Malcolm Brown enters the Rams locker room after practice, walks to a rack of towels outside the showers and grabs a stack.
On his way to his locker, he stops at those belonging to tight ends, receivers and fellow running backs, placing a towel on each stool.
The second-year pro isn’t required to pick up towels for his teammates. Neither is 12-year veteran offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth.
Whitworth tosses an armful of towels to his linemates. And long-snapper Jake McQuaide grabs enough for the specialists.
“Whoever goes first, you know, you usually grab more than one,” receiver Robert Woods says.
It’s a small gesture — far removed from anything the players on a remade roster do together on the field — but it’s indicative of the attitude of togetherness and accountability that first-year coach Sean McVay has instilled. And it seems to be working.
The Rams are 5-2 and atop the NFC West. They are positioned to make a run for the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
“The head coach is the one who preaches the culture change, puts the different teaching aids in place, really creates the image that he wants this team to have,” center John Sullivan says. “It’s up to guys to buy in.”
The hallways of the Rams’ temporary facility in Thousand Oaks are lined with murals and slogans, including “The standard is the standard” and “Execute, compete and finish.”
Coaches, staff members and players favor T-shirts emblazed with “We not me.”
But it’s in the locker room, the players’ haven, where McVay’s influence is on display.
Motivational quotations hang on every door and are painted on every wall. “Do or do not. There is no try,” reads one. “Pursuing perfection requires a willingness to be uncomfortable,” reads another.
McVay calls the quotes “visual aids” but is well aware how they could ring hollow.
“Those are part of our core beliefs,” he says, “but I think that it really doesn’t mean much if it’s not how you do it on a daily basis.”
McVay worked with general manager Les Snead, coaches and team personnel to assemble a roster that would carry out his vision.
The Rams hired the 30-year-old McVay after last season, when Jeff Fisher was fired on his way to a sixth losing season with the franchise.
McVay was tasked with turning around a franchise that had not produced a winner in more than a decade. Among the issues was a locker-room culture that unraveled during a 4-12 season as resentment grew between opposite sides of the ball and in position groups.
Asked if players grabbed towels for each other last season, Brown’s face drops and his answer becomes muddled.
Did it happen, he’s asked again.
“We didn’t,” Brown says. “I just didn’t want to make nobody look bad or nothing.”
McVay’s cultural overhaul started with an examination of the roster.
Snead and holdovers from Fisher’s staff, including special teams coordinator John Fassel and trainer Reggie Scott, assisted in player evaluations.
“Their insight from a different perspective is very helpful to know who are those guys who influence your locker room in a strong way,” McVay says. “And these are the guys that you can build around.”
The Rams let receivers Kenny Britt and Brian Quick walk in free agency. Defensive lineman William Hayes, who played eight seasons for Fisher with the Tennessee Titans and Rams, was shipped to Miami. Left tackle Greg Robinson, the No. 2 pick in 2014, was traded.
“It’s a totally different vibe for sure,” linebacker Alec Ogletree says. “He changed the whole coaching staff, brought in new guys and a lot of leadership that we kind of needed.”
McVay sought players he calls “high-character football guys.”
The Rams signed Whitworth, Robert Woods, Sullivan, linebacker Connor Barwin and cornerbacks Kayvon Webster and Nickell Robey-Coleman.
Each player had a history with a Rams coach, or came highly recommended.
“We’ve brought in good people that are good football players,” McVay says, adding, “You couple that with some of the guys that we had in house that might have been younger but are on the rise. …
“When you influence and integrate those types of people, that’s kind of the locker room that you want to be able to create.”
The newcomers didn’t have any difficulties ingratiating themselves with the rest.
The 6-foot-7, 333-pound Whitworth, 35, is a commanding presence for all position groups.
Woods, who played four seasons in Buffalo, instilled professionalism in a position group that eroded the locker room last season. Pharoh Cooper says it’s apparent the group is “a lot closer” than it was his rookie season.
“You can kind of tell on the field,” he says. “We all got love for each other.”
McVay didn’t stop at changing personnel. Rules and expectations also changed.
McVay met with star defensive lineman Aaron Donald during the interview process. “He was going to hold people accountable,” Donald says.
To that end, a large digital clock is mounted above the equipment counter at the front of the locker room.
After practices, as it ticks closer to 4:15 p.m. meeting time, players usually echo a three-minute warning.
Cornerback Trumaine Johnson hurries to slide on his shoes, Ogletree wipes away sweat as he reaches for his ball cap, and often players dash — belts unbuckled, shirts in hand — to make a 4:15 meeting in another building.
If they’re late, no matter what their role or status, they are fined.
“Everybody to the top player to a practice squad player,” Donald says. “Everybody gets held accountable the same way.”
Says McVay: “Nobody is above the standard.”
McVay’s ability to put players in positions to succeed, and the “brotherhood” he has fostered, has made him easy to follow, defensive lineman Michael Brockers says.
“When you have that chemistry, you have that togetherness out on the field, it shows,” Brockers says. “When one side of the ball goes down or has a bad play, the other side picks it up.”
Ogletree says players don’t want to let each other — or McVay — down.
“Once you believe in something you kind of want to give it your all,” he says.
Players recognize that it’s easy to get along when winning, but they’re also quick to point out that things are going well because they’ve invested in each other.
“You can definitely tell it’s just a better vibe,” Brown says, adding. “We all kind of mingle, it’s not just little sections.
McVay spends most of his time in his office, in meeting rooms and on the field. He works to prepare his players and coaches and to keep all of them connected.
But he doesn’t spend much, if any, time in the locker room.
He grins when informed that small gestures, such as grabbing towels for teammates, has become the norm rather than the exception.
“That’s cool,” he says. “It’s huge.”