How the 2023 Rams helped Sean McVay rediscover his way

Rams coach Sean McVay displayed more patience and positivity in 2023. Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY Sports

As Sean McVay prepared for the Los Angeles Rams' season finale in January 2023, he realized something had to change.

He was about to finish his worst season as a head coach (5-12) -- and began questioning why 2022 unfolded the way it did and his responsibility in all of it.

"There was a pivot towards the end of the season when we were getting ready to play Seattle the second time where you're almost saying, 'OK, hey, what kind of leader do you want to be?" McVay said. "What kind of things are you letting fall by the wayside?'

"And you just say, 'All right, let's at least start to try to make sure that these standards, the culture and the way that you want to operate are more in alignment with the person that you want to be."

Not only had McVay gone through a losing season, but he did it without three of his star players -- "weight-bearing walls," as general manager Les Snead would say during the offseason -- for a significant portion. Quarterback Matthew Stafford had been in concussion protocol twice and ended the season on injured reserve with a spinal cord contusion, and wide receiver Cooper Kupp and defensive tackle Aaron Donald each had season-ending ankle injuries.

McVay said he thought his players "did a great job of battling through a really tough situation" in 2022, just a season removed from a victory in Super Bowl LVI. But, McVay said, "I wasn't proud of the leader that I was throughout in terms of what they deserved."

"I didn't enjoy that and I wasn't proud of it, but man, did we need it," McVay said. "And it was a part of the growth process, and there's going to continue to be different things that we have to navigate through and I feel like that circumstance and situation will make us more equipped to do it."

Ultimately, McVay decided he wanted to return. Defensive coordinator and confidant Raheem Morris was one of his first calls. Morris said he knew McVay did seriously consider stepping away, but he never believed it would happen.

"I kind of looked at him and laughed when he called me and said, 'I'm coming back,'" Morris said. "I said, 'No s---.' Let's be honest, right? I said, 'I knew you weren't going anywhere.' And he said, 'Why did you say that?' And I said, 'Because you absolutely enjoy and love what you do.' I said, 'People that walk away kind of fall out of love with it, or they become numb to the situation.' And I said, 'You're neither.'"

Indeed, it was this 2023 Rams team that brought joy to McVay professionally, one that outsiders did not predict to make the playoffs. But McVay's Rams clinched a wild-card spot and finished 10-7 before losing to the Detroit Lions in the first round.

"[After the playoff loss, McVay said] regardless of the outcome here tonight, [the team] is going to go down as one of the most special teams that he's ever been around," rookie nose tackle Kobie Turner said.

THOSE CHANGES MCVAY needed to make started during the offseason. Morris said he got the sense McVay was looking for "a different environment after what happened from the season before."

McVay brought on Mike LaFleur as his offensive coordinator, while deciding he still wanted to call plays. And Morris noted McVay took his time throughout the hiring process and the team-building process, with a "patience" focused on talking through the players the Rams wanted to acquire, whether through the draft or a very quiet free agency period.

"This was probably his most patient year in really all aspects of our football life, whether it's acquiring our players, whether it was ... even at the beginning of this year, deciding what we're going to do with the players that we can keep, with the ones that we couldn't, being really thoughtful on his exit interviews, really thoughtful on the people that we brought in and when he sat and talked to them and onboarding them guys, coaches included," Morris said.

Once the Rams were on the field, that growth showed up. Morris saw it during training camp, when McVay would do more "correcting on the spot as opposed to letting it sit inside and eat you up and correcting a little bit later." That led to longer time in between periods, when McVay would have a note for the players or coaches, "whether it was 'that was what it looked like' or 'that wasn't good enough' or some type of change he wanted," Morris said.

"He is a lot more chill, a lot more calm," Donald said of the difference in McVay from one season to the next. "Obviously, he has his moments, but he keeps himself mellow. I think that's not just for him, that's for all of us. I think last year, you get used to something a certain type of way and then you have a lot of things fall apart and it kind of weighs on you in a negative way."

Kupp saw the growth from McVay "every day" around the building.

"Last year, I think there were times things go wrong ... it's like the instant reaction, how you're feeling just comes out, you know?" Kupp said. "I think he's done just an incredible job of saying, 'Yeah, this is how I feel right now, but what do we need to do to overcome this challenge? What do we need to do to respond? How can I be a positive impact to push people to respond the right way?' That to me is the big difference."

And now, McVay said, he focused on making sure he had more awareness in those situations, so "when you start to feel certain things, you're saying, 'All right, this doesn't help.'" And while McVay joked that his patience has "gotten better" but isn't "a strength yet," he realized how his previous reactions were affecting those around him.

"You want to affect things positively, whether it's situations or people you're around and you always want to ask yourself, 'OK, this might be my natural reaction, but is this really what you want to do in terms of the power of the influence that you can have?'" McVay said.

THE 2023 SEASON wasn't perfect, but the Rams defied outside expectations, showing, according to McVay, "the preseason stuff doesn't mean s---." Los Angeles struggled in the first half and entered the bye week at 3-6 in desperate need of a run.

During that bye, McVay sat down down to assess the first half with Kupp, who he said "cares enough about me to be able to keep it real with me in terms of these are the types of things that I would challenge you on."

"And it's like, man, I don't want to let you down," McVay said. "And while it's not always sometimes the easiest stuff to hear, you're grateful that you have people that'll keep it real with you. And so there's a lot of people and I think you also have to be willing to listen. And I don't know that part of it on my end was, when you say you want to be helped, are you really wanting that? And it's been a little bit better, but it's a never-ending journey and I'm grateful for all those things to get to this point though."

After the bye, the Rams went 7-1 to end the season, their only loss coming in overtime to the No. 1 seed in the AFC, the Baltimore Ravens.

And more than a year after McVay stood at the podium, grappling with his coaching future, he addressed the media in Detroit, his voice hoarse after a one-point playoff loss. And as he leaned over the podium, his voice laced with emotion, he talked about his love and appreciation for the players in the locker room he had just finished addressing.

"Man, did I learn a lot and really appreciate this group," McVay said. "They helped me find my way again."