How Rams coach Sean McVay is handling his biggest challenge yet

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- "Hold up!" a loud voice echoed inside the Los Angeles Rams locker room, after a celebratory postgame cheer.

John Fassel, the Rams' special teams coordinator, stepped to the middle of the room.

"When you talk about adversity, we've got a great leader, who always carries us through the highs and the lows," Fassel hollered in Rams coach Sean McVay's direction. "When it's time to work, he keeps focused on the mission."

Fassel handed McVay a game ball. "For everything you do," he said.

Ten months after McVay took the Rams to Super Bowl LIII, was hailed as an offensive genius and sent teams with coaching vacancies scrambling and reaching to hire anyone remotely connected to him, the Rams' 33-year-old coach has drifted back to reality.

The Rams are 7-5, and after winning back-to-back division titles are hoping, at best, for a wild-card playoff berth. As they prepare for a Sunday Night Football matchup against the 10-2 Seattle Seahawks (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC), the Rams have a 17.7% chance of making the postseason, according to ESPN's Football Power Index.

From the outside, it's easy to ask what has gone wrong, as McVay's signature offense has unexpectedly and repeatedly stalled. Last season, the Rams' offense was among the highest-scoring units in the NFL, averaging 26.5 points, but this season it has dropped to 17th, averaging 21.2. The defense, while often stout behind two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, showed gaping holes in losses to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Baltimore Ravens.

"I would be lying to say that this [season] hasn't been more challenging," McVay said. "But that's also why there's a motivation to make sure to do right and to use this as an opportunity to try to respond in the way that you challenge your players and everybody else to."

McVay received a game ball after earning his first win as coach in 2017. He received a second game ball last season, after leading the Rams to their first playoff victory in 13 years.

But when Fassel stopped the celebration to acknowledge McVay, it wasn't a historic milestone -- it was merely Week 11 of the regular season, moments after the Rams delivered a gritty, much-needed win over the Chicago Bears.

That night, in front of a prime-time audience and coming off an inexplicable loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, McVay started an offensive line held together by threads, he lost receiver Robert Woods, who three hours before kickoff notified the team he would miss the game, and McVay utilized a game plan that departed from anything he'd previously shown, as they committed heavily to the run.

"The team basically gave him a game ball because he keeps pointing them in the right direction," defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. "He's done a great job with that."

Through the ups and downs, which for the first time in McVay's career have included a plethora of injuries and personal issues that have affected the team, Rams assistants and players continue to point to what McVay is doing right.

The culture he established that helped turn around a team entrenched in mediocrity practically overnight remains intact, several players said.

"The foundation is still set," cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman said. "Our chemistry is still on point."

Players continue to dash from the locker room to team meetings, fearing arriving even a second late could result in a fine. And attitudes throughout the locker room remain upbeat, despite sitting at five losses -- tied for the most in a single season since McVay's arrival -- with four games remaining.

McVay often has appeared as his energetic, upbeat self. For better or worse, he has kept to his way of shouldering blame for the Rams' shortcomings, especially on offense.

"You go through those first two years with all the success in the regular season and then, you kind of think, 'Man, what's it going to be like if we are not riding high at all times?'" said quarterback Jared Goff, who has passed for 13 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. "Now, we're not exactly doing that, but he's been the same guy."

"Your normal self's a lot easier when you're winning every game and everyone's telling you you're a genius," said offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, when asked how McVay has handled the uneven season. "He's just as much of a genius, or just as good as a football mind this year."

In McVay's third season, though, he has shown a vulnerability off the field that's a reminder that despite the overwhelming success early in his career, he's still a first-time head coach with plenty to learn.

Days after a stunning Week 4 loss to the flailing Tampa Bay Buccaneers, McVay spoke about his stress in a way he never had before. "I'm stressed because I'm always stressed out," he said. Days before a Week 10 loss to the Steelers, McVay appeared out of character, as his voice sounded hoarse and his eyes appeared wide. "It's been an exciting week," McVay said. "A lot of yelling."

Perhaps, it shouldn't have come as a surprise when the Steelers upset the Rams 17-12 two days later.

What did come as a shock was the 45-6 shellacking delivered by the Ravens on Monday Night Football. It was the worst loss of McVay's career. "There's not anything good to take away from this," McVay said. "Other than the fact that I did feel that our team continued to battle."

Six days later and amid the chaos of a short Thanksgiving week, the Rams bounced back to deliver a drubbing of their own in a 34-7 win over the Arizona Cardinals (3-8-1).

"It's been pretty much the same approach," running back Todd Gurley said about McVay's demeanor throughout the year. "Just trying to stay positive and just keep taking it game by game."

The Rams probably need to win their next four to advance to the playoffs for a third consecutive season. It won't be easy with games against the Seahawks, at the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers before finishing at home with the Cardinals. With McVay leading the way, there's confidence it can be done.

"That dude is steady," Goff said. "We feed off him."