On the heels of three straight losses, calls for the Rams to hand the reins to the No. 1 overall pick are heating up. Is it just a matter of L.A. sticking to a long-term plan, or is there something more that's keeping Jared Goff off the field?
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Los Angeles waited two decades for its NFL team to return. So forgive Rams fans if they’re impatient regarding their anointed franchise quarterback, Jared Goff. Seven months after L.A. shipped a slew of high draft picks, including its No. 1 in 2017, to Tennessee for the right to select the Cal quarterback first overall, Goff has yet to play a down in the NFL. While five other rookie quarterbacks have started games this season, the No. 1 pick sits behind Case Keenum, who has the league’s fifth-lowest passer rating and threw four picks in his most recent game, the 17-10 loss to the Giants in London that dropped the Rams to 3-4.
Coach Jeff Fisher maintains that Goff will start “when he’s ready,” but calls for a quarterback change have swelled to the point that, in an interview at practice on Wednesday, Fisher felt obligated to say: “Jared Goff is still our quarterback of the future. He’s still our franchise quarterback, still in our long-term plans. It was a great trade.”
As to whether he’s in the Rams’ short-term plans, and if so when he might play, Fisher declined to offer any timetable: “The worst thing we can do to Jared is say, ‘Hey, here is when it’s going to happen.’” The logical question, especially given the early success of Carson Wentz in Philadelphia and Dak Prescott in Dallas, is: Why isn’t Goff playing? What exactly are coaches working on, and why has the process dragged on for the better part of a year?
“I get it, that’s the big concern right now,” quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke told The MMQB. “Here’s the No. 1 pick, other guys have played, it’s human nature to question, why hasn’t this guy? The simplest answer is it’s a process. We’re not working on one particular thing. We’re really working on a number of variables. Could he be playing right now? Is he capable of playing in the National Football League right now? My answer would be yes. But if we’re being truly honest with ourselves, and we knew when we went through the process of drafting him, we knew it was going to take some time, and we were OK with that.”
The Rams, privately and publicly, will remind outsiders that the Eagles initially planned to reshirt Wentz, and that Prescott is only starting because of Tony Romo’s injury. But the success of those rookies—specifically of Prescott who, like Goff at Cal, played in a spread offense at Mississippi State—legitimizes the question: If the Rams believe Goff is capable of playing in the NFL, why wait?
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Cultivating quarterback talent is a delicate and inexact art. A franchise’s fear is currently playing out in Jacksonville: The Jaguars wanted to sit Blake Bortles as a rookie in 2014, reversed course midseason, thrust the quarterback into action and may have stunted his long-term development. Two years later Bortles' mechanics seem out of whack. This week the Jags QB summoned a private quarterback coach to Florida for recalibration. Such anecdotes seem to shape the Rams' plan for Goff: mold the young quarterback into a polished product, then plug him in.
“If Jared Goff is playing quarterback, we’re not going to change our offense,” Weinke says. “We have a library [of plays] where we are always able to cater to the quarterback. I mean, that’s just being smart. We do that for Case Keenum, and obviously for Goff we’ll do that as well, where we call things he’s comfortable with and likes. I think we’re being smart right now in not rushing him into a position—not that he’s going to fail, we’re not saying that—but we want to put him in a position to be successful.”
Goff’s development may be taking slightly longer because the spread offense he played in at Cal drew on Mike Leach’s up-tempo, pass-happy Air Raid philosophy. While highly favorable to the stat line, Air Raid offenses don’t ask nearly as much of a quarterback in terms of his reads as do NFL pro-style attacks. Consider former Air Raid quarterbacks whose college productivity didn’t carry over (or hasn’t yet) to the NFL: Tim Couch, Nick Foles, Kevin Kolb, Johnny Manziel, Geno Smith, Brandon Weeden. In fact, Keenum may be the most successful former Air Raid quarterback in the league right now. In an interview last month for my college column about the Air Raid conundrum, Weeden—a 2012 first-round pick of the Browns who started 15 games as a rookie—brought up Goff’s situation unprompted: “I look at what the Rams are doing and I think it’s awesome,” Weeden said. “By having Case Keenum on the roster, Goff can have a year, a half a year, and redshirt to learn the NFL game. That’s huge. My rookie year, I had no idea what I was doing a lot of the time. I knew coverages, but they are just so much more complex, dissecting everything—it was impossible. I wish I had been in a situation like Goff’s where I wasn’t forced to be thrown into the fire.”
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At Cal, Goff operated out of the shotgun. Now he’s under center, and the footwork is different. That was the first thing Weinke and Goff worked on. “The easiest thing I’ve found is to relate it to what he’s comfortable with,” Weinke says. Weinke explained to Goff that where he used to take a three-step drop from the shotgun, now it’s simply a five-step drop under center: just add two steps. Goff had been working on his five-step drop even before the draft process, and he had the footwork down by training camp in August.
But it’s more complicated than just adding steps, Weinke notes. “He’s used to [having the ball snapped], getting the ball and going,” Weinke says. “Now he has to make decisions while he takes the ball.” So as Goff gets the ball at the line of scrimmage and retreats back to the position he’s comfortable with, he enters what Weinke calls “information overload.”
“A veteran guy doesn’t have to think about his footwork—he just does it,” Weinke says. “A young guy, he’s always thinking, and then his motor skills slow down. He learned the language, then has to think functionally and act physically.” According to Weeden, whose college offense at Oklahoma State was similar to Goff’s, adjusting to turning your back to the defense was a tremendous struggle. “That’s a really hard thing to learn,” Weinke says. “It’s awkward to turn your back to linebackers, then get your eyes up and find the defenders again.”
The complexities stretch beyond footwork. The terminology is different, and seven months after he was handed the playbook, Goff can, according to Weinke, “speak the language and articulate it.” But he also must execute it.
At Cal, the quarterback had significantly fewer responsibilities. Tony Franklin, Goff’s offensive coordinator at Cal, often discussed how Goff was given more freedom than any of his previous quarterbacks. Indeed, Cal’s offense evolved with Goff over three years, as the coaches gave him more flexibility, according to Chris B. Brown, author of The Art of Smart Football, who has written about Air Raid offenses extensively. “By Goff’s final season he could change plays more often, and they were running variations of more formations,” Brown says. “They also did some stuff with protections on the back side, where they’d block the defensive line then let Goff read the linebackers, so it wasn’t totally like he was getting teed off.”
Cal’s offense included run-pass options (RPOs) in which the quarterback, post-snap, chooses whether to run or pass the ball with a series of simplified reads. “As far as RPOs and packaged plays, nobody did it more than Cal,” Brown says. “Literally every play, it was layered on.”
Brown explains further: “It was a binary read—two plays going at once. Look at the weak-side linebacker; if he does this, throw it here, and if he doesn’t, hand it off. It’s not necessarily, ‘Look at the coverage and then identify which side of the field he's going to work and run a strict progression there.’ Which Goff can do, but he has to do it in a different context.”
Says Weinke: “Conceptually there were things he did in college that we do here; we just call it something different or take it to the next level, where he always has to identify the linebackers, make protection changes, every play. As it relates to run-pass options and things he did in college? We have that in our offense, so we have those things he can do. But there is more now. We hear about it all the time—how the college game is transferring, or not transferring, to the NFL game at the quarterback position. Well, here’s a case where it just takes time.”
Time means reps, and once the Rams determined in training camp that Goff wouldn’t be their starter, the bulk of first-team reps went to Keenum. While this slowed Goff’s learning process, it satisfied the Rams’ short-term interest (getting Keenum ready each week) while preserving the long-term vision. Fisher says the Rams decided to dress Goff as the third quarterback in Week 1 this season so he could see everything that Sean Mannion, the backup, did during the week to prepare. The next week Goff was promoted to No. 2 because the coaching staff felt he could play if needed. Last week’s bye afforded the opportunity for Goff to get a significant number first-team reps. But will he play?
For now it appears the Rams will finish out the plan they committed to, whether it’s right or wrong: insert Goff when they believe he is perfectly polished, then hope the wait was worth it.
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