September 15, 2017
Kirk Cousins quickly spotted the boyish blond guy who darted around the Washington practice field in 2012.
“I remember just throwing routes to the wide receivers and tight ends,” Cousins said this week, “and there was this really, really young guy coaching the tight ends and I thought, ‘That’s interesting. I don’t know how old he is, but he can’t be more than 27 years old.’ I thought that was just unique.”
So began the relationship between Cousins and Sean McVay, then 26, one that lifted both to surprising heights. Cousins, a former fourth-round draft pick, passed for almost 5,000 yards last season. McVay, his offensive coordinator, became the youngest coach in NFL history when the Rams hired him in January.
Now they will be on opposite sidelines when the Rams host Washington at the Coliseum on Sunday afternoon, in what figures to be a significant game for two men who owe a lot to each other.
“I think it’ll be weird to separate the emotional aspect,” McVay said. “So many people in that organization have been instrumental in helping me get this position. But, once that game starts it’s just like any other game and we’re going to do the best that we can to compete to go win it.”
Then they’ll all hug. Probably a lot. Even as he game-planned, McVay said he looked forward to next week, when he and Washington coach Jay Gruden could exchange info on future mutual opponents. This is not a grudge match. These are more like siblings pitted against each other for three hours.
That said, McVay is hyper-competitive, and every little brother relishes the opportunity to prove himself against big brother. McVay did his best to downplay that this week, but some Rams players noticed.
“He’s excited,” running back Todd Gurley said. “I know he’s excited. He’s just been excited, he’s been pumped up, wired all week. So we know how much this means to him and how much it means to us. Second game of the season. (We) had a pretty good game last week and we’re excited to go against his old team. He’s been a little intense this week, but what can we expect?”
It’s clearly a big moment for McVay, who was only 24 when Washington plucked him out of the United Football League and hired him an assistant tight ends coach in 2010. McVay became the main tight ends coach a year later, and when Gruden arrived in 2014, he promoted McVay to offensive coordinator.
That season, Washington sifted through three quarterbacks — Cousins, Robert Griffin III and Colt McCoy — and eventually settled on Cousins, who formed a bond with McVay. Cousins passed for 4,166 yards in 2015, then last year jumped to 4,917 yards, third only to Drew Brees and Matt Ryan.
When McVay left Washington in January, Cousins gave him a jersey and inscribed it with, “I owe you my career.” Cousins said he thought of McVay again recently when he read a book authored by legendary San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh.
“Bill says in the book that four of the most powerful words you can say as a coach to a player are, ‘I believe in you,’” Cousins said. “And Sean said that to me over and over and over again, even when there weren’t many other people who did, so that certainly means a lot.”
Gruden believed in McVay, and made him an offensive coordinator at 28 and a play-caller at 30.
The bond already had been strong. Gruden’s brother, Jon, hired McVay as a 22-year-old, entry-level assistant in Tampa Bay in 2008. The Grudens’ father, Jim, once worked under McVay’s grandfather, John, who was a longtime 49ers executive. Jim Gruden coached McVay’s father, Tim, in college.
None of them took bolder steps forward than McVay, who graduated high school 13 years ago and now is an NFL head coach. It’s clear that Jay Gruden takes some pride.
“He’s very presentable, he’s very knowledgeable, very smart, he’s a very loyal guy and very passionate about the game,” Gruden said. “So, there’s a lot to like about Sean once you get to know him.
“I just didn’t know that people would give him that opportunity at such a young age, but once they started giving him interviews, I figured that he would get one of them because like I said, he has all of those traits to be a good head coach.”