How the Rams overcame the disastrous end of the Jeff Fisher era

The Rams' appearance in the Super Bowl is a long way from the final days of Jeff Fisher's tenure as coach. Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES -- Sean McVay impressed the Los Angeles Rams so profoundly on Jan. 5, 2017, that there was some thought, however faint, of hiring him right away. A cross-country trip was scheduled for the ensuing weekend for face-to-face interviews with assistant coaches on playoff teams, and the Rams considered the possibility of canceling it entirely. But then Kevin Demoff, the COO who steered the head-coaching search, kept hearkening back to the same question: Can we really hire a 30-year-old?

The Rams continued on instead. They took their trip, which began in Massachusetts and ended in Florida, and figured it would be best to let someone else interview McVay. You know, to make sure they weren't crazy. That Sunday, the day before McVay was set to meet with the division-rival San Francisco 49ers for the same position, Demoff shot him a text.

"Do well tomorrow," he wrote, "but not too well."

The next morning, the Rams' front-office contingency flew west on a 2,500-mile flight that nearly drove Demoff to the brink of insanity. He checked in early, asking a 49ers staffer if McVay had left the room where his interview was taking place. "Not out," Demoff was told. Five hours went by. Still no word from McVay. Demoff grew increasingly antsy. Eventually he reached out to McVay to say, in Demoff's words, "get the f--- out of the interview."

"And that's when we knew," Demoff said. "That was the litmus test."


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McVay boarded a flight to L.A. the next morning. Two days later, the Rams made McVay -- 12 days shy of his 31st birthday -- the youngest head coach in modern NFL history. Two years and eight days after that, the Rams reached the Super Bowl, highlighting a stunning 24-month turnaround that continues to make Jeff Fisher's tenure look worse by the day.

McVay took over a franchise that had suffered 10 consecutive losing seasons, instantly made it relevant and quickly turned it into a powerhouse. He salvaged Jared Goff, fixed the offense and changed the culture. His hiring, exceedingly audacious at the time, never happens if the Rams don't first rid themselves of Fisher.

And that firing doesn't take place -- at least not so early in the team's L.A. tenure -- without a dizzying confluence of events that unfolded over the course of what became Fisher's final season.

'7-9 bulls---'

It was only seven years ago that McVay was a Washington Redskins tight ends coach in his mid-20s, and Fisher was the hottest name in the coaching ranks. Now, at a time when people are landing interviews seemingly for simply knowing McVay, Fisher has devolved into a caricature.

The origins of that might be found on reality TV, where in August 2016, Fisher uttered the words that now live in infamy.

It was the first episode of "Hard Knocks," the HBO series that followed the Rams through training camp their first season back in Southern California. Fisher, visibly frustrated, addressed the team after one receiver (Tavon Austin) suffered cramps because of an incomplete breakfast and another (Deon Long) broke the rules by inviting a girl into his room.

Fisher called it "7-9 bulls---" and declared that he is "not f---ing going 7-9," a statement that hovered over him all season. Fisher became known as a "7-9 coach," so much so that there is a T-shirt with his face made up of only the numbers "7" and "9."

Monday Night embarrassment

Fisher didn't make the Rams great, but he did steady them. He inherited a franchise that lost 65 of 80 games in a five-year stretch and lifted it to 7-8-1 in his inaugural season in 2012. The Rams hovered right around there for the next four years and appeared to build some momentum down the stretch in 2015, winning three of their last four with Case Keenum at quarterback.

With Austin coming off a productive season, Todd Gurley emerging as a star and the defense continuing to look solid, there was thought that the Rams might take a leap in 2016, attain their first winning record in 13 years and perhaps even make the playoffs.

Then Monday Night Football happened.

The Rams opened a crucial season in prime time on ESPN against a hapless 49ers team they could easily beat up on. But they amassed 185 total yards and suffered a 28-0 loss. The Rams initially faced a daunting, uphill battle in a city that felt generally apathetic toward their return. Then they made the worst first impression possible.

Snooze fest in the Big Apple

The Rams rebounded from that opening loss to begin the season 3-1, then lost four in a row by an average of six points. Moments before his team was set to play a road game against the New York Jets, Fisher approached owner Stan Kroenke and informed him that he would start Goff, the team's No. 1 overall pick in that year's draft, the following Sunday, regardless of the result.

The Rams won that game, improving to 4-5, but it was an unfathomable struggle. In the words of one Rams staffer: "It set football back decades." The final score was 9-6. Three field goals were kicked, and one touchdown was scored. The two teams combined for 312 passing yards, a number Goff surpassed in eight games this season. It was the type of game Fisher's teams played far too often, regardless of the quarterback.


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The Dickerson mess

Eric Dickerson, the Hall of Fame running back who rushed for nearly 7,000 yards in his first four seasons, was basically the face of the Rams in the mid-1980s during their previous stint in L.A. When the team returned, he became an integral connection point with an estranged fan base. But by the end of November 2016, Dickerson was vowing to avoid Rams games so long as Fisher was employed.

It began at the Rams' groundbreaking ceremony on Nov. 17, when Dickerson alleged to being denied sideline passes because he was told the team felt "uncomfortable" about his criticism. That prompted a call from Fisher, who, according to Dickerson, reiterated that sentiment and, before backtracking, told Dickerson he could no longer be on the field.

Dickerson alluded to being banned from the sideline on his radio show a couple of weeks later but offered few details. When asked about it that afternoon, Fisher described "a really good conversation" with Dickerson and denied banning him from the sideline. That set Dickerson off, prompting what became a media tour in which he described the conversation in detail, turning fans against Fisher even more.

An awkward extension

The morning before a road game against the New England Patriots, word leaked, through NFL Network, that Fisher had signed an extension with the Rams. Fisher confirmed it himself after the game -- his team's seventh loss in eight weeks -- and added that the agreement was in place "well before" the first preseason contest.

Fisher was in the final year of his contract when 2016 began. The two sides were said to be engaged in contract negotiations by February, but nothing came of it. An extension was signed over the summer, but an announcement wasn't made. The deal came to light in early December, but a news release was never issued. It was almost as if the Rams were embarrassed by it.

Fisher made it all look worse the following week, when he alleged to being "unaware" that general manager Les Snead received a contract extension around the same time. Two days later, a Sports Illustrated story quoted unnamed sources within the team who described the dynamic as "Rams Junior High."

'Middle school' offense

The Rams hit bottom on Dec. 11 in a 42-14 defeat at home against the Atlanta Falcons. It began with Mike Thomas fumbling the opening kickoff and ended with Fisher tying an NFL record for career losses by a head coach. Asked to identify the problem, Fisher began his answer with one word: "Offense."

Later, in a somber postgame locker room, Gurley took it a step further, saying the Rams "looked like a middle school offense," a damning remark that unintentionally became Fisher's death knell.

Fisher's teams never figured out the offense, largely because Fisher never had the right guy running it. The knee injuries that plagued Sam Bradford were a major culprit early on, but the trouble thereafter began in January 2015, when Brian Schottenheimer left to become Georgia's offensive coordinator. Fisher couldn't replace him with anybody he really wanted. Adam Gase, Kyle Shanahan, Nathaniel Hackett and Greg Roman all turned him down.

Frank Cignetti Jr., formerly the quarterbacks coach, got the job in February, then was fired in December. Rob Boras, formerly the tight ends coach, replaced him in the interim, then kept the job in 2016, which resulted in a 4-12 finish. Boras was noticeably underqualified, and the offense suffered because of it. Just as damning: The same year the Rams moved up to draft Goff No. 1 overall, their entire coaching staff had one combined season of experience as an NFL quarterbacks coach (from Chris Weinke).

The day after Gurley's "middle school" comment, Fisher was fired.

Taking a shot

Demoff, who recounted the story of McVay's hiring near the midway point of his first season with the Rams, will tell you something clicked right away.

"It's no different than meeting your spouse," Demoff said of McVay. "You knew."

But around Christmas 2016, there were equal parts intrigue and apprehension. Demoff, Snead and fellow executive Tony Pastoors -- the three men tasked with finding the next head coach -- had dinner then, and McVay's name kept coming up. They had never heard people speak so glowingly about a head-coaching candidate. But the same question beckoned: Can we really hire a 30-year-old?

The Rams came away from that disastrous 2016 season knowing they needed a coach who could improve the offense, get the most out of Goff, inject energy into the locker room and spark the fan base in the nation's second-largest media market. If he just so happened to be charismatic and handsome, all the better.

At the very least, the Rams began their search with tremendous curiosity toward McVay. Then, on Jan. 5, 2017, McVay came in for an interview and blew them away. The room fell silent after he left. Finally, Snead spoke up.

"That guy's going to be a stud," he said. "I hope we have the courage to do what's right."

ESPN's Nick Wagoner contributed to this report.