Sean McVay's Rams 'ecosystem' a challenging standard -- even for its creator

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Sean McVay paced the sideline with an intense furrow in his brow and a Los Angeles Rams-branded face mask under his chin.

The Rams defeated the Dallas Cowboys on "Sunday Night Football," but a day later McVay -- and several other NFL coaches -- drew a harsh warning from the league for violating the league's coronavirus safety protocols by not properly wearing face coverings.

McVay's mask-under-the-chin style also violated the team safety guidelines he's been preaching since the Rams returned in person after a long offseason online.

"It's about educating our guys on how they can risk-mitigate," McVay said at the outset of training camp. "Really establish a good ecosystem."

McVay's signature phrases, "We Not Me" and "The Standard is the Standard," have been plastered to the walls of the team practice facility since his arrival more than three years ago.

He continues to drop his go-to words throughout daily news conferences -- "activate," "respect" and "appreciate."

But this one -- "ecosystem"?

Yeah, that's new, sponsored by 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Was that part of McVay's lexicon before this season? "Hell no," the 34-year-old coach insisted. But it's now something the players hear about ad nauseam. How much?

"That's a loaded question," center Brian Allen said, following a slight pause, seemingly an opportunity to somehow try to count how many times it's mentioned. "We've been hearing about it a lot."

Veteran defensive linemen Michael Brockers breaks down the meaning of the Rams' ecosystem in simple terms.

"We plan on keeping it free and clear of corona," he said, referring to the training facility, stadium and everywhere their traveling party goes.

And that's possible how?

"Embrace the weird," said wide receiver Cooper Kupp, because at this point, what other options exist when playing football amid a pandemic and with a coach who's constantly using a word many people most recently heard as a teenager? That's when left guard Joe Noteboom previously heard the term, which describes a community of interacting organisms and their physical environment.

"Probably early high school," he said. "Like biology or something?"

Quarterback Jared Goff knows exactly where he first heard the term.

"Freshman marine biology at Marin Catholic High School," Goff said, later admitting what many of us can also attest to: "I know nothing about the old ecosystem. I know a lot about ours now at this point."

And frankly, with the Rams off to a 1-0 start and preparing to embark on back-to-back East Coast trips to play the Philadelphia Eagles (0-1) and Buffalo Bills (1-0), that's all that matters.

They know to wear their face masks (even if their coach sometimes lets his slip). They undergo daily testing, temperature screenings and follow the marching orders on the floors of their practice facility -- where one-lane hallways are designated and one-way entrances and exits are mandated.

Along with the McVay-designed compass that provides a guide to "Competitive Greatness," which he installed last season, the acronym MESH also has been added to the walls of the practice facility, while the locker room at SoFi Stadium comes complete with a sanitizer station.

M -- Mask; E -- Education; S -- Social distance; and H -- Hygiene.

"As long as we're smart, and everybody's doing the right things day in and day out to keep the ecosystem right, you can go play football with a quieted mind," McVay said.

Trackers on their wrists have created a soundtrack -- high-pitched beeps that intensify when in too close a range for proper social distancing -- that could irritate even the most even-keeled.

Kupp says, with the season underway, following the safety protocols is becoming old habit, but not one that can go without thinking about.

"You definitely fall into a little bit of a rhythm to it," Kupp said. "It's something we're definitely not taking lightly."

Unlike some teams, the Rams have taken a less aggressive approach to stashing backups and isolating key players, particularly quarterbacks, in case of an outbreak.

Goff, who passed for 275 yards with an interception against Cowboys, is the starter, while undrafted free agent John Wolford, who never has played in a regular-season NFL game, remains as backup. Quarterback Bryce Perkins, a rookie undrafted free agent from Virginia, is on the practice squad.

Two Rams players, outside linebacker Terrell Lewis and defensive lineman Michael Hoecht, were placed on the COVID-19/reserve list when players first reported to training camp in August, but both have long since been cleared of any infection. With coronavirus tests being administered daily, the Rams have not seen another player test positive.

As for McVay and his Week 1 mask violation, he understands he was among the top targets of the NFL's sternly worded warning directed at protocol violators.

"I was definitely one of the main culprits of not following what the league wants," McVay said. "And I will definitely be aware of that and do better the next week."

Even though he's accustomed to using a multitude of facial expressions to get his message across during a game, McVay might go with a gaiter in Week 2 but isn't quite ready to go full Andy Reid and sport a face shield on the sideline.

"Coach Reid is one of the few that can pull off whatever it is, man," McVay says. "He's the man. I think that would maybe be a little bit easier to communicate through, but I think I'll stick with the mask."

Almost anything to protect the ecosystem.