mcvay-goff.jpgThe words, refreshing at first, started to sound trite.

After every Rams loss, coach Sean McVay spoke, directly but without specifics, about how he would shoulder the blame, how he needed to be better and how everything started with him. It sounded good, but what did it mean? What exact lessons did McVay learn? How did he intend to improve as a coach?

McVay introduced his three new coordinators last week, and near the end of a lengthy media session, he faced a question about taking more control over his staff after a disappointing 9-7 season.

After politely balking at the implication, then name-dropping eight of his assistants, McVay pivoted and gave a 248-word introspective soliloquy. It’s worth reading in its entirety because it serves as an introduction to McVay 2.0 and explains, in eye-opening detail, where he believes he has gone wrong.

“I think there’s an excitement about the opportunity to respond and to get better and to use each year as a new year,” McVay said. “I would say for myself, personally, even if you say it, do you really believe it? I think now, having three years of experience to really draw on, if you really believe it, then you don’t take for granted the foundational things that we did do in Year 1. Really putting in the time to develop and cultivate the relationships.

“I think in some instances when I look at myself, I’ve gotten away from that, not necessarily just last year, but really for two years and we might have had better results going to the Super Bowl.

“But if you said, ‘Are you really dedicating the time that you want to, for the expectations that I have specific to what we want to be able to do with your player interactions, the real foundational relationships, being present with the coaches and bringing a consistent juice and authentic energy and excitement about what the day brings?’ Those are the things I’m hopeful that will not just be said now, but those are things that I can feel good about — ‘Hey, we’re in Week 9, Week 12, Week 13 in the season and because of the people that you’re around, that’s what enables you to feel that way and be excited about attacking the opportunity and really the blessing that you have to be in this role.’”

There’s a lot here, much of which explains why the Rams coaching staff has undergone such a dramatic turnover since the Dec. 29 season finale and how McVay might evolve in his fourth season. He’s growing into his role, and while the changes might or might not work, the mindset behind them is commendable.

People within the Rams’ building say McVay has been laser-focused since the end of the season. He made bold moves to replace three of his most veteran assistants, and his appearance at next week’s combine — usually a week-long, back-slapping junket for NFL personnel — will be limited to a quick stop, mostly for media purposes, before he returns to work. The offseason program is still two months away.

Why the change? This year is huge for McVay. He might not appreciate the phrasing, but he is, in many ways, doubling down on himself and his ability to get the Rams back among the NFL’s elite. In some ways, McVay needs to evolve from 2017. In other ways, he needs to return to it.

The second part is easier to explain. Based on his comments, McVay seems to sense a disconnect, that his hands-on bond with players and assistants isn’t as strong as when he started. The details of that can be dissected only by those who spend hours every day within Rams headquarters. Does it involve the amount of time McVay spends with them? The quality of the time? Both?

It’s like any relationship. Intensity is highest at the start, but things settle down with time and familiarity. In 2017, McVay was on fire, charged up by the opportunity to coach an NFL team for the first time and by the challenge of turning around an organization that had massively underachieved in recent seasons.

McVay quickly built those “real foundational relationships.” He brought enthusiasm to every meeting room. He sprinted around the practice field so intensely that he injured his quadriceps during OTAs. Players fed off that, and the Rams became one of the surprise teams of 2017 and ended a 13-year playoff drought.

What McVay seems to be saying now is that he needs to recapture some of that. He recognizes that even as the Rams soared further in 2018 and made the Super Bowl, perhaps something slipped. It’s not that McVay wants to change the Rams’ culture now. He wants to freshen it, with the same spirit of 2017.

Here’s how the coaching changes might help McVay achieve that.

McVay probably never will get proper credit for the shrewd, initial moves he made in 2017. After his hiring, two weeks before his 31st birthday, McVay flushed most of the Rams coaching staff but retained two critical pieces: John Fassel, the affable, selfless special-teams coach who guided the team as interim coach in 2016; and Skip Peete, the veteran running backs coach who had a good relationship with Todd Gurley. The Rams also hired Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator. A former Super Bowl champion and former head coach, Phillips had coached in the league longer than McVay had been alive.

A lesser rookie head coach might have been threatened by the presence of assistants with long resumes and big personalities. Instead, McVay was wise enough to know he didn’t have all the answers. In large part, he handed the defense to Phillips and special teams to Fassel, and McVay took hold of the offense. McVay doubled down on this — at least from an outsider’s perspective — when offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur departed after the 2017 season and McVay did not replace him.

McVay is a different coach, and person, now. His needs in 2020, when it comes to his staff, aren’t the same. Three years of successes and failures, both personal and team-wise, have shaped him. The Rams’ exclusion from the playoffs, while frustrating, gave McVay a chance to pull back and evaluate himself, how he could best help the Rams and how his assistants could help him.

The hiring of an offensive coordinator (Kevin O’Connell) was big. McVay will remain the offensive architect and play-caller, but he can lean on a top deputy for game-planning and installation. Theoretically, that will free up McVay to be more hands-on in other areas, including with the defense.

And while Phillips was beloved within the locker room, it’s easy to see how McVay and new coordinator Brandon Staley might have a tighter relationship. Not only are they closer in age — Staley is 37 — but they seem to have the same kinetic approach to coaching. Akron coach Tom Arth, who hired Staley three times as an assistant, recently compared Staley’s acumen and approach as similar to that of McVay.

The best-case scenario here is O’Connell takes some of the offense off McVay’s plate, which frees him not only to work closer with the defense but also improve his positioning as team CEO and leader.

It could work. It makes sense on paper. But McVay also is fooling himself if he doesn’t believe there’s a risk. In one swoop, three of the Rams’ most-popular assistants departed. This is McVay’s team, without question, but Phillips, Fassel and Peete also played a big role in establishing the locker-room culture.

The move from Fassel to John Bonamego probably won’t be dramatic, given that Bonamego brings two decades of experience as an NFL special-teams coach and (by first impression) has an engaging personality. But will the challenge be bigger for Staley and new running backs coach Thomas Brown? Staley has three seasons of NFL experience and Brown has none. Phillips had 42 and Peete had 21.

That’s not criticism. McVay clearly believes in these new coaches, and his success in 2017 and 2018 earned him the right to make these moves and reshape his staff in his own vision after three years of wisdom. Still, this feels like a decisive season for the Rams and their coach, who must evolve and revert at the same time.