THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Sean McVay’s patience had grown thin. His message behind closed doors wasn’t getting through.
“Our quarterback has got to take better care of the football,” McVay bluntly stated after Goff threw two interceptions, including a pick-six, and lost a fumble in a Week 12 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
McVay’s public callout of Goff marked a clear divergence from his usual messaging in the wake of any unsatisfactory performance or loss, when the 34-year-old coach routinely blames himself for any of the Rams’ shortcomings. But on the last Sunday of November, after the Rams dropped their fourth straight game to their division rivals, McVay didn’t hold back.
“We’re not taking good enough care of the football, and that’s something that’s got to change,” McVay barked, seemingly too angry to mention Goff by name. “Otherwise, I’m going to continue to sit up here and say this week in and week out. It just can’t continue to happen.”
Goff was on a turnover tear, having gifted the ball to his opponents 10 times — six interceptions and four lost fumbles — over a four-game span. A week after McVay called him out, Goff came through with a solid performance Sunday in a win over the Arizona Cardinals (6-6) that moved the Rams into first place in the NFC West.
“I responded exactly how I expected to,” Goff said after he passed for a touchdown, scored on a QB sneak and had zero turnovers. “I just had to put my head down and keep working.”
That perfectly illustrates the inconsistent career of Goff. Since the Rams selected him with the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft, he has turned in brilliant games, won two division titles and a conference championship, and helped the Rams to Super Bowl LIII.
But on too many occasions, he has turned in befuddling performances that have kept the Rams from achieving their potential.
Now as the Rams (8-4) prepare to play the New England Patriots (6-6) for the first time (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox) since coach Bill Belichick dismantled their offense in Super Bowl LIII, the question remains: Does Goff have the talent to take the Rams back to the Super Bowl and win it?
“If you’re a Rams fan, for Jared Goff, we may have to settle for, ‘He’s a really good quarterback that’s going to win a lot of games for a lot of years and do a lot of good things,'” said Kurt Warner, an NFL Network analyst and Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback who led the Rams to a Super Bowl title in 1999 with The Greatest Show on Turf. “But he may not ever become one of those guys.”
Can Goff be great?
When do you turn from an up-and-coming young NFL player into an experienced veteran?
Goff chuckled as he thought about the question for an extra beat.
“I think as soon as you get your second contract, probably. That would make the most sense, right?” Goff asked, uncertain.
But Goff received his four-year, $134 million extension — with $110 million guaranteed — last year going into his fourth season, which was his third with McVay.
“I guess you could still be young in Year 4 and have a second deal,” Goff said. “I’d probably, I don’t know. I think it’s different for everybody.”
For Goff, that evolution — the one in which you’re not allowed to make the same mistakes on repeat — seemed to officially take place when McVay called the 26-year-old out.
“I wouldn’t say things if I didn’t know there was broad shoulders to be able to handle it,” McVay said.
The timeline fits with when Warner says a quarterback has provided a sense of who he is going to be throughout his career and what he can be counted on to achieve.
So where does that put Goff, who is in the final stretch of Year 5?
“He’s a good quarterback,” Warner said. “I don’t know if he’s got the traits to evolve into a great quarterback.”
It’s not too late for Goff by any measure, according to Warner, but those quarterbacks — the greats who can carry a team — are few and far between, as Warner lists Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson at a level above the rest.
Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw seems to have a differing opinion on Goff, whose touchdown-to-interception ratio this season ranks 23rd in the NFL between Teddy Bridgewater and Ryan Fitzpatrick.
“Sit his ass down and put somebody else in there,” Bradshaw said on Fox NFL Sunday before the Rams played the Cardinals. “I know you can’t get rid of him — way too much money.”
McVay says he hasn’t considered benching Goff, even during his four-turnover performance in a Week 8 loss to the Miami Dolphins or his mistake-riddled outing against the 49ers.
John Wolford is the only backup quarterback on the Rams’ roster. A 2018 undrafted free agent from Wake Forest, Wolford has no regular-season NFL experience after spending last season on the practice squad.
Financially, the Rams cannot move on from Goff until at least after the 2021 season, and even that would cost $15.4 million in dead money, according to the ESPN Roster Management System.
That’s a big number, but not necessarily out of the question after the Rams absorbed $21.8 million in dead money by trading wide receiver Brandin Cooks over the offseason. But the most reasonable out would be after the 2022 season — a dead-money charge of $8.6 million — if the Rams decide to go in a different direction.
But moving on from Goff could be unnecessary. The Rams have the potential to get back to the Super Bowl with the lanky quarterback at the helm, but they must maintain a complete roster with an outstanding defense and play to Goff’s strengths while doing their best to avoid his weaknesses.
“He’s a perfect fit for what they try to do offensively,” Warner said, “meaning running the football and their play-action game.”
In 2018, during their Super Bowl run, the Rams ran play-action on 36% of their plays and Goff was wildly successful in it, passing for 15 touchdowns with two interceptions.
However, the Chicago Bears first slowed the Rams’ play-action in 2018 and the Patriots doubled down on the strategy — stopping the run and forcing Goff to drop back — in the subsequent Super Bowl, in which Goff passed for 229 yards with an interception and was sacked four times.
Since then, the Rams have seen similar game plans and an evolution of fronts to put the pressure on Goff to make him get rid of the football fast, a skill set that’s not exactly his forte.
“Footwork, progressions, pocket movement, ball security within the pocket — all of those things get tested when they’re seven or more sometimes in coverage and you may have to hold the ball or a No. 1 [receiving option] may not be open,” said Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell, who also serves as quarterbacks coach. “Progressing through the down, competing through the down all while maintaining that ball security is really what playing quarterback in the NFL is all about.”
The Rams have run play-action 34% of the time in 2020, which is the third-highest rate in the NFL behind the Patriots and Titans. Goff’s QBR in play-action is 66.3, which ranks 23rd in the league. He has six passing touchdowns, a rushing touchdown and four turnovers, including three interceptions and a lost fumble.
When Goff has been under pressure this season, his completion percentage has plummeted from 68.4% to 41.5%, which also ranks 23rd in the NFL. And his Total QBR drops 55.3 points to 5.5 — only Brady has a larger drop-off in QBR when pressured this year.
“That’s where the great ones separate themselves,” Warner explained, “is that they can do a lot of things well, and when you force them out of their comfort zone, they’re still good enough to make plays and win games that way.”
Under duress, Goff has passed for three touchdowns and has 10 turnovers, with six interceptions and four lost fumbles.
His turnovers under pressure are tied with Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr for the most in the NFL, while his six interceptions are tied with Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz — who was benched this week for rookie Jalen Hurts — and Denver Broncos quarterback Drew Lock.
It’s the turnovers that have been most costly — and perhaps most frustrating for McVay, who offered a variety of suggestions on how Goff can eliminate them.
“It might be keeping two hands on the ball. It might be understanding that if somebody is swarming around you that you can’t just throw it away when you don’t see where you’re going, being able to trust your guys to separate,” McVay said. “He’s capable of it.”
Goff also has been prone to fumbling, losing 17 fumbles for a total of 62 turnovers in that same span, ranking second only to Winston.
‘I’m a big boy. I can handle it.’
A day after McVay called out Goff, he admitted it was a bit out of character.
“I’m not going to apologize for the high expectations that I have in him,” McVay said. “Maybe while it was a little bit different approach, I think it was something that was honest, that I know he’s capable of correcting.”
Goff says he harbored no resentment.
“If he was lying, I’d feel differently about it,” Goff said. “He’s absolutely right, and I’m a big boy. I can handle it.”
Against the Cardinals, Goff proved as much.
It was a risk-averse approach, as he passed for 351 yards, mostly dinking and dunking his way down the field as his receivers picked up 254 yards after the catch. But it got the job done and he finished with a 104.9 passer rating, his highest since Week 7.
Most importantly, Goff did not turn the ball over.
“The one thing I wasn’t worried about was him being overwhelmed by having a tough outing and then being able to respond,” McVay said. “That was the least of my concern.”
After the win over the Cardinals, McVay and Goff put an arm around each other as they walked off the field, the troubles of their turnovers behind them.
At least until next week.