Wednesday August 10th, 2016

IRVINE, Calif. — In the opening scene of Hard Knocks, Jared Goff takes a bumpy ride in the Goodyear blimp and mentions he’s not a fan of roller coasters, an ominous sign for a rookie quarterback that will likely face ups and downs when he finally takes over the starting job in Los Angeles. Not only is he supposed to be the face of the team in a new town, Goff faces a challenge that is becoming more common every year: the transition from a college spread offense to the pros.

After the Rams traded with the Titans for the No. 1 pick, they had their choice of Goff, who played in Sonny Dykes’s “Bear Raid” spread offense at Cal, or Carson Wentz, a pro-style QB out of North Dakota State. They were comfortable with Goff, who threw for 4,714 yards, 43 TDs and 13 interceptions in his final college season.

“At this point, we know the issues we’re going to face with spread guys,” says Chris Weinke, the Rams’ quarterback coach. “Goff didn’t call plays in a huddle in college or go under center. You gotta have baby steps with him to teach him the things pro quarterbacks need to do. It’s a lot. Goff’s out early every day working hard on those things.”

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Before joining the Rams, Weinke worked with draft prospects and young QBs at IMG Academy in Florida, including Cam Newton and Russell Wilson. He said that for quarterback coaches, the spread trend has changed the way the position is taught. Of the quarterbacks who finished in the top 12 in yardage last year, only Drew Brees, the league leader, played in a shotgun-first system rooted in traditional spread concepts as a college prospect.

But there are obvious examples of instant success for spread quarterbacks. The last three quarterbacks to win Rookie of the Year—Sam Bradford, Newton and Robert Griffin III—all came out of spread systems. The Rams are hoping they can add Goff to that list, but he’s been behind veteran Case Keenum on the depth chart for all of camp.

On Tuesday, Goff got to work with the starters in an 11-on-11 drill for the first time, leading the team to a field goal in a two-minute drill. After practice, Fisher praised Goff’s performance but made it clear he won’t be rushed. “We’re going to start him when he’s ready to play,” Fisher said. “It’s about being patient.”

But Los Angeles loves its stars, and fans don’t seem interested in waiting. Los Angeles Times writer Sam Famer argued Goff should start immediately, noting the last five No. 1 picks have been on the field Week 1: Matthew Stafford, Bradford, Newton, Andrew Luck and Jameis Winston. Still, the Rams don’t seem eager to put additional pressure on Goff at this point.

“You have to realize he’s learning a whole new language,” says Weinke—which became abundantly clear in one funny scene on the first episode of Hard Knocks. “We work with him on verbalizing with confidence. Passing a football is rhythm and timing. Everything is timed up, and if you don’t have that sense of urgency, it’s going to screw up your passing game. For a guy who’s never done it and doesn’t understand the concepts, it’s a lot of work. But [Goff’s] got great athletic ability, so he’ll get better.”

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And even if Goff does need time to master the actual job of NFL quarterback, he’s got the look down. As SI’s Jon Wertheim noted in his book This Is Your Brain on Sports, we like our quarterbacks handsome. Goff is very popular with the female portion of the audience in the post-practice autograph sessions, and the local media refers to him as “golden boy.”

“He’s the embodiment of SoCal,” Weinke says. “He just looks like an L.A. quarterback.”

That’s great for marketing and might have influenced Hard Knocks to make Goff the star of Week 1. The coaching staff is much more interested in seeing Goff look comfortable under center and believes their rookie quarterback is doing everything he can to get there.

An HBO crew encircles rookie Jared Goff, who has already emerged as a central storyline of this season's 'Hard Knocks'.
Courtesy of Andrew Perloff

Other training camp observations

• The cost of the Rams’ trade for the No. 1 pick they used to take Goff was their first-round pick, two second-round picks and a third-round pick in this year’s draft, plus two more picks in 2017. As a result, they couldn’t use the early rounds to fully address their other personnel needs, starting with wide receiver—they took South Carolina’s Pharoh Cooper in the fourth round and Southern Miss’s Mike Thomas in the sixth round. Kenny Britt led the team with 681 receiving yards last season and will have to pass as a No. 1. In practices on Monday and Tuesday, the young Rams receiving corps had its fair share of drops, and there don’t appear to be a lot of weapons in the passing game.

If the Rams want to have an aerial attack to complement running back Todd Gurley, the key is Tavon Austin. Fisher described Austin’s two speeds as “asleep and fast.” But using that speed has been a challenge since Austin joined the franchise as the No. 8 pick in 2013.

In two practices, Austin lined up at several different positions, including running back. “I love how they’re moving me around,” Austin said. “The defense can’t get a bead on me. Even running back … that’s second nature to me. That’s what I played my whole life.”

• Austin showed up Tuesday with NFL-themed socks. Roger Goodell’s head stood out on the back of his left Achilles, but there’s no indication he was making a special statement.

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• On Monday, robotic tackling dummies arrived in Irvine. Fisher said they’re still figuring out how to use them, but he has some novel ideas. “I’d love to have them go up and do bed checks at night,” Fisher said.

• The NFL Films crew shooting Hard Knocks lives up to its stellar reputation. They blend into practice seamlessly and don’t appear to distract the players at all. Keenum told me the one place the cameras make him a little nervous is the QB room because they spend so much time there: “There are a bunch of times we say something and glance over and wonder if they’re going to use that.”

• Aaron Donald may have been offside, but the two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle came close to beating the ball to the quarterback on a pass play. Even though in full uniform he doesn’t blow you away, his quickness stands out on a talented defensive line.

While watching Super Bowl 50, Donald took note that a dominant defensive line could lead a team to a title. “That game definitely motivated me,” Donald said.

And one more Hard Knocks reference: Donald is also the world’s most terrifying Ping-Pong player. Have you ever seen a guy take off his shirt to play Ping-Pong?

• Over 10,000 fans reportedly showed up for the first practice at UC Irvine. A fraction of that showed up on Monday and Tuesday, donning mostly Gurley jerseys, with an occasional Vince Ferragamo throwback mixed in. While there’s certainly excitement for the NFL finally arriving, it’s easy to tell how much competition there is in the Los Angeles market. The Dodgers have World Series expectations, and even a bad Lakers team garners attention. On Saturday night, there will be plenty of excitement for the first NFL game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum since 1994. But this team will probably need some success to hold on to the locals’ full attention in the short term. With the new stadium opening in 2019 and a rookie quarterback, the Rams are thinking long-term, and all the fans in Irvine are more than ready to love this team once again.

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Buzzing: Tyler Higbee

The rookie tight end out of Western Kentucky fell to the fourth round because he was coming off knee surgery and was arrested a couple of weeks before the draft for assault. But Higbee already seems destined to appear in future draft bargain lists. At 6' 6" and 250 pounds, Higbee’s speed stands out and both Keenum and Goff seemed comfortable with him as a target already.

Like all big, young tight ends, Higbee has gotten Rob Gronkowski comparisons. (Fisher called him “Little Baby Gronk”). “No,” Higbee said. “I’m not going there at all. Gronk is Gronk. He’s the best.”

With shortcomings at receiver, the Rams could rely heavily on tight ends Higbee and veteran Lance Kendricks. Higbee could immediately be a red zone threat.

Higbee is also roommates with Goff and isn’t sure about the QB’s eating habits. “He wants to go to In-N-Out Burger on off days,” said Higbee, who admits he’s a bit of a health nut. “I’m a fresh fruit guy. … I want my last meal to be watermelon, a fresh pineapple, steak and a bottle of water.”

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