SANTA CLARA — NFL play-callers never struggle to generate paranoia. They practice in private, fill their playbooks with coded terminology and cover their mouths on the sidelines when they speak.
Imagine then, the self-imposed stress coaches must deal with when the opponent’s staff includes a former colleague, or even a family member. The second-guessing could become overwhelming. Is it wise to shake things up, to counter the familiarity, or just retain confidence that execution will win out?
“It’s definitely a chess game you play with yourself,” Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur said this week.
The Rams play at San Francisco on Thursday night and, for a second consecutive week, Rams coach Sean McVay faces a team that know his stuff, and vice versa. The ties are deep throughout the staffs.
McVay and 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan worked closely together in Washington and are good friends. LaFleur worked under Shanahan in Atlanta. LaFleur’s brother, Mike, is the 49ers’ receivers coach, and LaFleur’s former roommate, Robert Saleh, is the 49ers’ defensive coordinator.
These guys are close enough to know each other’s PIN codes, so how can they keep anything from each other on the football field? Or should they even try? There doesn’t appear to be a perfect answer.
Clearly, a coach isn’t going to swap out his entire scheme for one game, but in situations such as this one, all cannot be normal.
“You want to make sure that you’re aware of what you’ve done on tape, what they’re preparing for, things like that,” McVay said. “But you also don’t want to lose sight of what your identity is and your core philosophies, from an offense, defense and special-teams approach, because this is what your players are comfortable with.”
To an extent, this happens every week. The Rams (like every team) have staffers assigned to “self-scout,” to review the team’s film and look for tendencies or “tells” that might be picked up by opponents. The key is for teams to spot these things and amend them before they can be exploited.
Or, as Washington coach Jay Gruden put it last week, “Teams have tendencies, but they also know that they have those tendencies, so they play off of those tendencies.”
It’s different, though, when there’s deeper knowledge. For instance, last week the Rams played Washington, coached by Gruden, who helped McVay develop as a player-caller when they worked together for three seasons.
Coaches evolve, and…