feel easier.

"One of the best things that you can say about this team at this point in the season -- and really, Sean would say the same thing -- is that we practice really well," Whitworth said. "We compete. The guys get after it. Our practices are very intense. There hasn’t been a practice when we say, 'Man, we got nothing out of that day.'"

Also, teaching fundamentals is more of a priority.

"There’s a lot of emphasis on technique," Rams punter Johnny Hekker said, "and just being aware of your technique and what you need to be doing at every single moment, on every part of the play."

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Pundits are already trying to identify the next Sean McVay, but Demoff will tell you they're going about the search all wrong. What makes McVay special, Demoff says, isn't how young he is or how well he knows offenses. It's his ability to communicate, to build a culture, and to get people to buy into it.

The Rams are already benefiting from that.

"From the day we hired Sean, he’s been more impressive every day we’ve had him than the day before," Demoff said. "He’s passed every test he’s been given. He bounced back from a loss; he handled a holdout. He’s had the answers to every challenge that’s been thrown his way. The challenges will get harder. And from everything that you see, he has the answers, he has the emotional intelligence, the ability to gather information, to listen, to process, the skill set that makes you say there’s nothing that will faze him."