Since 2017, when the Rams made him the youngest coach in modern NFL history, Sean McVay has built a well-earned reputation for being a players’ coach.
For longtime McVay observers, his ability to connect and to manage nearly every personality ranked among his strong suits.
Did trading running back Cam Akers dent that reputation?
McVay was asked Thursday if he considered the Akers situation a failure on his part.
“I wouldn’t say that — I think that’s kind of an easy narrative,” McVay said. “What we’re interested in is making decisions that we like are in the best interest of the team. And there’s a lot of layers to it. But I am grateful for Cam, and I wish him nothing but the best moving forward.”
McVay, as is his habit, has not publicly discussed the “layers” that ended the tenure of a player who seemingly was beloved by teammates.
But the NFL, of course, never stops. A player suffers an injury, another steps up. A team trades or releases a player, it plugs in another.
That is the case for the Rams, who traded Akers to the Minnesota Vikings on Wednesday in a deal that also involved a swap of future draft picks.
Kyren Williams moves into the starting role for the Rams heading into a game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night. After the second-year pro scored three touchdowns in the first two games, there is much for fans to be excited about.
But when it comes to Rams running backs — or all but a few NFL running backs — projecting anything beyond the next week or two is foolish.
Lawrence McCutcheon and Eric Dickerson starred as workhorse backs for the Rams in the 1970s and 1980s. Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk, the productive but underappreciated Steven Jackson and rookie Todd Gurley all starred for the Rams during their years in St. Louis.
As the game has shifted to pass-oriented offenses, however, running backs not named Christian McCaffrey or Derrick Henry have become expendable.
The Rams are no exception to that trend.
McVay’s arrival as coach completely energized an offense that relied on Gurley to open up a passing game that enabled quarterback Jared Goff and receivers Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and Sammy Watkins to flourish.
The Rams signed Gurley to a huge extension before the 2018 season. Despite Gurley suffering a late-season injury that aggravated a previous knee issue, they advanced to Super Bowl LIII.
In March of 2020, with a guaranteed $10.5 million for Gurley coming due, the Rams unceremoniously cut him.
A running back drafted by the Rams has not finished his rookie contract since.
Darrell Henderson, a third-round pick in 2019, suffered numerous injuries and was released last November.
Akers, a second-round pick in 2020, showed promise as a rookie. He rushed for a career-best 171 yards against the New England Patriots, rushed for 131 yards in an NFC wild-card playoff victory over the Seattle Seahawks, and played so well in a divisional-round defeat to the Green Bay Packers that the Rams talked of making him a centerpiece of the offense.
But Akers suffered an Achilles injury on the eve of 2021 training camp. He made a remarkable comeback to play in the postseason, including the Rams’ victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI.
But the relationship between Akers and the staff and front office started to sour during last year’s training camp.
McVay had moved the much-respected Thomas Brown from running backs coach to tight ends to bolster the assistant’s resume in pursuit of an offensive coordinator job. McVay replaced him with Ra’Shaad Samples, a young coach with no NFL experience.
Early in the season, McVay called out Akers for a lack of intensity. He later exiled Akers for several games and the Rams unsuccessfully tried to trade him.
By December, Samples was encouraged to move on for an opportunity at Arizona State. Brown resumed coaching running backs and Akers finished the season by rushing for more than 100 yards in three straight games.
Last February, the Carolina Panthers hired Brown as offensive coordinator, and McVay hired Ron Gould as running backs coach.
During the offseason, Akers said he was fine with McVay and reiterated that if McVay put the ball in his hands, the running game would thrive.
Everything seemed fine until it apparently wasn’t.
In the season opener against Seattle, Akers got 22 carries but gained only 29 yards and scored a touchdown. Williams scored twice.
McVay made Akers inactive last Sunday before a loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Three days later he was no longer a Ram.
“It’s a crazy business, we understand that,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said Thursday. “Hope the best for Cam. Obviously, had some great times with him, some great memories with him as well, but excited for Kyren.”
McVay said the trade was “not a personal indictment” of Akers.
“Sometimes you have to be able to make tough decisions,” McVay said.
So now the Rams will rely on Williams, Ronnie Rivers, Royce Freeman and rookie Zach Evans.
Akers is reunited with Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell, the Rams’ former offensive coordinator. Akers joins a winless team in desperate need of rushing production heading into Sunday’s game against the winless Chargers.
Time will tell if the Rams made the right decision.