Super Bowl 56: Sean McVay and Zac Taylor putting friends on edge

Oct 27, 2019; London, United Kingdom; Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor (left) shakes hands with Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay after an NFL International Series game at Wembley Stadium. The Rams defeated the Bengals 24-10. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 27, 2019; London, United Kingdom; Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor (left) shakes hands with Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay after an NFL International Series game at Wembley Stadium. The Rams defeated the Bengals 24-10. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

Sean McVay and Zac Taylor are meeting in Super Bowl 56, and for their friends, it’ll be a night of conflicting emotions at their homes.

LOS ANGELES — How do you pick between friends?

How can someone enjoy watching the pinnacle of their profession, knowing someone they care for will be elated by game’s end, only to understand another will be crushed?

On Super Bowl Sunday, two coaches face that situation.

For Liam Coen and Shane Waldron, the only thing guaranteed about Super Bowl LVI is the simultaneous rush of ecstasy and the despair of agony. Both Coen and Waldron were assistants under Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay, while also working alongside former Rams offensive coordinator and current Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor.

The quartet only spent one year together, but the friendships run deep. In 2018, McVay assembled a staff in which Taylor ran the offense, while Coen served as the wide receivers coach and Waldron was titled the passing game coordinator. In the years since, Taylor went to run the Bengals while Coen and Waldron are serving as offensive coordinators for the University of Kentucky and the Seattle Seahawks, respectively.

Despite the distance and demands on their time, they’ve remained close. Text threads, phone calls, checking in and chatting. Just last Monday, Coen and Taylor spoke about the latter’s journey. Only two years ago, the Bengals held the No. 1 overall pick after a miserable 2-14 campaign. This spring, Cincinnati was picking fifth. Ultimately, those selections became a pair of LSU teammates in quarterback Joe Burrow and receiver Ja’Marr Chase.

Now, two friends stand 53 yards apart staring at both each other and their legacies, while two mutual friends are relegated to watching with the rest of America.

As for where their allegiances lie this weekend?

“It’s hard, it’s really hard,” Coen said. “It’s a question I think I need to throw in a group chat with Shane and (University of Arizona head coach Jedd Fisch, who declined comment for this story out of respect for McVay and Taylor). I don’t know personally how I’m rooting for this game. You can’t go wrong.

“I think Sean, it would be harder on the Rams (to lose) as opposed to the Bengals, so in that case I’d love for the Rams to get a little payback. I think he’s due, getting to two super Bowls in five years, that’s ridiculously impressive. Sean deserves one. His coaching, preparation and performance. And the staff, players and organization has deserved that. But part of me wouldn’t mind seeing Zac take it from him from a competitive standpoint. It will be really hard for me to truly root.”

Neither Coen nor Waldron are coming to SoFi Stadium. Coen had flights and a hotel booked before backing out, deciding instead to host something of a housewarming party. Waldron is also staying home, enjoying a few days off before tasks begin ramping up for his Seahawks.

Waldron, much like Coen, had a tough time deciphering how he’ll feel as the game unfolds.

“It’s one of the hardest ones as too who to root for,” Waldron said. “Two great friends and great people. I’m sure as the ebbs and flows of the game goes, I’ll probably be rooting one way or the other, but it’s hard to root against either guy.”

For Mcvay and Taylor, their arrivals at this destination couldn’t be more different.

Going into this season, the Rams had to get here. Los Angeles traded quarterback Jared Goff and a pair of first-round picks for his replacement in Matthew Stafford. At the trade deadline, general manager Les Snead essentially doubled down, adding edge rusher Von Miller on an expiring contract for second- and third-round choices. Then, the signing of receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

For Los Angeles, the label of Super Bowl or bust had never been truer.

In Cincinnati, the national expectation was a last-place finish in the AFC North. The Bengals were improving but still seen as the weakling in a division with title contenders such as the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns. Stunningly, Taylor and his young team won the division and then ran through the AFC playoffs, capped by rallying past the Kansas City Chiefs to overcome an 18-point deficit.

With Burrow and the slew of young talent around him, the Bengals didn’t seem too far away from being a playoff contender. But nobody could have imagined this scenario so quickly, including one of Taylor’s closest friends.

“We played them in 2019 in London and they were not a very good football team,” Coen remembered. “They just weren’t. I think that’s a testament to their ownership and believing in the vision and trusting the process. How often does a head coach get an opportunity to be here in his third season after two very bad years? … I am surprised, yeah. I am surprised, but not surprised in Zac and the way it has happened. The resiliency, the toughness, staying the course. That’s who he is as a person. He never wavers. What’s not surprising is their ability to come back in games.

“… But to be in the Super Bowl? Yeah, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t surprised.”

During their days in Los Angeles together, there were late nights and dinners at McVay’s house, where the scenery was an overlook of downtown. That shared season was largely a dream, with Goff and running back Todd Gurley in the MVP conversation while the Rams took the NFC West with ease before reaching Super Bowl LIII.

Then the ride came to a screeching halt. Los Angeles’ offense was stifled by Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots that night in a 13-3 loss.

This weekend represents the first return trip to the big game since that letdown for both McVay and Taylor. The Rams are the four-point favorite, but Cincinnati is used to being an underdog, winning in such fashion each of its last two contests.

In McVay’s case, this is the ultimate chance to redeem himself after such a lackluster showing three years ago. For Taylor, it’s the opportunity to cap off perhaps the greatest Cinderella story the NFL has seen this century.

Talking to Coen and Waldron, both have their theories on what to expect come kickoff from both men.

For Coen, he believes the Rams try to establish the run, taking pressure off Stafford and creating advantageous opportunities for receivers Cooper Kupp and Beckham. As for the Bengals, the approach relies on Cincinnati’s weaponry and the ability to hold on up front.

“They’ll play to their strengths,” Coen said. “It’s tough to drop back and throw 50 times because, let’s be honest, they’ve struggled to protect. But you’re in the Super Bowl because of the quarterback and receivers. How many times can you get the ball into their hands? Burrow and the receivers are gamers. I have to think Zac is going to throw the ball around. But maybe you see some quick game, some moving the pocket. … Zac and Burrow like Empty, and if you sit in empty, the Rams’ four will beat those five all day. … Gotta believe that Chase, Burrow and Higgins are going to lead the way.”

In Waldron’s case, he’s had an up-close view of the Rams twice this season, both time in defeat for Seattle. The battle begins up front against Los Angeles, which can get pressure with four as effectively as any team in the game.

“It starts with Aaron Donald,” Waldron said. “He gets a ton of attention and he gets as much attention as any defensive lineman in the league and deserves every bit of it. He’s such a unique player and can affect the game in so many different ways. Different than just an edge rusher. He can align all over the field and affect the game on first down, second down and third down. You pair him up with Greg Gaines who does a great job complimenting him inside and the two edge rushers with (Von) Miller and (Leonard) Floyd, you really have a front four that affects the game tremendously.

“Wherever Jalen Ramsey is, he’s that guy who can make a big play within the game, be all over the number one receiver. But he’s not just limited to that, he can move all over the field and play the nickel, play the  linebacker spot, the corner spot field or boundary. His versatility really gives them another element.”

Come Sunday night, McVay and Taylor square off in the biggest games of the lives. In different corners of the country, Coen and Waldron will watch, recognizing formations and plays spawned years ago when the four shared a common dream of winning the same ring.

In Super Bowl LVI, two men stare down a title. One will emerge triumphant, the other devastated.

And afterwards, two friends will fire off texts of congratulations and support alike, still never having picked a side.