Jared Goff’s first year in the NFL was a disaster. While fellow rookies Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz intoxicated many with their flashes of excellence, the No. 1 overall pick was, to be blunt: awful.
Goff was never built to jump into the league and have immediate success. He was a project with enticing physical tools and an excellent mental makeup, but a project nonetheless. The Rams attempted to give him a full redshirt year, but pulled the ripcord in Week 10, handing the reigns to the rookie when neither he nor the team were ready.
His first seven starts were so unimaginably bad that it’s fair to wonder what the Rams’ staff was doing during those early months of his career.
The Rams’ first season back in L.A. spun out of control. The organization fired Jeff Fisher less than a year after trading the farm to move up and grab Goff (and more than a year too late), and they slumped to a 4-12 record.
Now, Goff heads into his second year in the league with a new staff, even more pressure to perform, and whispers of the B-word already hovering over his head.
Some quarterbacks’ careers are over before they begin. They get hit, slammed, dropped and rocked. They feel the chinstrap of a defender drive through their chest more than they do the joy of celebrating a score.
David Carr is perhaps the most infamous example. He was a talented thrower and not so talented decision-maker. The expansion Houston Texans hung him out to dry behind an offensive line that could be politely described as garbage. Carr got punished. He took big shot after big shot and developed the quarterback yips: dropping his eye line and staring down at the rush. His career was over.
There’s some Carr within Goff. His rookie campaign bordered on offensive. It was far from being all his fault, though. The Rams threw him out there when he wasn’t ready, after all other avenues were exhausted. They neatly crafted the least imaginable offense in the league and refused to play to Goff’s strengths — like building in some basic RPO elements. It was a recipe for disaster.
Goff averaged 5.3 yards per attempt and was bad enough to make folks clamor for Case Keenum.
Even when the process isn’t the fault of the player, the outcome can still be the same. Rookie seasons shell shock some. They make others. Some players rise to the challenge, adapting and learning from their errors —remember when Peyton Manning threw 28 interceptions in his rookie year? Others are doomed to repeat their mistakes over and over again, developing bad habits when the rookie year survival instincts kick in.
When I ran through Goff’s 2016 tape, one recurring thought kept jumping into my mind: This isn’t the guy I watched at Cal.
Sure, some of the issues were the same: His accuracy fluctuated, throws were out a beat too late and there were some baffling decisions. But other issues were fresh.
In college, Goff was as advanced as they come at manipulating the pocket. He played with light feet, effortlessly dancing around to avoid the heavy plodders. The pass rush played to his beat; no matter where the pressure came from, he was intelligent enough, and physically gifted enough, to avoid it. He would contort his body as he moved and drive throws from unnatural platforms.
His rookie year was different. He was tentative. The river dance-like feet were transformed into cinder blocks and sacks that could have been avoided became inevitable.
Goff was dropped 7 times during the Rams’ Week 17 matchup with the Cardinals, and a total of 26 times in 7 starts (a feat no other quarterback has managed since the merger). There was equal blame to be shared: The play calling, offensive line, receivers and Goff himself. Sacks are never the sole fault of the quarterback, but Goff has to do a better job of keeping his feet alive, feeling what is coming, keeping his eyes downfield and getting rid of the ball.
The Arizona game was particularly bad. By the third quarter Goff’s sightline had dropped. He was no longer feeling the rush. He was searching for it. Receivers were struggling to uncover, but had they, Goff was in no position to find them.
David Carr-itis is a real and present danger. Quarterbacks begin to get rid of the ball immediately, allowing the defense to sit down on underneath throws. It constipates an offense, and usually results in a three-and-out purgatory.
Goff’s season was clouded by missed throws downfield, or simply refusing to challenge beyond 10 yards at all. There are plenty of numbers to pick from; 5.3 yards per attempt, 4.26 adjusted yards per attempt and on and on. But how about this one: Goff was the only eligible quarterback in 2016 to finish with negative expected yards ( minus 83). To put that into perspective, the 33rd-ranked quarterback (Brock Osweiler) finished with more than 2,000 expected yards.
His metrics were brutal wherever you look. He ranked 34th in DYAR (last among eligible QBs), and 39th on Paddi Cooper’s ROPE Index (again, last among eligible QBs), ranking behind the likes of Bryce Petty, Josh McCown and Robert Griffin III.
Again, it was not all on Goff.
Let’s circle back to the supporting cast argument. In fact, it’s not much of an argument. The Rams’ offense stunk last year, like it did every year under Jeff Fisher — never finishing above 21st in offensive DVOA during his five-year tenure. L.A. finished last in offensive DVOA, ranking 32nd in rush offense and pass offense by the same measure.
Unimaginative doesn’t begin to cover the vanilla nature of the system. Bland schemes can work, provided the offense has the sufficient talent. Goff’s supporting cast was far from ideal in 2016. He was surrounded by players who struggled to block, to run, to separate and to catch. There were a few bright spots, like interior linemen Roger Saffold and receiver Kenny Britt, but for the most part it was a who’s who of below league-average talent.
The offensive line was the worst of it. It finished 29th in adjusted sack rate (including the Keenum games) and 29th in run-blocking DVOA. Right across the board players struggled on individual blocks, and had particular difficulty picking up any kind of games — stunts and twists.
The Falcons’ front worked the line over in Week 14 by unleashing exotic stunts that caught the group unaware. Goff was decked three times and hit a bunch more as free runners swooped in from all angles. Even the most basic tackle-end twists ended with a pile of defenders lying on top of the Rams quarterback.
The Rams entered 2016 wanting to be a team that relied on the ground game, before taking play-action shots downfield. The offensive line ended hopes of that.
The receiving options weren’t much better. Kenny Britt had a career year, but he skedaddled in free agency. The rest of the group was filled with either gimmick players or guys who could not separate from press coverage. Tavon Austin was, and is, the worst of the offenders. He is a gadget player whose reputation has been inflated by his straight-line speed and draft position. He should be the Taylor Gabriel of the Rams’ offense — using a defined skill-set in specific packages to create explosive plays. Instead, he’s been an inefficient cap-space anchor who’s paid to be a down-to-down threat, but provides minimal highlights.
General manager Les Snead made inroads in free agency and the draft to upgrading the line and receiving corps. The additions were plentiful, but not overly inspiring. Gerald Everett (TE), Cooper Kupp (WR), and Josh Reynolds (WR) were all added via the draft. But it will be tough to rely on any of them as a go-to guy early in the career, particularly Everett — the team’s second round pick — who is a raw but physically gifted player.
The free-agent additions should provide some help.
Andrew Whitworth is a perennial Pro Bowl left tackle who has improved as he’s aged. The Rams are hoping to squeeze the last couple of years of star-level play out of his body. I’m not as convinced. Whitworth is an excellent player, but the Bengals do things differently than the Rams (and most of the league) when it comes to offensive line technique and verbiage. It will be a big adjustment for Whitworth to make at age 35 after being indoctrinated into the Cincinnati way for more than a decade. Nevertheless, he should serve as an upgrade over Greg Robinson.
Other additions like Robert Woods (WR) and John Sullivan (C) bring name recognition, but they’re unlikely to move the needle.
There’s nowhere to stick the blame for Goff’s other significant flaws, though: Accuracy, decision making and reading defenses.
His transition into a pro-style system was dumbed down by many to mean learning pro verbiage and playing from under center. The reality was much more than that. He had played largely in a half-field read offense in college, with many predetermined reads and little thinking on his feet. He had not been asked to read rotating defenders, bounce through one progression if the defense moved to a closed field look, and another if it became an open-field look. Essentially, like many of the guys coming out of fun-n-gun spread systems, he was a see-it-throw-it player.
Quarterbacks pick up the nuances of the game at different paces. Goff has a long way to go. Defenses feasted on him in 2016 by disguising looks — showing one thing pre-snap and morphing post-snap — luring him into terrible decisions, usually over the middle of the field.
New England Patriots’ coaches Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia borderline bullied Goff in Week 13, bewildering him for four quarters. Here, the Patriots showed man coverage pre-snap, with a single-high safety. At the snap, they rotated to a split safety Tampa-2 zone coverage.
Goff hesitated on pulling the trigger, even though he had an open throwing window.
He pulled the ball back down, moved around and threw a hospital ball behind his receiver over the middle of the field.
These aren’t overly complex looks, either. They’re standard, every down, defensive practices. Even against execution defenses, where the team is bland schematically and relies on its talent and executing properly, Goff looked confused.
This throw against the Falcons may be the biggest indictment:
The Rams used some pre-snap movement to confirm the Falcons were in their patented three-deep zone coverage. Regardless, Goff predetermined a throw to Kenny Britt on an in-breaking route. The decision was terrible, and the accuracy just as bad. As Goff released the ball, Britt was bracketed by two defenders, with linebacker Deion Jones sitting underneath and ready to jump the throw.
New Rams head coach Sean McVay is the man who has been tasked with fixing Goff’s problems.
McVay’s resume is impeccable. He is the king of moving the launching point and creating advantageous looks for quarterbacks, designing one of the most fun offenses in the league in Washington.
McVay did a good job with the Redskins of making life easier for Kirk Cousins. His system was designed to attack through play design, using man-beater concepts to attack specific coverages. Cousins’ job was to jump through reads, follow the system and get the ball out on time to the open man. The scheme’s beauty was in how it constantly stretched teams laterally in the run game and on boot actions, before hitting shot plays down the field.
On paper, it’s a system that should fit Goff, if he’s able to develop from the neck up in a comparable way to Cousins.
In Washington, despite a stellar cast of receiving talent, McVay used switch releases (receivers crisscrossing at the line of scrimmage) to create separation for receivers through play design when attacking downfield.
It worked. The Redskins had more passing plays of 25 yards or more than any team in the league. Here’s an example from their game against the Cardinals:
The design created instant separation for Jamison Crowder (in the slot), rather than requiring each receiver to separate from press coverage. That put the Cardinals’ rotating safety into a bind: not knowing whether to prepare for an outside breaking route or whether Crowder was going to stick his foot into the ground and press up field. The safety was left flat-footed as Crowder zoomed past him into open space for a touchdown.
It was as a simple 25-yard-plus throw as Cousins could hope for: He flashed his eyes across the field to keep the Cardinals’ safeties in-check, played on-time, within the system and let the play dictate where to go with the ball.
Those deep concepts will be a staple of McVay’s offense with the Rams, though they will require Goff to develop a better sense of timing and be comfortable reading right across the field — no small feat.
There were few examples in 2016 of Goff successfully working across the field and manipulating safeties with his eyes.
To work within McVay’s scheme, everything Goff does will need to be sped up.
McVay will also need to find a way to control the opposing pass rush, given how unlikely it is that the Rams offensive line will take a gigantic leap in 2017. That could come via play action. They were 25th in the league in play-action effectiveness in 2016. The Redskins, under McVay, were first, averaging 10.6 yards per play-action attempt. Cousins racked up a ton of production on simplistic play-action throws that had receivers streaking open down the field.
Contrary to popular belief, an offense does not need to have an excellent run game to be a quality play-action team. It needs to sell a possible run play. Every movement, step or possible tip must mirror exactly how a lineman executes a run play — there’s no need for Todd Gurley to play at a super-human level.
If you’re a McVay believer – I am – you can comb through Goff’s film and find flashes of hope. There are some drives where he played with good command and was willing to fire downfield. He torched the Saints zone-defense throughout the first half of their Week 12 matchup. He played with rhythm, showed touch to all levels of the field and stood in the pocket with authority.
The second half was another dud.
Labeling someone a bust after a year is wrong. Players develop at different rates. But the roots of bust-dom can set in. Goff was thrust into a horrible situation in L.A. and it played out as expected. The hope is he uses his rookie year horror show as fuel to grow and improve, and not let it become a scarring experience that changes his game and buries his talent.
The one saving grace: It can’t get any worse.