IRVINE, Calif. — It has been eight years since veteran center John Sullivan joined legendary quarterback Brett Favre on the Minnesota Vikings, the last stop in what became a Hall of Fame career.
But hearing Favre’s name still makes Sullivan’s right buttock sting.
“He used to smack your ass so hard,” Sullivan, now the Los Angeles Rams’ starting center, said after a recent practice. “You’d be standing in a walk-through and you had to keep your head on a swivel because you just knew if Brett came up behind you, you were getting one, and you were going to have a handprint on there for a couple days.”
Sullivan was Favre’s center in 2009, the year he made the Pro Bowl and led the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game at the age of 40. He still laughs at all the times Favre used to make stuff up as he went along. Like that one two-minute drill in Pittsburgh, when Favre didn’t bother calling plays or protections. At one point he barked instructions to one of his receivers, yelled at Sullivan to snap him the ball and completed a five-yard out. The offense and defense was so flat-footed that the linemen didn’t even make contact with one another.
“He was an amazing player in terms of having a very natural feel for the game; instincts,” said Sullivan, also Favre’s center during his final season in 2010. “You talk about a youthful exuberance about the sport — he was 40 years old and he was playing like he was a 10-year-old kid in the backyard. It was refreshing for everybody. I was a 23-year-old kid fresh out of college, and even for me it was refreshing at that point in time.”
Sullivan, now 32, is surrounded by youth these days. His quarterback, Jared Goff, is 22, the youngest among the 10 players Sullivan has ever snapped the ball to in an NFL game. His boss, Sean McVay, is 31, the youngest head coach in NFL history.
Sullivan played under McVay last year, when McVay was in his last of three years as the Redskins’ offensive coordinator. Back issues began to plague Sullivan after a six-year run of being one of the game’s better centers from 2009 to ’14, a stretch when he started 93 of a possible 96 regular-season games. He spent all of the 2015 season on injured reserve, the product of two back surgeries, then lost the starting job in 2016 and was released at the end of August.
Rams center John Sullivan on Sean McVay: “He’s an incredible motivator, amazing with the X’s and O’s, and so far proving himself as a great head coach in terms of leading this organization and changing the culture …” Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports
The Redskins picked him up on Sept. 27, shortly after starter Kory Lichtensteiger injured his calf. It was a Tuesday, heading into Week 4, the day of the Redskins’ walk-through. Sullivan flew into Washington, D.C., that morning, worked out, signed his contract and went straight into an offensive meeting before even having a chance to text his wife.
There, he met McVay.
“You’re going to these offensive install meetings, and he is so on the screws on every single detail,” Sullivan said. “But he’s not micromanaging. It’s just pointing out things that you can be looking for, and really coaching in the classroom in terms of being detail-oriented. He was incredibly impressive. I didn’t know his age at that point. I didn’t know he was 30. And even to this day, it doesn’t make any difference. He’s an incredible motivator, amazing with the X’s and O’s, and so far proving himself as a great head coach in terms of leading this organization and changing the culture, and making sure that everybody buys into our message. That’s just a connected team, with a ‘We Not Me’ slogan.”
Sullivan started only one game during that 2016 season, then re-joined McVay with the Rams, where he will replace former starter Tim Barnes at center. McVay believes Sullivan is fully healthy now. His presence in the room, with the knowledge he has of his offense, “has helped immensely,” McVay said.
“He’s one of the more impressive players I’ve ever been around, just in terms of his above the neck and the way that he’s able to translate things from the meeting room to the grass,” McVay went on about Sullivan. “He truly is one of those linemen — like we talk about with the quarterbacks — that’s an extension of the coaching staff. He’s got a great grasp of what we want to get done. He knows why, so he’s able to help his teammates out. He’s been a breath of fresh air.”
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More than the offense, though, Sullivan knows McVay. He knows his thought process on protections, he knows the way his offenses function, and he knows how he likes to attack. McVay is trying to do for the Rams what he did for the Redskins, even though his new personnel is significantly younger and less accomplished. He’s going from Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis to Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett, two tight ends who have combined for 11 career catches. He’s going from Kirk Cousins to Goff, who’s coming off a disastrous rookie season. He’s going from DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon to Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods, two former Bills teammates together again on the Rams.
“We scored a ton of points last year, and that’s the expectation here in Los Angeles now is we’re going to do that exact same thing,” Sullivan said. “We’re going to use all the facets of the game to attack teams, and we’re going to try to put defenses on their heels, make them defend the entire field.”
It’s been a long time since the Rams put opposing defenses on their heels. They have finished outside the top 20 in defense-adjusted value over average after each of the past 10 seasons. The past two years, they were last in the NFL in yards. This past season — a 4-12 season — they were held below 300 total yards in 10 games. Sullivan isn’t willing to set concrete expectations for what McVay can do for this offense, but he is confident in one thing.
“We’re not going to be an easy out for any defense we play,” Sullivan said. “We’re going to come out, we’re going to attack you, and we’re going to execute as well as we possibly can. We’re very process-oriented. We focus on coming out here and working the right way every single day. And the belief is that if you do that, the results will follow. We’ll see.”