When the Rams traded a boatload of draft picks for the right to select first overall in the 2016 draft and took Cal quarterback Jared Goff, they likely expected him to have a better rookie season than he did. When you give up two first-round picks, two second-round picks and two third-round picks for one player, you want him to look at least marginally ready for prime time.
The Rams started journeyman Case Keenum through the first half of the 2016 season to give Goff more time to prepare for the realities of the NFL. When the young prized quarterback got his chance as a starter from Week 10 onward, however, he did not impress. He completed 54.6 percent of his passes (112-of-205) for 1,089 yards, five touchdowns and seven interceptions. His quarterback rating of 63.6 was the worst for any quarterback who took at least 25 percent of his team's snaps, per Pro Football Focus.
While the standard stats were less than impressive, the advanced metrics were even worse. According to Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted numbers, Goff had the worst season for any quarterback selected in the top 10 from 1987 through 2016, posting a DVOA (FO's primary opponent-adjusted metric) of minus-74.7 percent. Against a baseline established by every quarterback throw in 2016, Goff was essentially 74.7 percent less efficient than a league-average quarterback. He was worse in his rookie season than Kelly Stouffer and Ryan Leaf, which is singularly unimpressive.
Goff's historic inefficiency backed up why he needed at least one full year on the bench before he would be ready for the rigors of the NFL. During his November 20 start against the Dolphins, he was incapable of doing anything but completing simple short routes. Goff went 17-of-31 for 134 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions, but the only reason he didn't throw picks is that he didn't take any chances.
When he did begin throwing picks later in the season, one worrisome trend unfolded. Goff routinely threw late to receivers running predictable and disadvantageous routes, and cornerbacks jumped those routes as if they had them read—which they likely did.
The Rams fired head coach Jeff Fisher in mid-December, which led to a series of bloodlettings in the coaching staff at the end of the season. To replace Fisher, the Rams hired former Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay in January. McVay was the main man behind Kirk Cousins' career-best season in 2015, and he has built a reputation as one of the smartest play-designers in the NFL.
When he took the job, McVay inherited Goff and all of his attendant issues. It's now up to him to make things better.
"I think what he's done above the neck in terms of the way that he's handled the different things and situations that we've put him in, been very pleased so far," McVay said of Goff in July, per USA Today's Lindsay Jones. "We know that game-like atmosphere, you try to create that so that you can mimic and emulate those situations in practice. But, until you're actually live as a quarterback, that's when you truly get challenged."
Before sticking Goff in those situations against the Raiders in the Rams' second preseason game, McVay had to put a plan in place to overcome his young quarterback's limitations. Goff completed three of four passes against the Cowboys in the Rams' first preseason game, but this was the first time McVay would have him in for an extensive number of snaps.
McVay's plan worked like a charm, even against a Raiders defense that seemed disinterested in coverage and tackling at times. Goff completed 16 of 20 passes for 160 yards and a touchdown, resembling an NFL quarterback over a number of snaps for the first time. While that's a low bar, the Rams needed to start somewhere, and McVay's game plan for Goff was outstanding.
In recent articles on rookie quarterbacks DeShone Kizer of the Browns and Mitchell Trubisky of the Bears, I detailed how their coaches helped them get into a rhythm by getting them on the run to clear pressure and keeping their first reads open with route design. McVay did the same thing, treating Goff like a rookie quarterback in need of redemption.
Goff's first pass of the game set the tone, with McVay setting up a simple but effective route combination against Oakland's man defense. As receiver Cooper Kupp (no. 18) takes cornerback TJ Carrie (No. 38) up the seam to clear short coverage, outside receiver Robert Woods (No. 17) beats cornerback Sean Smith (No. 21) on a quick in-cut, and Goff has an easy completion to an open receiver. The Rams did not run nearly enough of these routes in Goff's rookie season under offensive coordinator Rob Boras. It was a relatively unspectacular 10-yard play, but it set Goff up with a positive first moment and started a roll of consistent completions.
That was one way for McVay to create openings for Goff; this nine-yard pass to Woods two plays later was a more inventive one. Woods starts out in the right slot and then motions to the left side, forcing Carrie to run with him and exposing the man coverage plan to Goff. Woods then runs back across the formation post-snap, and Carrie gets caught in traffic across the field as he tries to recover and catch up to Woods. This was a nifty way to create separation for Woods and more of a positive rhythm for Goff.
Goff's 23-yard touchdown pass to Kupp at the end of the Rams' first drive began at the line of scrimmage with the offensive line.
Brandon Bate @NoPlanB_
With Khalil Mack in his face, Jared Goff delivers -- Cooper Kupp's first receiving touchdown of the preseason. https://t.co/xpBWUUSUfX2017-8-20 12:25:02
While Kupp ran a nice over route from left to right, the use of run action among the team's blockers set Oakland's defense up for failure. Watch the Raiders defense as they react to the threat of the run, and it's easy to see how Kupp was so wide open. Goff's play-fake to Todd Gurley (No. 30) and the line firing out as if the play is a run has the Silver and Black biting on the fake all the way. The boot-action aspect of the fake gives Goff a clear view, and Kupp is running through defenders who are unsure whether to zig or zag.
The offensive line also helped Gurley, who looked lost in his second season. The hypertalented running back was unsupported in 2016, and the line's inability to help him get yards after contact in power situations contributed to his decrease in yards per carry from 4.8 in 2015 to 3.2 last year. But with a rebuilt line, Gurley looked like his old self against the Raiders, gaining 38 yards on eight carries and scoring a touchdown.
Gurley doesn't need McVay's help; he just needs people who can block. Goff desperately does, and the first significant example of his performance in McVay's scheme provides some hope to Rams fans who had no reason to envision good things from their team's offense last year.
"I thought Jared did a great job making good decisions, got a lot of people involved," McVay said after the 24-21 win, per Myles Simmons of the team's official site. "And I thought just from having eight snaps in Week 1 and then coming in tonight and having 37—we always talk about that daily improvement and he definitely got better this week."
Most importantly, Goff felt comfortable with the results—probably for the first time in his NFL career.
"It's huge for any offense, especially for us when we're able to stay in front of the sticks, stay in 3rd-and-manageable," Goff said, per Simmons. "It's a game-changer. You don't like to be in 3rd-and-12. You don't want to be in even 2nd-and-12, you want to stay ahead of the sticks. And I think we did a good job of that tonight. And ultimately, that'll help us move the ball and score points."
Is it right to be skeptical of Goff's progress? Absolutely. He's going to be tied to a set of play designs that spoon-feed him McVay's offense in the short term, and the complexity and talent of starting defenses generally demolish such designs over time in the regular season.
Still, McVay is the only thing standing between Goff and another horrible bust of a season. If Goff were to undergo another season like 2016, that could cause the door to shut on his NFL future once and for all.
In the meantime, McVay provides a ray of hope through the keyhole.