Sean McVay’s early retirement talk could become a common theme in the NFL’s new era of thinking
A few years have passed since the football world collectively debated whether or not NFL players would start to retire or move away at a faster rate at the peak of their careers. The more we learned about concussions, the more players began to find their voice and express their interests beyond the game, the more salaries rose, and as the reaction against opioids as a pain management mechanism increased, it was fair to wonder if a trend was emerging.
When Andrew Luck left at 29, before the start of the 2019 season, many thoughtful articles were written about what it meant for the league, as he followed a trend that included other stars of his era leaving the gambling at the age of 30; a list that included Rob Gronkowski (briefly), Luke Kuechly, Calvin Johnson, Patrick Willis, Travis Frederick and Doug Baldwin. And no doubt more players will follow, and that’s something to consider in the years to come.
But very few people have considered, to the best of my knowledge, whether this same phenomenon – however limited – could occur in the coaching profession. And I would say that is absolutely the case. The days of the lifelong coach, for decades at a time, always busy from job to job, could change. A course correction may be coming, and at a time when Rams coach Sean McVay, 36, shared his struggles with the overall coaching lifestyle, and with Sean Payton taking a break after a decade and a half transforming the New Orleans Saints, I suspect they are far from alone.
“I just don’t see nowadays, with the money (for head coaches) the way it is and with the way it’s been built over the last 10 years… you’re not going to see the coaches coach that long,” said a league source who is deeply connected to a host of NFL head and assistant coaches. “Certainly not as long as they’ve done in the past. It wears them down, the lifestyle and the grind can engulf you, and if you’re lucky enough to have won a Super Bowl, you’re really ahead. on the case.”
I’d say when McVay — who added a Super Bowl title to his resume Sunday night as the league’s youngest coach — met the media on Friday, he ended up speaking on behalf of a cohort of his peers when he showed introspection and transparency in ruminating on his future as a manager in his final press conference ahead of the biggest game of his life. He’s lived this all his life and watched mentors like Jon Gruden start their head coaching careers at a very young age, burn out, and then retire early too. And, yes, they almost always come back — even Joe Gibbs after a long sabbatical — but the prospect that many of those hired in their early to mid-thirties are choosing to focus on their families in their mid-forties might end up being more prevalent than that of players leaving the game before age 30.
That wouldn’t surprise me in the least, especially with coaching salaries set to continue to skyrocket, and with soaring NFL revenues, and with owners having a seemingly unquenchable desire to hire young head coaches. McVay may already be on this path to some extent.
“I know I love football and I’m so invested in this thing,” McVay said over the weekend, “and I’m in the moment right now. But at some point too, if you have said, ‘What do you want to be able to do?’ I want to be able to start a family and I want to be able to spend time with them.”
Having gotten to know some of the other coaches who have already emerged from this Kyle Shanahan/McVay coaching tree, and having an idea of how grounded, humble, intelligent, compassionate and self-aware many of them are , I imagine that, even though they are still at the beginning of their coaching journey, they have already considered similar thoughts as they consider trying to find the impossible balance of their ultra-competitive profession, and do mount needs, requests and calls home. The work/family balance is difficult for many, and can be particularly acute for those used to 18-hour days in which the only interactions they have with human beings at sunrise are with players and other coaches for much of the year.
“The burnout factor is very real,” said a longtime NFL coaching agent. “And a lot of this generation of coaches are more in tune with what would be required of them at home if they’re going to play a meaningful role in the lives of their kids. I think there’s kind of a evolution going on with that. I can see that.”
As more entities get involved in streaming NFL merchandise (Amazon etc.) and with men like Tony Romo resetting the financial metrics of what top streamers can earn, media appeal will become even stronger in the years to come. . The possibility of earning similar money, while living a much more robust and rewarding lifestyle, working what amounts to a few months a year, will remain a siren song. More and more young coaches will eventually take notice, I believe, especially those who achieve some level of success.
There were plenty of close McVay staffers who would have whispered to you weeks ago, before it became more history, that they doubted McVay could maintain the ridiculous grind he finds himself in for much longer. Win big or lose big, it doesn’t matter; a few more years, maybe five. But not beyond. He demands too much of himself in his pursuit of greatness, and in private moments some might see that is already taking its toll. The chatter about him following Gruden’s path in the broadcast booth — where McVay will crush him with his personality, humility and otherworldly recall — was swirling around coaching circles mid-season.
And there’s probably a lot to that. That time will come. Probably closer than far. But I don’t feel like it’s imminent. In Matthew Stafford, he has the quarterback he has always been looking for. McVay isn’t even married yet, let alone a father, and the opportunity to win big with a franchise QB is an attraction that’s far from erased, regardless of the outcome of a game.
“If he didn’t have Stafford, I would say he would probably consider (retirement) more seriously,” a source close to the manager said. “Getting Stafford has really changed his whole outlook. He really believes in him and it shows. But whether he will be a serious coach for as long as some of these other people have, I sincerely doubt it.”
Each time he steps down, he has more than earned that right. Mental health, physical health, family health – it all matters more than any football game. McVay has already created a line of coaches and reached heights in a few years that most coaches don’t reach in their entire careers. And he has already found that these accomplishments alone can only be so fulfilling.