ATLANTA — Everyone loves a great quarterback duel in the Super Bowl, and this one is sure to bring some fireworks with Tom Brady and Jared Goff slinging the ball around when necessary.
But the more fascinating matchup in Super Bowl LIII might be between the odd couple in the headsets who will be squared off on opposite sidelines.
On one side is 66-year-old Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who has more Super Bowl rings than any head man past or present. On the opposing side is 33-year-old Rams coach Sean McVay, who has his team in the big game in just his second year as a head coach.
Put simply, we have: The Legend vs. The Next One.
While McVay is just getting his feet wet on the big stage, many believe he’s the next great coach in the NFL. Already other coach-needy teams are looking for the next McVay, that’s how quickly he’s risen up the ranks. And while he’s not a defensive genius like Belichick, he’s an innovative, offensive mastermind.
“I think when you look at this game, it’s almost Bill against Sean,” said former NFL head coach Bill Cowher, “and it’s Wade (Phillips) and Josh (McDaniels). You see it’s going to be a constant chess match. It’s going to be like a heavyweight fight. They’ll be some jabbing going on early, then you’ll find a matchup, something they’re doing early, that’s going to cause someone to adjust, then re-adjust, so you’ll see a constant element of reacting to what the other person is doing. So this is going to be the ultimate chess match.”
Will Belichick be able to take away Aaron Donald, because he always takes away the opposing team’s best player? Will he also be able to harness Todd Gurley on the other side of the ball?
What tricks will McVay have up his sleeve offensively? Will he present any new wrinkles in that offense? Will he nudge Phillips to change anything from a scheme Belichick said has been the same the past 30 years?
For his part, McVay smartly took the respectful route when it came to Belichick, and it was sincere.
“I think even being mentioned in the same breath as Coach Belichick, I’ve got a long way to go to be in that category,” said McVay, when asked about the matchup. “He’s done it for so long so consistently . . . even when you hear him speak, the wealth of knowledge that he’s pulling from, he’s got such ownership and mastery on offense, defense and special teams. You talk about someone who understands the nuances of the game. The tactical approaches and how to really put together a game plan . . . he’s done such a great job. His players really believe in him.”
McVay was 16 and playing quarterback at Marist High School when Belichick won his first Super Bowl as a head coach with the Patriots against the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. Like Belichick, the Rams coach was raised in a football family with his father, Tim, a former college player and grandfather, John, a former college coach and more notably the GM of the San Francisco 49ers.
While Belichick has a dour and grumpy persona, McVay tends to come across as more upbeat and pleasant. Whatever their personality, they get results. Since taking over in 2000, Belichick has established an unprecedented run of success while McVay has quickly turned the program around in Los Angeles.
“I love the energy he brings to the game,” former Patriot Brandin Cooks said of McVay.
Rams cornerback Aqib Talib, who has also been coached by both, spoke about how both men command a room.
“They have different personalities, but they’re great leaders. They get in front of the room, and nobody’s going to be texting, there’s not going to be any side conversations going on. They have the full attention of the room,” said Talib. “But Sean . . . he’s a year older than me, and to lead a group of men like this, man, leading the way he does, that’s crazy. A lot of people can’t do that.”
While Belichick has the edge in experience, McVay doesn’t seem like he’ll be intimidated by the moment, or the greatness of the man on the opposite sideline today.
“It’s young against old, but you’re talking about two guys who are very masterful in being able to work their way through a game, with all the dynamics that takes place,” said Cowher, “the ebb and flow that takes place, and stay focused on the situation at hand.”
Count on absolutely anything happening with these two coaches involved. Belichick wouldn’t admit to that in his final press conference Thursday, but don’t dismiss it.
After all, every time you think you might know what Belichick might have in store, he throws out something completely unexpected. Same with McVay. Both coaches aren’t afraid to gamble and trust their players to make plays.
“They can adapt to a game. They’re aggressive in their thinking. These teams aren’t afraid to take chances,” said Cowher. “We’ve seen it with Sean McVay with all the things he does in the special teams area.”
Rams punter Johnny Hekker threw a pass on fourth down with a fake punt with the team down two scores against the Saints. It was a significant play in the NFC Championship Game, as the completion got the Rams back in the game.
And of course, Belichick has a history of going for it on fourth down. He’s made some, and he’s missed on some.
Speaking with players on both sides, it’s obvious how much they respect their coaches, and would go through the wall for them on game day.
“I love Coach. He’s a great mentor, and a father figure to a lot of guys in the locker room,” said Patriots receiver Phillip Dorsett. “I’d be lying if could say I would be saying I’d be at this point in my career without him. Obviously, two years in a row in the Super Bowl, it’s a blessing. Something I’d never take for granted, and I’d never take Coach Belichick for granted.”
If the Patriots win, Belichick would become the oldest coach to win the Super Bowl. If McVay wins, he’d be the youngest. It’s quite the matchup.