Alden Gonzalez, ESPN Staff Writer 18d

Sean McVay vs. Wade Phillips -- a twice-a-week showdown



THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Four decades separate them, but for a few minutes each week, Sean McVay and Wade Phillips exist on equal footing.

The Los Angeles Rams go unscripted for a portion of their Wednesday and Thursday practices, which amounts to the equivalent of a short scrimmage. It's the Rams' starters on offense against the Rams' starters on defense. Scores are kept. McVay, the youngest head coach in modern NFL history, runs his best plays. Phillips, one of the game's oldest coordinators, runs his best plays. Neither side knows what's coming.

The Rams' defense gets a glimpse at why McVay, 31, is considered one of the game's sharpest, most innovative offensive minds.

The Rams' offense gets a taste for what makes Phillips, 70, one of the game's most decorated and accomplished coaches.

"If there's one thing you can say we feel good about is we practice really well," McVay said. "Guys come out, they compete. They have fun, but they're still locked in. I think that's going to serve us well moving forward."

McVay has tip-toed the razor-thin line of keeping his players fresh while ramping up the intensity of their practices, which has a tendency to make the games seem easier. The most essential aspect of that is competition, which is bred by the unscripted portions that create a game-like feel. The Rams did it throughout training camp, but they've continued it during the regular season, going unscripted more so than any team Phillips has ever been with.

"It's good teaching," Phillips said. "We believe, or I believe, that it's how you play. It's not what the other team does, it's how you play. So if you can get good enough at whatever they run against you, that you've never seen before, and you can do good against that, you'll get better. Competition bodes well for a team to learn to fight, learn to make plays, learn to get after the other side."

The unscripted portions last only four or five plays, but they're enough for McVay and Phillips to see how the other side will react to plays they'll implement later that week; enough for players to feel the competitiveness that can help them come game time. Phillips insists that he doesn't get caught up in the competition between him and his significantly younger head coach, but that doesn't mean he isn't worried about the result.

"Oh, I'm competitive," Phillips said, smiling. "I want my guys to do well."

But Phillips will still run the plays his defense needs to work on, not so much what they need to run in order to stop whatever McVay might go to. McVay still had a little coordinator in him during training camp, so he found himself getting upset during times when Phillips' defense stopped his offense. His mindset has changed since then.

"As you get into it a little bit more," McVay said, "you appreciate and realize that this good-defense thing is pretty fun for us."

The Rams, getting ready to play a road game against the reeling New York Giants, are 5-2 for the first time in 14 years. Their offense, last in the NFL in yards each of the past two years, ranks sixth in the NFL in points per game and ninth in yards per game. Their defense, meanwhile, has allowed the NFL's sixth-fewest yards since the start of Week 5.

Under a 3-4 scheme, Phillips is a master at disguising pressure and allowing his defensive backs to create turnovers.

"Everything they do is hard, and they're really sound," Rams quarterback Jared Goff said of facing Phillips' defense. "There's a reason he's so successful and has been coaching so long."

McVay specializes in running an assortment of different plays off similar looks, both on the ground and through the air.

"They do a lot of stuff, and I'm happy that we don't have to play them in a real game," Rams outside linebacker Connor Barwin said. "I stand on the sidelines and see what they really do with the game plan, and it looks like a lot to prepare for."

Phillips considers McVay "a brilliant mind" with "a feel for football."

"There's a lot of smart people in this game," Phillips said, "but he has a real feel for what the other team is doing and how to run things, especially in the passing game -- what routes to run against which coverage. If he knows what you're in, watch out."

Phillips, of course, is no slouch. He's in his 40th year in the NFL and his 26th as a defensive coordinator, with his 10th different franchise. Prior to joining the Rams, he presided over 20 top-10 defenses and coached 30 Pro Bowlers. Basically every defense he ever took over improved -- many of them significantly -- in his first year.

What makes him successful, McVay believes, is the simplicity and the clarity of Phillips' system.

"He has a very clear-cut philosophy on how he wants to operate," McVay said. "Those core beliefs have been established over time. And I don't mean that he's rigid; I just mean that he's found his rhythm. And I think what's great about his system is he knows what he wants it to look like. It's very defined, it's very clear."

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