While he was on the wrong side of the scoreboard, the Cal quarterback showed the subtleties and savvy of a future franchise QB during last season’s loss at Stanford. Just weeks before the draft, he broke down the game film for The MMQB
The Cal-Berkeley campus is a medley of Beaux Arts buildings, meandering creeks, foot bridges, stone paths and hippies of both old and modern ilk, all climbing up toward the Berkeley Hills. Nestled in there, right about where the Golden Gate Bridge becomes visible off in the distance, is Memorial Stadium. Inside are Cal’s football offices, where Jared Goff stops in on an early spring day.
Goff, 21, has spent his life in the Bay Area sports scene. His father, Jerry Goff, played Major League Baseball from 1990 to ’96 and his mother Nancy, like Jerry, attended Cal. Coming out of Marin Catholic High, where he won three Marin County Athletic League championships, Jared Goff turned down scholarship offers from Stanford, Boise State and Fresno State to join the hometown Bears.
And so it’s no surprise that the night before our visit, Goff, attending the Warriors-Pelicans game at Oracle Arena, was ambushed by fans chattering about the quarterback-needy 49ers, who hold the No. 7 pick in this year’s draft.
Hometown factor aside, Goff to the Niners makes sense. After all, new coach Chip Kelly’s spread system is very similar to the one Goff ran under Sonny Dykes at Cal. But few are concerned about what offense Goff fits in. Though he comes from Cal’s newer-age spread, he exhibits all the traits of a prototypical dropback passer. And that’s how he sees himself. Asked if he could maybe be a part-time read-option QB, in the mold of say a Ryan Tannehill or an Alex Smith, he quickly says no, before pausing. “I mean, I’ll move around if I have to,” he says. “I’ll extend the play and run the ball if I need to. It’s not a preference, but I can do it.”
What sets Goff apart is his handle on the crucial nuances of quarterbacking: moving gracefully and incrementally within the pocket; keeping eyes downfield when pressure bears down; and making throws with bodies around him. This, along with NFL-caliber arm strength and accuracy, was on full display in Cal’s game at Stanford last November. It was a loss for the Bears but a well-quarterbacked game that offered several scenarios Goff will encounter this fall and for the rest of his football life.
Goff enjoys breaking down film. For the next hour, that’s what he does.
* * *
“This is a quads-left look.” Goff says. It’s the fifth play of the game and first that we watch. “We call this play 44 sucker, Z drag. So, we’re running that bubble trying to get them to jump on it with a pump fake—and they almost did. They were in good man coverage. I actually got their slot defender to jump it, but they had a safety over the top, so it was a kind-of dangerous throw. So I just checked it down.”
The play also showed off Goff’s pocket mobility. To get to the checkdown, he had to sidestep a linebacker and defensive tackle who were storming center Dominic Granado.
“I’ve really taken pride in being able to extend the play and not getting sacked or stopped by the first defender,” Goff says. “That can be the difference between winning and losing.”
Later in the series, on fourth-and-one, Goff executed a rollout to the short side of the field. It’s technically a two-receiver route combination, but for all intents and purposes, it’s a one-read play. It seems like an all-or-nothing-type call.
“Very,” Goff says. “We got this play from the sidelines. We checked it, they were in man coverage. This play is going to work nine times out of 10 versus man, so we just, I guess, rolled the dice there. All I had to do was really throw it five yards and it’s a first down.”
So you checked to this play. Does that mean you originally had a different play call in the event that it wasn’t man coverage?
“No. We actually had our punter [Harry Adolphus] playing left slot here. This guy, you see him with the gold cleats? [On the lower left wing of the formation.] If we didn’t want to run the play, we would check to a punt. He would go back there and kick it. He’s like our second punter, so no one [on the defense] really knew what he was. He’s actually a rugby player—he’s very athletic.”
Later in the drive, Stanford showed another man coverage—something they did a lot in the first half.
“A lot of times when you get the man look, especially with a play like this, it’s a pre-snap read,” Goff says, explaining the wheel route that he’s about to throw to his running back. “I saw they had No. 44 [linebacker Kevin Palma] on our running back. I had a good feeling the back was going to run by him. I knew they’d have a safety in the middle of the field so, technically, those routes coming up the middle on the other side shouldn’t be open, but they were. If I was just going by my rules, I did the right thing [by still throwing to the wheel route]. But there are a lot of times where you go by your rules and you’re wrong. You kind-of have to adjust to it, and in this case I think I was right.” Goff points out that often when you see man coverage, you’re just picking the matchup that you’d most like to attack. Anything with a linebacker in coverage is usually enticing.
The beauty of Cal’s system—particularly in how it relates to Goff’s NFL transition—is that there are a lot of plays with routes that beat man coverage on one side of the formation and routes that beat zone on the other. Also: “I had a plethora of signals I could throw out there,” Goff says. “If I knew they were in man, I would give the receiver a certain signal. If I knew they were in zone, a different signal.”
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* * *
“In this game we had a really good bead on [Stanford’s defense],” Goff says as we watch him complete an 18-yard out-route to wide receiver Bryce Tregg. “Every time they were in Cover 1 [a single-high safety look with man coverage], No. 5 [Kodi Whitfield] was playing safety. Every time they were in Cover 3 [a single high zone coverage], No. 29 [Dallas Lloyd] was playing safety.
“We knew this from film, which was a good tip.” (Note: a really good tip.) “I think they did it about 90 percent of the time in our game. And I think they figured it out, so they started mixing it up in the fourth quarter.”
Later in the drive we get to a play that several pro coaches have had Goff dissect in meetings.
“This play is called, South empty left whip F. I changed the protection to a full-man slide left, which ended up probably not being the right decision because they brought a guy off the right. But I wanted to slide left because I knew No. 4 [Blake Martinez] was blitzing because that safety is kind of creeping over behind him.” (This suggested the safety would be picking up Martinez’s receiver in coverage, which meant Martinez would be rushing.) “So I know he was coming, and I think the other four are coming too. I want to slide them left so I know that Martinez is my defender that’s free.”
By knowing the free defender, Goff could adjust his dropback movement accordingly. This is a subtle trait of high-level quarterbacking. Aaron Rodgers, in particular, has been adept here. Coincidentally, he’s someone Goff is lazily compared to because of the Cal connection.
“We both went to school here and had pretty good success and are fairly athletic quarterbacks,” Goff says. “So I guess. But, you know, he’s light years ahead of where I am right now.” (He’s also a stylistically different player.)
Following this was a painful two-play sequence in the tight red zone. First, a surefire touchdown drop by wide receiver Maurice Harris. “I still think it’s a touchdown. I didn’t even see it,” Goff says as the film shows him walking towards the sideline, fist pumping. On the next play, Goff rolls right and throws a one-hopper to wideout Kenny Lawler in the front corner of the end zone.
“Had a good matchup out there. I don’t know. I just got a little lazy, I think. Tried to flick it out there and just didn’t get enough on it. If I put it up on his chest, probably a touchdown.”
Seven points turns into three.
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* * *
Later in the first half we see an off-target shotgun snap from Granado. Goff had to adjust. Goff says Granado doesn’t do this often, but it’s apparent he did in this game. How big a deal is this?
“Big deal,” Goff says. “You want to keep your eyes up the whole time and just, obviously, let the snap in. You want to take just a glance down. If you have to bring your eyes all the way to the ground, it’s not very helpful.” Fortunately the Bears had practiced “bad snap” drills, under offensive coordinator Tony Franklin.
Late in the first half, Stanford showed a hybrid matchup zone coverage, something they’d go on to do with regularity. It was a two-high safety coverage, with one safety playing Cover 2 and the other playing Quarters, which has man-to-man elements depending on how the routes unfold. This hybrid coverage—known as Cover 6 (Cover 2 + Cover 4, which is Quarters) is fairly common. But in this case there was a twist.
“I’m trying to hit that guy at the seam,” Goff says. “But I didn’t expect No. 4 [Martinez] to run with him. Thought he was just going to sit in the middle. If he did sit, I’m throwing a touchdown. But he ran with him, and I kind of stuck on that a little too long.”
Without asking Martinez or his coach, there’s no way to know why he ran with the middle receiver in this coverage. Goff and I discuss possibilities. Did Martinez know the route tendencies out of this empty backfield set? Did he have a man assignment against the inside receiver? Whatever it was, he made one of those great plays that goes unnoticed.
On the next play, Goff catches a throwback in the flats—a trick play to convert a third-and-short. “I’m pretty fast, huh?” he says as we watch him lumber down the open field. “I had two catches in my career. Both at Stanford.” The other one came in his freshman year. “Same play. It was on the goal line. We didn’t score.”
Later, Goff “tagged” a play, which in essence is a pre-snap adjustment between just the quarterback and receiver. “I said run a post. I gave him a hand signal.”
“I knew I was going to get the look I wanted. I’m taking a shot—back of the end zone. Knew that safety was probably going to bite on this play-fake. Took a peak left to try and hold them for a second longer and then just came back to it [deep], knowing it would be there. Probably came back to it just a second too late. If I come back to it a little bit early, it’s probably a touchdown. Still almost got it in.”
At halftime Cal trailed 21-6, despite playing relatively well. “We just weren’t finishing drives,” Goff says.
* * *
Early in the second half, Stanford got a sack on one of the same disguised zone blitz exchanges that they did in the first half. I ask Goff about getting sacked. “This past year, I mean I dropped back 500-something times, got sacked like 25, so not too bad. My freshman year I got sacked a lot. It hurt really bad.”
What percent of those sacks were your fault?
“All of them. All. I mean, they’re all avoidable. I probably took 35 my freshman year, maybe one of them wasn’t my fault. I think if you’re a good quarterback and you know what you’re doing, you know what your line is doing, you should be able to avoid most of them.”
Indeed. Highly refined pocket passers like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees have finished near the bottom in sacks over the years despite often playing behind average offensive lines.
Does it frustrate you that avoiding sacks is accredited to the offensive line, rather than the quarterback?
“No.” A quarterback gets enough credit for everything, Goff says. “[The O-line] could use some shine sometimes.”
Eventually we see Goff forced to make the first improvised play of the game. Stanford showed a coverage he didn’t expect. As the down wore on, he eventually had to leave the pocket and throw on the move to his left.
“The right can be harder to throw on the move because you can get lazier [mechanically] and think you can just flick it. The left, you really have to get your shoulders turned on it.”
A few plays later Stanford brought another well-disguised blitz. Goff points out the yeoman’s work by right tackle Steven Moore. “His role really is to block the most dangerous man—like who’s going to the quarterback faster—and he [correctly] changed his assignment quickly.”
Then, another great play by a teammate: wide receiver Trevor Davis on a diving catch.
“So we’ve been calling this all game. This short post—this was a seven-[yard] post. We had a run play called and a post over the top. These linebackers kept coming down on it pretty hard. You see how they stepped down on it? Coach keeps saying, ‘Throw it. throw it, throw it.’ I was like, ‘It’s going to get blown up if I throw that—the safety’s in the middle.’ On this one, I’m like, ‘You know, I’m going to go for it.’ I pulled the run play and had the post over the top, and [Davis] made a hell of a play.”
This was a quick post-snap read by Goff. If the linebackers had not stepped downhill, he would have handed it off.
This put Cal inside the five-yard-line, threatening to score. Up at the line of scrimmage, a stoppage came from the sideline. Goff was visibly perturbed. “Coach Dykes called a timeout. I wanted to run the play because I think we are going to score. I don’t remember what it was, but that’s the only reason I’d react like that.” Dykes was concerned about the play clock.
When Cal lined up again, Stanford brought what amounted to a Cover 0 blitz, meaning any defender not directly responsible for an eligible receiver in coverage would rush the quarterback. This was the first heavy blitz of the game.
“We had a power run on. I may have ‘Texas’d’ it, which means I’m going to throw it when we had the run/pass option on. If I called Texas or Tennessee, that means I’m going to throw.” You call this out to let the blockers know not to carry their run-blocks too far, lest they get flagged as an illegal lineman downfield.
I ask Goff about whether he should abandon the fake handoff here since he knows he must throw quickly against a Cover 0 blitz.
“I mean, you could. A Zero blitz would be the case where you do want to do that. But I don’t know. I’d just been doing it for so long, it’s just kind of been a rhythm thing.”
This pass fell incomplete. But on the next snap Stanford again pressured all-out. This time, Cal scored.
“Same play,” Goff says. “Tight end had a different route on the backside though. This is going to be North on, power right, sluggo left. So we’ve got a power call. Left guard’s pulling. Stanford ran the Zero look again. One-on-one with a corner, throw it up, give him a chance and touchdown.”
Goff acknowledges that these power-run, read-option passes probably can’t be executed in NFL red zones, where the field is more compact due to tighter hashmarks and to the blitzers being faster and smarter.
* * *
As the fourth quarter ticks along, we come to a sequence where Goff throws an “out” pattern to a slot receiver against a Cover 2 look. This is risky because Cover 2 corners will sometimes run a “trap,” acting like they’re carrying with the outside receiver when they’re really sitting on the slot receiver’s out-route. Washington State did this several times against Goff earlier in the season. He recognized it and defeated it a few times, but he also threw an interception against it.
Stanford did not appear to call a trap coverage, so it would be up to the Cover 2 corner to recognize the slot receiver’s route and improvise his own trap.
“I knew their corners were really young,” Goff says. “I knew they weren’t going to abandon their assignment, really. Stanford has experienced safeties—they’ll kind of roam free and do what they want. But these corners were going to do exactly what they were supposed to do. No. 11 [Terrence Alexander], I saw him turn his back and I was like ‘OK, he’s going to run with the outside receiver.’ I knew I could throw that thing in there pretty quickly. A good, experienced corner might fake that he’s going to run with him, spin around real quick and make a play on that ball.”
The corner was supposed to run the receiver out of bounds. He did, but much too thoroughly, also running himself out of bounds. The slot receiver caught a 19-yarder.
A few snaps later, the same thing plays out. This time, the cornerback, now a little wiser, looked for the slot receiver’s out-route. Goff, also a little wiser, knew that the corner now expected that out-route. So Goff threw it quicker and a little behind the receiver, keeping him away from the corner.
“He kind of figured it out and turned inside and almost got me,” Goff says.
Instead Goff got him with clever ball placement.
“He’s probably all mad, right?” Goff says as we wait to see the corner’s body language after the play. “He should be. Watch. He probably gets up like, ‘Ah, crap, I should be there.’ He knows that he’s a little too slow.” Indeed, the corner clapped his hands in dramatic disgust.
As the game winds down, we see Cal fail to convert a 4th-and-15, effectively sealing their loss. Goff thought he “sailed” the ball a bit on this throw. But this was still a snapshot of high-level quarterbacking, as he extended the play without breaking down its structure. That’s critical.
“Exactly,” he says. “That’s what makes guys good. Tony Romo does it really well. I think Aaron Rodgers does it really well. Brady and Manning do it in their own way.”
After we shoot the breeze a few more minutes, it’s time to part ways. Goff extends one of his much-talked-about hands (size seems fine to me) and, like every professional athlete I’ve ever met, shakes with an inherent strength that could crush my fingers into a fine powder. Whenever we meet again, he’ll be some team’s franchise quarterback.
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