For the Los Angeles Rams, Sunday’s 14-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins was historic in two ways. First, head coach Jeff Fisher ascended to his current status as the second-losingest coach in NFL history, tying Tom Landry, who accomplished quite a bit more than Fisher has in his long career.
Second, it was the first regular-season start for quarterback Jared Goff, the rookie from Cal drafted first overall after the Rams traded a king’s ransom of picks to the Tennessee Titans for the top spot.
Fans had been fairly apoplectic about Goff’s benchings, because starting quarterback Case Keenum has been what he’s always been—an unspectacular placeholder who can play in a mediocre fashion until your franchise quarterback has been procured and is ready to go. After the Rams beat the Jets in a 9-6 snoozer last Sunday, and Keenum completed 17 of 30 passes for 165 yards, Fisher finally decided that he had nothing to lose by throwing Goff out there.
I wasn’t one of the people wondering why Goff wasn’t on the field before Week 11. Unless there were miracles going on behind the scenes, I thought Fisher was making the right decision, because I didn’t see Goff as a quarterback who was ready to start in the NFL in his first season...at all.
When any collegiate quarterback is hailed as the next great NFL prospect, the bridge between perception and reality can be an interesting one to traverse.
In the case of Goff, reviewing his Cal tape was specifically enlightening. I did so predraft for the quarterback who completed 341 of 529 passes for 4,714 yards, 43 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 2015. Since I don’t generally watch college football in an analytical sense until the NFL season is over, I was a bit surprised that people were so high on Goff’s immediate potential once I caught up.
|Jared Goff Week 11 NFL1000 Scores (Sneak Peek)|
|NFL1000 Scouts (Cian Fahey)|
Right away, and through my analysis, I saw serious issues. Even taking his five-interception game against Utah off the table, there were too many examples of Goff throwing to the receiver’s wrong shoulder, making anticipation throws early or late and putting his receivers in peril over the middle, defaulting to his first read, and bailing from the pocket too early under pressure.
These issues are common among college quarterbacks, especially those who (like Goff) thrived in total spread-offense environments that forced defenses to back off and avoid the kinds of complex reads and disguises seen in the NFL.
My conclusion? I thought Goff had a lot on the ball—a quick release and good mechanics, the arm to make any throw and the mobility to keep plays alive past their breaking points. Goff excelled behind a subpar (to be kind) offensive line at Cal, so I wasn’t too worried about that when the Rams moved up to select him, despite their own glaring issues with pass protection.
What I did worry about was the stunted and regressive nature of the Rams passing game. And in his first regular-season start, Goff both benefited and suffered from his team’s conservative and risk-averse approach.
The conservative approach manifested itself in the number of short passes Goff attempted. His completions consisted of in-cuts, quick outs and quick in-breaking routes that would give him an easy read. Goff finished his day with a 4.32 yards-per-attempt average, which tells you all you need to know about the overall game plan. And that’s not a bad idea for a young quarterback starting his first game—keep things easy and build on his confidence.
Here’s the problem with that approach in his case: Goff suffered from route miscommunication with his receivers and struggled to complete those simple passes at times—just as he had in the preseason, and just as he had in college.
This incompletion to tight end Lance Kendricks happened on the first play of the game and was a harbinger of things to come. Kendricks ran a quick five-yard curl, and Goff threw it a good two feet over his head. I’m hoping that was a bit of miscommunication where Kendricks was supposed to run a deeper route, because the other option to consider is that Goff has trouble completing one of the simplest passes in any quarterback’s arsenal.
In the preseason, Goff attempted two passes over 20 yards in the air, and he didn’t complete either of them. He doubled that statistical total against the Dolphins: four deep passes, no completions. The first of those deep incompletions came on the first play of the second quarter, as target Kenny Britt ran a deep boundary route to the left side of the field.
Perhaps the first fundamental flaw in this design is that Britt was covered by cornerback Byron Maxwell. Maxwell hasn’t been great since he left the Seattle Seahawks as a free agent, but there’s one thing he learned to do very well in the Emerald City: defend boundary routes by establishing the ideal inside position and shutting the quarterback out unless he makes a perfect throw beyond the cornerback’s reach.
Goff does not do this. Instead, he underthrows Britt, who has to try to come back for the ball. No-go, and after a short pass to rookie tight end Tyler Higbee that Goff threw over his head (yes, there’s a pattern here) and a nine-yard pass to receiver Brian Quick, the Rams punted.
Still, because of the efforts of running back Todd Gurley and their defense, the Rams led 10-0 deep into the second half. One reason Los Angeles couldn’t build on its lead was that Goff proved incapable of mounting second-half drives. There was the 10-play, 54-yard drive in the third quarter that ended with a Greg Zuerlein field goal, but the drive before that—a six-play sojourn that gained 11 yards (excluding penalties) and ended in a punt—was perhaps the Rams’ worst of the game, and it contained Goff’s two most head-scratching throws until the end of the contest.
The first of those throws was an incompletion to Gurley. This is all on Goff, and it’s inexcusable. Gurley ran a simple Texas route (basically a halfback out-and-up). It’s a staple of the West Coast Offense, and it’s generally an easy completion.
Unless you do what Goff did, which was throw the ball late (so Gurley was now impacted by coverage) and with questionable mechanics. Goff threw the ball flat-footed, which affects a quarterback’s velocity, and, as a result, his accuracy. Moreover, Goff had a clean pocket and the short-route coverage benefits given by a mid-level blitz. To whiff on a short pass like this under those circumstances is worrisome.
The second throw came one play later—another incompletion to Kendricks. Here, Goff got pressure up the middle and tried to move to his left, only to find more pressure. So, he rolled to his right and made another flat-footed throw—this time on the run. He didn’t right his body to the target, and the ball had nothing on it.
Kendricks tried to come back to the ball, but it was decidedly underthrown. Again, this is a throw any NFL quarterback is expected to make—rain or not.
In the fourth quarter, the Rams defense started to fall apart, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill led the Dolphins on two straight touchdown drives. Goff got the ball back down 14-10 with 36 seconds left and 59 yards to Miami’s end zone. After a seven-yard completion to Britt, Goff attempted two deep-boundary throws—one to the right to Quick and one to the left to Britt—missing wide on both. Again, these types of throws showed up on his college and preseason tape. These are not exceptions. These are part of a problematic trend.
One five-yard completion to Kendricks and a desperate Hail Mary later, Goff's first start was over.
Here's what Fisher told NFL.com’s Mike Silver after the game about his young quarterback's performance:
Jared was everything we needed. His presence was great. His communication was great. He made reads and checks and got us in the right protections and had command of the run game. He slid in the pocket and he made throws. He was in control, and he knew it—it was no different than the way I was feeling.
He didn't lose it. Had the defense made a stop, we'd be in here smiling, and the story would have been, 'Jared won the game for us.'
Perhaps. But now that he is their de facto starter, Goff will have to speed up his development. He’ll also need help from his coaches. According to Pro Football Focus’ charting, Goff was 12-of-18 for 85 yards when he wasn’t pressured and 5-of-13 for 50 yards when he was.
Clearly, Goff will need quick-throwing opportunities with easy reads, though he may not complete any of them. And interestingly enough, the answer to his short-term success may come from the other sideline in the Miami game.
Current Dolphins head coach Adam Gase put himself on the map as the Denver Broncos’ quarterbacks coach in 2011, when he was presented with a starting quarterback in Tim Tebow who was not at all ready for prime time.
Gase did as much as possible to give Tebow a "first-read open" scenario at all times—basically, to ensure that no matter the play call, his underdeveloped quarterback would at least have an open read to the play side to keep him from panicking and bailing from the pocket. It worked for a while, and the Rams should endeavor to do the same with Goff.
Because it doesn’t get any easier for the rookie. The Rams travel to New Orleans next, and while the Saints defense may provide some relief, Goff’s next three games after that (at New England, home against Atlanta and at Seattle) will be tougher tests.
And even with the Saints’ pliable defense as a factor, if Drew Brees forces Goff to engage in a shootout, will he be up to the challenge?
Right now, Jared Goff looks like a quarterback unfamiliar with the basics in a way that makes him unable to draw upon them when needed. The Rams may be past saving their season at 4-6, and their primary priority now should be saving Goff from the wolves.
It’s a bit dramatic to say Goff’s career depends on it, but this kind of scenario—starting before you’re ready in an inhospitable offense—has been a recipe for quarterback busts since time immemorial.