LOS ANGELES -- Some of the best advice Sean McVay received about his new, high-profile job revolved around time management. As the new head coach of the Los Angeles Rams, McVay would take on a slew of responsibilities that would pull him in a multitude of directions.
Even so, McVay was told he needed to remain heavily involved in the offensive meetings, especially in the early stages, because he isn't just the youngest coach in the NFL's modern era.
He also remains a playcaller.
McVay, 31, will call the offensive plays for the Rams in 2017, a responsibility he knew he would be taking on as soon as he got the job in January. Many others do the same. In fact, half of the NFL's head coaches ended up calling plays on offense or defense last season. But it's a tricky balancing act, one that McVay admitted at the recent NFL combine would present "a great challenge" in his first season.
"I’ve really only been a coordinator for three years, calling plays for two years," McVay said, recalling past experiences with the Redskins. "I am really just getting comfortable finding my rhythm, in terms of your weekly preparation, how you want to help you and your coaching staff put together a game plan."
For help, McVay sought advice from Adam Gase, the 38-year-old Dolphins head coach who doubles as an offensive playcaller. McVay has spoken to Kyle Shanahan, the former Falcons offensive coordinator who also will call plays -- and won't hire an offensive coordinator -- in his first season as head coach of the division-rival 49ers.
Plus, McVay is banking on his own circumstances. He came up under Jon and Jay Gruden, both of whom called their own plays. With the Rams, McVay's first hire was Wade Phillips, a revered, experienced defensive coordinator who ensures that the head coach will have to worry about only one side of the ball. His quarterbacks coach, Greg Olson, and his offensive line coach, Aaron Kromer, boast a combined 12 years as NFL offensive coordinators. His offensive coordinator, Matt LaFleur, is a trusted confidant whom Shanahan believes has "been ready for a while" to call plays.
"I think it’s important that some of the reasons you get the job, you keep doing that," Shanahan, who oversaw McVay and LaFleur when he was the Redskins' offensive coordinator from 2010-13, said of calling plays as a first-year head coach. "I think it’s important to have people on your staff who have been with you, who know what to expect, where you don’t have to spend a year training them in any way."
An ESPN story from February 2015 noted that 10 head coaches called their own plays, and that number has only climbed. Five of the coaches hired for the 2016 season -- Gase, the Buccaneers' Dirk Koetter, the Browns' Hue Jackson, the Eagles' Doug Pederson and the Giants' Ben McAdoo -- called their own plays. By the end of the past season, 16 of the 32 teams had head coaches who called most of the plays on one side of the ball.
Two of those coaches, the 49ers' Chip Kelly and the Bills' Rex Ryan, have since been fired. Another, the Broncos' Gary Kubiak, stepped down. But McVay and Shanahan have been added to the mix, and so has the Redskins' Jay Gruden, who ceded playcalling duties to McVay the past two seasons and will take them back now that he is gone.
"The toughest thing is in between series," Gruden said during the combine. "You have to watch the game. You have to be in tune with what’s going on on defense. You can’t just go sit next to the quarterback and talk about your next series of plays. That’s the toughest adjustment Sean is going to have. But I think with the staff that he has and the familiarity he has with them, I think he’ll be fine."
Coaches will often call plays the first year or two so they can establish a foundation, then turn those duties over to the respective coordinator. But sometimes it's hard to let go. Look no further than the Packers' Mike McCarthy, who turned the offense over to assistant Tom Clements in 2015, watched the offense struggle and took over once again. Or Bill O'Brien, who went back to calling the Texans' offensive plays after a 27-0 loss to the Patriots in Week 3 of the past season. Or the Saints' Sean Payton, who took control of the offense for a 49-21 rout of the Rams in Week 12 and might continue to call plays moving forward.
Sometimes, though, the grind becomes too much, the criticism too pointed, and there is a desire to be free from responsibilities. Koetter has already considered giving up playcalling duties, partly so that he can dedicate more energy to prepping for team meetings, but he doesn't want to do so until he is certain that he won't take the playcalling back. Then there's McAdoo, who took a lot of heat for overseeing what many considered a predictable, unimaginative offense in 2016 and has been coy about his team's playcalling duties for 2017.
"It changes a lot of dynamics," said Bruce Arians, who has called the Cardinals' offensive plays the past four years. "You better have a real good schedule and some people you trust doing other jobs because you're spread thin a little bit. It's also whether or not you're just calling plays or doing the whole game plan as an offensive coordinator. That's two different animals. I'm very fortunate to have a staff that does most of the work, fills me in, and I call the plays. Other guys who want to be the coordinator and head coach, that's not easy."
Jackson, Shanahan and O'Brien will do that in 2017, but McVay and others will employ coordinators who will absorb most of the burden of putting together the game plan each week. McVay isn't just a young head coach; he is the playcaller for an offense that has gained the fewest yards in the NFL in each of the past two seasons, for a team that doesn't have enough draft picks or salary-cap space to provide an immediate fix.
He'll need all the help he can get.
"He’s up for it," Gruden said of McVay. "I was up for it. It’s just a matter of how good you feel about the people on your staff. I think once I became more comfortable with Sean here and us having the same line of thinking, putting a plan together, I felt good about him talking to the quarterback and calling plays. I think he’ll do a good job. He’s a very organized guy, very detailed guy. He’ll find a way to get it done."