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As Rams struggle, coach Sean McVay’s reputation takes a hit

Not so long ago — circa 2018 — Sean McVay was the toast of the NFL, a coaching wunderkind and whiz kid play-caller on his way to leading his team to the Super Bowl.

A year later, Sean McVay is trying to keep the teetering Rams from falling out of playoff contention.

That could happen if they lose to the Chicago Bears on Sunday at the Coliseum.

It’s a far different scenario than last season, when the Rams won their first eight games en route to a second consecutive NFC West title.

They enter Sunday’s game with a 5-4 record and a distant view of the first-place San Francisco 49ers and surging Seattle Seahawks in the division.

“I would be lying to say that this hasn’t been more challenging,” McVay said. “But that’s also why there’s a motivation to make sure to do right and to use this as an opportunity to try to respond in the way that you challenge your players and everybody else too.

“You want to make sure that you’re epitomizing those things as well.”

McVay, 33, was regarded as one the NFL’s most dynamic and innovative play-callers during his first two seasons.

That reputation has taken a hit.

The once high-powered offense has been middling. The unit did not score a touchdown in last week’s 17-12 defeat by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Quarterback Jared Goff committed three more turnovers. Star receiver Cooper Kupp did not catch a pass. Star running back Todd Gurley did not touch the ball in the fourth quarter.

So McVay, the celebrated genius, has not looked the part.

He anticipated that day might come.

“Sure,” he said. “It’s a humbling game.”

Rams players, however, said McVay has not changed his demeanor or approach. He has remained consistent while attempting to produce a consistently positive outcome.

“That dude is steady,” Goff said.

Said defensive lineman Aaron Donald: “Coach’s been coach. Same thing.”

More than a month has passed since McVay last paced the Coliseum sideline.

An Oct. 13 defeat by the San Francisco 49ers had extended the Rams’ losing streak to three games, putting their season on the brink of possible collapse. The Rams launched a mini-rally and beat the Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals during an extended road trip. But after the defeat by the Steelers in Pittsburgh, they return in a similarly precarious position.

And with an injury-depleted offensive line that must protect Goff from one of the NFL’s most aggressive defenses.

Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, a 14-year pro, is the only Rams lineman with more than a few games of NFL experience at his position. Rookie tackle Bobby Evans could start for the first time and match-up against Khalil Mack, the Bears’ $141-million outside linebacker who was the 2016 NFL defensive player of the year.

“You just kind of get it out of your head who’s over there,” Evans said. “You have to execute. That comes with preparation and getting your mind right.”

The Rams also will be without receiver Brandin Cooks, who will sit out a second consecutive game while recovering from concussions. Cooks absence enabled the Steelers to double-team and shut down Kupp.

“We just need to step up and make plays,” Goff said, “and it starts with me.”

Though the game is at the Coliseum, and their beloved team is 4-5, Bears fans are expected to turn out in force.

“It really carries in every away game,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said of the support, adding, “Trust me, when you have that going on, on the road, you really respect that and appreciate every bit of it.”

The influx of Bears fans might not reach the level seen when the Green Bay Packers played at the Coliseum last season, but the Rams are preparing for a significant turnout.

“If they want to bring the noise, man, we’ll handle it,” Rams linebacker Samson Ebukam said. “As long as it’s an electric atmosphere, I don’t really care.”

The Rams have gone to a non-verbal snap count at the Coliseum when opposing fans become too loud. That might happen again Sunday.

“We’re not going to be surprised,” McVay said, “but we’re hopeful that our fans show up, and excited about being back at home.”

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