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Behind the scheme: How play-drawing has become an invaluable tool in the McVay-Shanahan coaching tree

Written by 
Published in Breaking News
Monday, 03 October 2022 16:14

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- When Zac Taylor was hired by Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay in 2017 to be assistant wide receivers coach, part of the new gig brought him back to his earlier coaching days.

Taylor was tasked with taking McVay's play script, typically a printed-out Word document, and using the program Pro Quick Draw to draw out the plays McVay wanted added to the game book.

Taylor, now the coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, did the same task when he was a graduate assistant at Texas A&M.

"To go back and do it again for the Rams -- trust me -- was humbling for both [Rams offensive coordinator] Liam [Coen] and I," Taylor said. "We've been coordinators at other levels, and so then to go back and kind of do some of the stuff we did as a much younger graduate assistant can be humbling at first, but it's such a great opportunity to kind of reset ourselves."

The job can make for long days of meticulously drawing in Visio -- starting with the formation, drawing the routes and making sure everything is at the right angle -- but leads to more time than a typical assistant would otherwise get from an NFL playcaller.

Drawing plays -- and the conversations that come with it -- often also unlocks the key to the intricacies of an offense, and in the case of those who have drawn plays for McVay, it has led to such a high-level knowledge of the offense that it has resulted in a quick rise through the NFL coaching ranks for those assistants.

Since McVay was hired in Los Angeles, the coaches who have drawn plays for him include Taylor, Coen, passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach Zac Robinson, Minnesota Vikings quarterbacks coach Chris O'Hara, and now Rams coaches Zak Kromer and K.J. Black.

McVay drew plays while he was an assistant coach in Washington for Kyle Shanahan, whose San Francisco 49ers host the Rams on Monday Night Football at Levi's Stadium (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN2/ESPN+/ABC). When Shanahan left Washington to be the offensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns, McVay was named offensive coordinator. And it was Shane Waldron, now the offensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks, who drew plays for McVay.

And those coaches have had success. McVay, Shanahan and Taylor, the onetime play-drawers, have combined for four Super Bowl appearances since the 2018 season since becoming head coaches, with McVay winning Super Bowl LVI this past February over Taylor. Only one of the past four Super Bowls -- Super Bowl LV -- has not included a coach from this coaching tree.

"It's given me a chance to pick Sean [McVay]'s brain about, all right, what is he thinking?" Kromer said. "Why is he calling these pass plays? Because I always knew what they were, but I didn't know why we were calling them. So now as a drawer, I'm like, all right, 'Hey, we're drawing this play. Why? What are we trying to attack on the defense? What part are we trying to attack?'

"It's just a way for me to grow. And it's been an awesome experience."


IN 2017, TAYLOR'S typical in-season Tuesdays included waiting for a text from McVay indicating the list of plays was ready for him.

Taylor was lucky. Coen said there were times when he was drawing the plays from 2018-20 when he didn't get the list from McVay until 7 a.m. Wednesday, two hours before the meeting when they would be installed.

Coen's setup for drawing the pictures was a standing desk -- "almost like I'm playing an arcade game" -- and silence. McVay is the opposite when he's working, Coen said, always playing "some rap or R&B." Shanahan once said he turned on some Lil Wayne while drawing plays for Jon Gruden with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

While drawing on the computer, Coen had his printed list propped up on one side, with the list on the big screen as well, just in case McVay was changing it while Coen was drawing. A key to getting through the list comfortably, Coen said, was having a good mouse -- not too big, because you've got to have a little movement -- and mouse pad -- something "with a little support under the wrist, because man, your wrist can get pretty tight and sore."

And if any of the coaches had any questions while they were drawing, they knew they could go down the hall for some help.

"'Hey, I've never heard of this, Sean," Taylor said he'd ask McVay. "You walk in his office. 'What do you mean by this?' He'll draw it up on the board, explain. He might show you some clips of why you want it in, which helps you to draw."

Drawing the plays helps you learn the offense quickly, Taylor said, because you know what everyone is supposed to do on every play. And that helped the future head coach in practice. When a new play was installed and a player had a question, "You're the guy that's got the answer, maybe quicker than some of the other guys because you physically drew it."

"And so it gives you some respect [from] the players, gives you some ownership in the offense and it's a great way to come up in the system," Taylor said.

After leaving Tampa to go to the Houston Texans, Shanahan said he realized how much he had learned about an NFL offense drawing plays for Gruden.

"I literally felt like I drew every single play imaginable," Shanahan said. "And Jon would obsess about stuff. I mean it was always, 'Hey, did you see that new play this team did? Hey, I want you to do all these.' And so I was just constantly drawing.

"And then I remember getting my job where I go to Houston to be a receiver coach, and I realized how many more ideas I have because I've been drawing stuff for the whole NFL for Jon. So I got an idea of all these different types of plays, where they've kind of been doing something in a closed tight area for 15 years."


ONE OF THE keys to doing this job efficiently, Taylor said, is making sure you're working off templates. Not only does that save you from spending more time than needed redrawing the same formation and routes, but it also gives the pictures consistency.

And because of this, some of the templates used for plays for the 2022 Rams go back many teams and many coaches ago. Each file is saved with the name of the initial owner of the drawings.

Taylor said he thinks the templates originate with the Texans, when Mike McDaniel, now the head coach of the 3-1 Miami Dolphins, was an offensive assistant from 2006 to '08. The drawings went from the Texans to Texas A&M because then-Texans offensive coordinator Mike Sherman took them with him to College Station. That's where Taylor started drawing plays off those templates.

"So when you see the origin of who drew these plays, it's going to be Mike McDaniel, it's going to be Shane Waldron, [Green Bay Packers coach] Matt LaFleur. It's [New York Jets offensive coordinator] Mike LaFleur," Taylor said. "The names at the bottom of these documents are funny to look back on how long they've been in this world."

"So I'm sure I'd see a picture of the 49ers. I don't know anything about the playbook and I would think that I drew that picture because I took Mike McDaniel's picture at Texas A&M and worked off of that."

Looking back at the coaches who have sat in the quality control offices in Washington, Waldron said, "shows you how influential both Kyle Shanahan and Sean have been in terms of the people that have started out underneath them and learned from them and been able to grow and bond from those roles.

"There's been a long line of different guys in those positions that have put their own flavor on the drawings or all the little quirkiness to how you're saving them or where those files live. And we're all still football coaches, so you're a lot of times just kind of learning on the run with figuring out all the exact computer stuff and how to save it and how to do it. So you get a good chuckle when guys are around each other, knowing that they've been through it and had to do those drawings."


THE END RESULT of Tuesday night's -- or often Wednesday morning's -- work is a sheet with a four-box layout of plays that are printed out for the quarterbacks and then presented on the big screen in the meeting room with the offensive skill players as they're installing the pass game. The coaches talk through the plays and then might have a clip of film to show after the players have seen the drawing.

Sometimes Coen was so "under the gun" to get those plays done, he said, he'd be finishing them as the meeting was starting, meaning McVay was seeing the plays for the first time as he was presenting them.

And when there are mistakes?

"Oh, it's the most horrifying feeling in the world," Coen said.

Coen said depending on what mood McVay is in, he'd either kindly point out the mistake to the team, saying, "and you guys know this is not really how we want to do this," or "you guys know that this should be the Z and that should be X."

"Or if he's not in a great mood or just a little agitated that you messed it up, he will call you out a little bit," Coen said. "But typically, Sean's always been great at not calling you out. I've heard other people in other worlds have not been great about it, but it's the worst feeling."

Coen cringes a little as he starts telling the story about his worst mistake while drawing plays. It was 2019, the week of the Rams' NFC Championship Game against the New Orleans Saints. Coen was "under the gun," he said. He drew a whole package of plays, and while the actual plays were correct, the formation, "the way the variation that we wanted, was completely wrong."

"So, [McVay] had to then scrap the pictures," Coen said. "I'm going on the whiteboard, you know, old-school going on the whiteboard and drawing every single play that we installed that day.

" ... Well, that day it all got thrown to crap and he had to go freehand and that was the NFC championship week. And I was not in a great place."

Now that Waldron is the coach at the front of the meeting room installing the plays, he said he's realized, "the guy that's drawing the plays can never be 100% right.

"You stress out over it and you think about it," Waldron said. "And then you're looking up and your pictures are up there on the screen and Sean [McVay] would always give you kind of a -- and he was great with it, he was -- but he'd always give you the, 'You can't screw that up. I'm just kidding, but not really' kind of thing. So, I know the stress of that.

"You spend all night making those pictures as perfect as you can, and then one little spelling error or one little thing when it's up on that big board and everyone's seeing it, you can't avoid it."

But for all the inevitable mistakes a coach would make while drawing plays, it's McVay's reaction that has stayed with Taylor.

"You are around a lot of different people who think a lot of different ways and some, man, if that drawing is wrong, it's the end of the world. For Sean, it's not," Taylor said. "That's not going to be the difference in winning or losing because a route was drawn incorrectly.

"Gives you some insight into how Sean thinks. He doesn't stress about the things that aren't worth stressing about. He doesn't make a mountain out of a molehill, and that was appreciated, I know, early on working for him."


MAYBE THAT REACTION is because McVay knows how stressful the play-drawing could be. But according to Shanahan, the young coach was so good at it that Shanahan didn't want him to stop.

"Sean [McVay] was on it, like he's always been on everything," Shanahan said. "He was great. He finished everything fast, was always very detailed."

McVay was given his release from drawing plays for the Washington offense when the team's tight ends coach at the time, Jon Embree, was hired as the head coach at Colorado.

"At the end of that year, for the last three games, we made [McVay] the tight end coach," Shanahan said. "So, then I had to bring Mike McDaniel in to be the picture drawer. So, everyone's done it. It's kind of a whole line of these guys, and that's why we've all been close."

McVay says drawing plays for Shanahan is one of the reasons they have such a good relationship now.

"You become a product of your atmosphere and environment that you've been placed in," McVay said. "And that was kind of what I knew when I was in that role. And if you take advantage of it, you get access to the coordinator in a way that a lot of other guys necessarily don't.

"You're seeing all these guys that are head coaches or in offensive coordinator roles now because it gives you a vantage point and a perspective that you wouldn't have. And I think it's a really good platform to be able to learn the pass game, but then get access to people that are in those leadership roles that maybe you wouldn't otherwise."

It's a relationship McVay has carried with the coaches who drew plays for him. Coen, who started drawing plays for McVay when he replaced Taylor as the Rams' assistant wide receivers coach, was hired away from Los Angeles in 2021 to be Kentucky's offensive coordinator and playcaller.

But after one season, Coen returned to the Rams as offensive coordinator in part, he said, because of the relationship he'd built with McVay -- one that grew while Coen was responsible for drawing plays.

"You get really close with the guy," Coen said. "And naturally dialogue happens where we start to bounce things off of each other. And philosophically we were always very similar. The way we saw the game.

"It's kind of one of those things where you gain a little bit of his trust, and you start to see the way he ticks."

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