Jared Goff trotted out onto the field with 1:44 left in regulation, down 27-20. One timeout, 72 yards to go. It was a scenario that makes a man’s reputation. Fail, and Goff’s (granted, outrageously premature) first-round bust label returns. Succeed, and the 22-year-old rockets to the top of pro football’s Hype Mountain (along with his 31-year-old head coach, Sean McVay).
Goff stood in shotgun and eyed wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who was motioning in, behind receiver Sammy Watkins. It’s a staple tactic of McVay’s—running two receivers off the same spot, forcing defenders to back up a few yards. It’s great against man coverage and can work against zone.
The ball was snapped and Goff eyed Kupp. Then he kept eyeing him. And kept eyeing him. And eyed him some more. When Kupp made his break, Goff threw. That’s when Washington linebacker Mason Foster stepped in for the easiest interception of his life. Foster, as a shallow zone defender, had been eyeing Goff himself. Game over. Rams lose.
With that, away goes the nascent Goff hype. And with it, the adoration of McVay, who, after the interception looked like his dog had just died. He’ll spend the next few days deflecting the inevitable criticism of his quarterback.
The truth: Goff is not as good as his 306 yards and 117.9 passer rating in Week 1 against the Colts suggests. Indy’s retooled defense was young in the back seven and bereft of edge rushers, so Goff was facing safe, predictable coverages and working from a clean pocket. His defense also scored three times, giving him a comfortable lead. He won’t have another scenario like this in 2017.
Also the truth: Goff is not as bad as his final play against Washington suggests. There’s stuff to learn from this game. Washington’s D was more dimensional than Indy’s, and Goff’s circumstances were less favorable. The Rams, thanks to run-stopping issues on defense and self-inflicted setbacks on offense, trailed much of the afternoon. They didn’t successfully stretch the field. Many of their patented route combinations resulted in checkdowns or improvised QB movement. Their O-line was good, not great.
Goff will have to learn quickly from this film because the Rams travel to San Francisco for Thursday Night Football. It will be Goff’s first nationally televised NFL game, and he enters in a much better spot now than he was in at any point last season.
McVay is doing for Goff what he did for Kirk Cousins. He features the quarterback on first down play-action concepts, often with quick-hitting inside routes that punish defenses for playing a predictable run-stopping zone front. He also takes shots with deep post-cross route combinations, sending receivers across the field into widening zone voids. Doing these on running downs removes the pass rush. The designs are intricate but, for the quarterback, the reads are not. If the look is this, throw here; if it’s that, throw there.
Many of these passes are coming out of condensed formations, with receivers aligned not far from the offensive tackles. This is another McVay staple but also has tentacles from first-year coordinator Matt LaFleur, who coached quarterbacks in a Falcons offense that flourished with these tightly packed formations. They create a lot more congestion for the defense while presenting a two-way go for receivers. And just like with Atlanta and Washington last year, so many of the Rams’ aerial concepts are synced with their ground game. You can really help your quarterback by making your plays all look the same off the snap. McVay learned this from working under Mike Shanahan in Washington, and he’ll try to use it against Mike’s son Kyle on Thursday night.
None of this was part of the Goff conversation a year ago. Los Angeles’s running game was constricted and mostly independent from its passing game. Every play was its own entity. Goff was seeing all trees, no forest.
In fairness to the previous Rams staff, they lacked the resources that surround Goff now. There was no stable veteran like 12th-year left tackle Andrew Whitworth or ninth-year center John Sullivan. Todd Gurley was not the smooth, swift runner that we saw in 2015 and have seen these first two weeks. There was no possession target like Kupp, and no dynamic receiver like Watkins (who, by the way, has flashed the change-of-direction quickness that made him the fourth overall pick in Buffalo in 2014; it won’t be long before he’s showcased like a true No. 1).
In less than a year, Goff’s circumstances have gone from sorry to splendid. Which, come to think of it, might just magnify the pressure. Oh well. Welcome to the NFL, Jared Goff, where success depends on navigating your highs and lows.
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