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Sean McVay cannot stop losing to Kyle Shanahan

We all need a friend in our life like Sean McVay is to Kyle Shanahan.

The Rams’ head coach, after learning under the Gruden brothers, took his apprenticeship journey to Washington, D.C., where he worked under Mike and Kyle Shanahan.

After taking over as offensive coordinator when the Shanahans were ousted unceremoniously, McVay joined Kyle Shanahan in taking a coaching job in 2017. For the first couple years of their NFC West rivalry, McVay had a 3-1 edge over Shanahan, but he also took over a ready-made team, aside from first overall draft pick, Jared Goff.

Since 2019, McVay has not beaten Shanahan, losing his fifth-straight game to his old colleague on Monday night, 31-10.

McVay didn’t have much of an answer to why that streak has gotten to this extent, saying there have been different causes for each of the losses.

“I have a lot of respect for them,” McVay said Monday. “They’ve done a nice job, but I’m not going to sit here and go into what we could go through all of those five games. There’s been a different reason. None of which is going to be anything other than an excuse on my end, you give them their credit. But we’ll get an opportunity to play them again later on this year.”

And it’s not just that he’s failed to beat Shanahan, but that his losses have breathed life into the 49ers. The first of this string, in 2019, was the most consequential win in the 49ers’ season at that juncture.

After the Rams ran the ball unceasingly en route to an opening touchdown, San Francisco, buoyed by a stellar Jimmie Ward performance — a consistent theme in the rivalry — shut down the Rams thanks to an adjustment made by defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, chronicled here.

That game sent the 49ers to 5-0 and was their first bona fide win which came without a caveat. It was substantial, and cemented their contender status.

Given how well Saleh’s defense performed against McVay, there was an argument to be made — and was made, here — that it was Saleh and his defense which owned McVay.

That held true even in the injury and woe-ridden 2020 season, when the 6-10 49ers came last in the NFC West. Still, a third of their wins came against McVay’s Rams.

San Francisco’s defense was stellar again on Monday night, even with pressure coming against Matthew Stafford inconsistently.

This was a 49ers team which was basically asking to lose and have its season effectively ended. Shanahan said this week that Trey Lance probably wouldn’t start until the 49ers were eliminated from the playoffs, but that it could happen soon. Instead of putting Shanahan’s team out of its misery, McVay breathed life into them.

Since 2019, McVay’s Rams have a 61.9 percent winning percentage. Without the games against the 49ers, that’s a 70.3 percent winning percentage.

There’s a genuine, almost tangible aura of superiority which Shanahan lords over McVay. Both have had competitive rosters in each of the last three seasons, and McVay has been consistently successful… with the exception of his duels with Shanahan.

McVay got so desperate against Shanahan on Monday that he employed an ill-conceived fake field goal in a brutal situation: 4th and 8 from the 18-yard line with the Rams down 21-7 entering halftime. The 49ers, in that limited space situation, sniffed it out easily.

In that 2019 game, McVay tried to get the edge over Shanahan by going for it on fourth-and-goal. He failed, and his offense never got a real scoring chance again in that game.

The second win against the Rams in that 2019 season came off the 49ers’ trap loss to the Atlanta Falcons, and got them back on track to win the division.

In 2020, the 49ers’ first win against the Rams snapped a two-game skid to the Eagles and Dolphins, and set up a blowout win over the Patriots. Then, Jimmy Garoppolo got hurt in a brutal, basically season-ending loss to the Seahawks and that momentum was mostly lost.

But it was regained, if only for a moment, when the 4-6 49ers came off a bye week to beat the playoff-bound Rams. That win gave them a significant amount of confidence that they could compete that season. That was swiftly proved false, thanks to a 34-24 gut-punch loss to the Bills, but that Rams win provided a brief boost in an otherwise hopeless season.

And on Monday, the 49ers looked an awful lot like the team that went to the Super Bowl in 2019. They ran the ball prodigiously — their 44 rushing attempts against the Rams are the second-most in the Shanahan era, behind only the 47 attempts against the Minnesota Vikings in the 2019 Divisional Game — got the ball into the hands of their yards-after-catch studs effectively, and Garoppolo was quick and decisive without turning the ball over. The Rams, meanwhile, turned it over twice, both interceptions to Ward; they are his first interceptions since 2016, and also set a season-high for him.

Shanahan didn’t give much of an explanation for the streak against McVay, but acknowledge the obvious.

“I mean each game is different,” Shanahan said. “They all have played out similarly though.”

That, they have.

An especially significant moment came on Monday, too. Up 24-7 in the fourth quarter on Monday, Shanahan trusted his quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo — the same man he trusts so little that he traded away three first-round picks and a third-round pick to bring in a rookie — to go for the jugular. And Garoppolo did.

If that doesn’t sum up the relationship between these two teams right now, few things do. Garoppolo was efficient, while Matthew Stafford, having a stellar season, looked completely lost. His receivers dropped at least four passes and he was unreliable.

McVay went for a fake field goal and whiffed. Shanahan went for it on fourth down to assure his friend’s misery, and trusted the quarterback he hasn’t ever really trusted to do it. As miserable and inconsistent as the 49ers have been this season, they have some juice right now, and as has been the case each of the last two seasons, they’ve gotten that juice from McVay’s Rams.


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