ATLANTA — The most important game of Jared Goff's life was a dud.
The 24-year-old Los Angeles Rams franchise quarterback posted the second-lowest passer rating of his third NFL season in a shockingly anemic performance as the Rams laid a Super Bowl LIII egg in Atlanta. His team managed just a single field goal in a punt-fest—marking the first occasion since Goff was a rookie that the usually high-powered Rams offense was held to fewer than six points.
And while Goff put together a strong 2018 season on paper, this was yet another red flag for the 2016 No. 1 overall pick.
Does Goff lack the big-game fortitude required for a quarterback to achieve NFL greatness?
It's not as though this was his first underwhelming rodeo. Goff's lowest-rated performance of the 2018 campaign also came in a critical spot when the Rams were battling the New Orleans Saints for the NFC's top seed. He completed just 20 of 44 passes and threw four interceptions and zero touchdowns in a 15-6 Week 14 loss to the Chicago Bears.
One week later, he struggled again in a crucial home loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. And after completing just 19 of 38 passes for 229 yards, zero touchdowns and an interception in Sunday's 13-3 Super-debacle against the New England Patriots, Goff's career playoff completion percentage has dropped to 55.0 and his postseason passer rating has sunk to 73.6.
The reality is Goff padded his numbers a tad this season with big games against weak defenses. He clammed up in Seattle, Denver and Chicago during the regular season, and—outside of the occasional impressive completion—he looked overwhelmed and intimidated in the team's NFC Championship Game victory over the New Orleans Saints and in Sunday's Super Bowl defeat.
This was a painfully winnable game for Goff and the Rams. The defense held Tom Brady and the New England offense in check all night, but Goff reacted and released at an unacceptably slow rate when he had receiver Brandin Cooks wide-open in the end zone in the third quarter:
That's a can't-miss moment for an NFL quarterback and a play every professional passer needs to make.
Goff just didn't have it in him.
That was also the case later on that drive when he failed to quickly progress to his second read in the face of immense pressure, couldn't locate an open receiver underneath and took a nine-yard sack that almost took the Rams out of field-goal range.
That was one of four sacks against Goff, and it wasn't the only one that was avoidable. Just take this third-down play from the second quarter where he had Tyler Higbee open in the flat but failed to let go of the ball:
Despite all of that, Goff had a chance to redeem himself with the Rams down seven points in the final five minutes. The Rams were inside the New England 30-yard line for just the second time all night. It was the sort of moment legends live for, the sort of moment in which legends are made.
And Goff responded by throwing a back-footed duck interception into the hands of Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore:
"It's my fault," he said of that game-icing gaffe afterward. "I can't put us in that situation."
It didn't help that the Rams once again struggled to run the ball while inexplicably neglecting to fully utilize All-Pro running back Todd Gurley, but Goff personally choked on several vital throws for an offense that converted just three third downs all evening.
Following the loss, I asked Goff if he was more nervous than usual coming into this game.
"I felt great," he said. "I felt excited."
But he didn't look great, and it's possible to be excited and nervous at the same time. What if he simply lacks the nerves of steel required of a Hall of Fame quarterback?
Both Goff and 33-year-old Rams head coach Sean McVay stated late Sunday night that they and their young team would learn from this, and it's entirely possible they will. But the Patriots are an exception to NFL norms, and there's also a decent chance Goff and the Rams won't get back to this stage anytime soon. There's plenty of change potentially on the horizon for an organization that has lofty decisions to make regarding several key players.
They don't yet have to decide anything when it comes to Goff, whose rookie contract runs through 2020 when you include the fifth-year option. But if he continues to fall flat in major moments over the course of the next two years, and if he and/or the Rams regress (or even fail to progress) in the fall of 2019 and beyond, plenty of questions will be asked about whether he's got what it takes to reach superstardom.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.