Snowbanks across America will be used as impromptu coolers as the Los Angeles Rams clash with the New England Patriots in the 2019 NFL Super Bowl this Sunday. But as cold as the beers may get, the takes on what may be the most anticipated coaching showdown in history will remain piping hot: Bill Belichick’s play-calling is predictable! Sean McVay doesn’t have the defensive chops! Sean Payton got jobbed! For the fans, there’s a clear narrative about the old and the new at play. But for the coaches in both organizations, the Super Bowl narrative is really about family. How could it not be? These guys were raised to coach football.
Think that’s an overstatement? Look at the coaching staffs of these two teams. You’ll be dissuaded at speed. The 2019 Super Bowl may be the greatest game ever played, but it should still go down as the Nepotism Bowl. This one isn’t just about winning. It’s about impressing dad. And that’s the locker room narrative (well, the one that doesn’t involve Tom Brady and his MAGA hat).
The Rams Dynasties
Let’s start with the Rams. Sean McVay’s grandfather, John McVay, was an NFL coach for the New York Giants in the 1970s and, in the 1980s, became one of the administrators of the San Franciso 49ers. Remember how great the 49ers were back then? John McVay helped do that.
Sean McVay’s right-hand man, assistant head coach Joe Barry, is the son of Mike Barry, who was the Offensive Line Coach for Detroit Lions. But, Joe Barry is double NFL royalty, because, in addition to his dad, he also has a father-in-law in the NFL, Rod Marinelli, who was the defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys. And the rest of McVay’s staff is similar. Wade Philips — the Ram’s defensive coordinator — is the son “Bum” Philips, who is most famous for coaching the Oilers in the 1980s. Ditto for John Fassel, whose father is Jim Fassel, coach of the New York Giants from 1997 to 2003.
Sean McVay is young and his staff is fairly young as well. This is impressive, but not quite as impressive as it might look on first blush. These guys climbed the ranks because they’re very good at their jobs (they really are), but they got into the ranks because they knew people. None of them would dispute that. It’s how the modern NFL works.
The Pats Dynasties
If the Rams are coached by a bunch of men chasing their father’s approval, the story with the Patriots is similar but not quite the same. Head coach Bill Belichick is the son Steve Belichick, most famous for coaching the Detriot Lions in the 1940s. And Belichick wins the award for closing the loop: His own son on his coaching staff. The current safeties coach for the Patriots is Steve Belichick, son of Bill. Belichick’s offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, is the son of Thom McDaniels, who coached high school football in Ohio. But Josh broke into the org on his own and that’s about the size of it. (It’s also fair to add that Belichick seems to have an authoritarian management style so the whole thing is rolling up into football royalty in a real way.)
Still, if we were only betting on families, it sort of seems like the Rams have slightly more history with the NFL, but it is shocking that both teams rely on coaching strategies that come from decades and decades of intergenerational (and frequently conventional) wisdom. If the NFL were science fiction, there would be endless “Luke, I am your father” moments.
The NFL’s Daddy Issues
Great players win football games. And being a great player in the NFL requires a certain kind of body, depending on the position. As such, it’s no surprise that the league would feature a lot of legacy players and brothers. It was easy to see the Chris Longs of the world coming. That said, coaching does not require a certain body type (see: Reid, Andy) and therefore genetics are out of play. But family connections sure aren’t. Giving jobs to family members is part of league culture and the result is a Super Bowl in which coaches’ sons compete for their fathers’ love and respect.
In a sense, this is bad. There are probably a number of amazing coaching prospects who never get a job and nepotism favors the wealthy, creating a league in which rich boys coach poor boys. It’s not a great look. But, in a dumber sense, this is good because it makes the NFL into a sort of sprawling, operatic multigenerational novel. This is what would have happened if Faulkner stood in for Matt Christopher.
Will this year’s Super Bowl be the greatest coaching showdown ever? Unlikely. That game is probably taking place at the high school level — two coaches (one of them female perhaps?) who couldn’t break into the NFL because they didn’t know the right people squinting at each other across a pockmarked field. So let’s not pretend that either Belichick or McVay are the best coaches around. What they may be is the best coaches in the NFL, a gated community full of football boys.
Drink enough of that cold, cold beer and that starts to seem reasonable.