For Trent Dilfer, the day the Rams hired Sean McVay as their head coach was cause for celebration. “I was thrilled to death,” the 14-year NFL veteran and former ESPN analyst says. That’s because Dilfer has known Los Angeles quarterback Jared Goff since 2012, when he was a high school passer invited to the Nike Elite 11 camp that Dilfer has run for the past seven years. As someone deeply invested in Goff’s football success, Dilfer viewed the chance for one of his pupils to work with the former Washington offensive coordinator as the best news imaginable. “[I told Jared,] ‘You do everything they ask you to do and more because you’re one of the lucky ones,’” Dilfer says. “You turned a shit sandwich into an ice cream cone just by who’s coaching you.”
The Rams traded nearly an entire year’s worth of draft capital to move up 14 spots and take Goff with the no. 1 overall pick in 2016. The former Cal standout spent the first nine games of his career backing up journeyman Case Keenum, but was thrust into action after Los Angeles opened last season 4-5, scored 10 points or fewer in five separate outings, and ran down the clock on Jeff Fisher’s head-coaching tenure. Then Goff’s debut proved disastrous. Since 2000, only 11 quarterbacks have finished a season with at least 200 attempts and a lower amount of yards per attempt than Goff’s 5.31. The Rams lost all seven games in which he started, being outscored 221-85. Fisher was fired in December, and many wrote Goff off as a lost cause.
The most important challenge McVay and his offensive staff (a group that includes coordinator Matt LaFleur and quarterbacks coach Greg Olson) faced upon arriving in L.A. was fixing the player whom the franchise had spent a fortune to acquire. Through two games, tiny slivers of hope have begun to emerge. During the Rams’ 1-1 start, Goff has completed two-thirds of his passes and averaged 9.8 yards per attempt. He’s thrown for 530 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Most encouraging, the Rams have 12 recorded completions of 20-plus yards—second to only the Patriots—equaling their total from Goff’s seven starts last season.
A sample size of two games and the putrid Colts defense that the Rams picked apart in Week 1 should justifiably temper expectations, but there’s no mistaking that this year’s version of Goff has been a competent NFL quarterback. His concerning rookie habits have occasionally surfaced, yet he’s also shown flashes of increased comfort and command. Dilfer’s optimism was warranted: McVay’s presence has given Goff—and by extension, the Rams—a chance to compete.
In preparing for a new job and a fresh collection of players, coaches have no way to know what they’re inheriting. They scour days’ worth of game film, but that alone isn’t enough. The process is akin to scrolling through a slideshow on Zillow: The layout of the house is clear, but it’s impossible to tell whether the foundation is cracked without taking a look inside.
When McVay and Olson began working with Goff this spring, their first priority was restoring the confidence of the 22-year-old former college star. ‘We said, ‘Let’s build trust with him,’” Olson says. “That’s difficult to do in a short amount of time, but that’s one of the first things we said we wanted to establish with him. ‘What we’re telling you, what we’re trying to teach you, is solely intended to just get you better.’”
The Rams staff found that Goff was a quarterback with bad habits but not a broken psyche. According to Dilfer, it was a blessing that Goff started only seven games behind the 2016 team’s Swiss cheese offensive line; it put a cap on the long-term damage that the quarterback could incur. “We’ll use an analogy here—all he got were rub burns,” Dilfer says. “He didn’t get any gashes that are going to develop massive scar tissue.”
In this case, scars would have amounted to mental blemishes rather than physical ones. Olson says that many young quarterbacks who are exposed to poor protection for extended periods start to stare down the pass rush. They hear footsteps and see ghosts. Despite Goff playing behind a group that allowed the second-most sacks in the NFL (49) last fall, Olson says that “we didn’t feel like that was something we were concerned about.”
More than a redemption project, Olson saw Goff as a blank slate with excess natural throwing ability. “We just felt like, gosh, we could clean up his footwork,” Olson says. “We could clean up the timing and how he’s getting the ball out. We really just started from the ground up, how you would with most quarterbacks.”
In teaching Goff superior mechanics, the Rams staff made footwork the first and most crucial element. As a rookie, Goff displayed bad tendencies that were often exacerbated by his team’s subpar production. In McVay’s system, even adequate footwork isn’t enough to make the unit thrive.
The West Coast offense is built on timing and anticipation. That may seem like it places the biggest onus on a quarterback’s eyes and mind, but equally important are his toes. The rhythms of Goff’s drop inform his progression, thereby facilitating everything else. “We wanted him to understand that there is a timing mechanism,” Olson says. “And a lot of what we do is predicated on him getting the ball out on time.”
In L.A.’s first two games, that smooth, on-time delivery was apparent on multiple occasions (like on the above throw to rookie tight end Gerald Everett). And if Goff can regularly tie his mechanical improvements to the constructs of McVay’s scheme, every offensive group will benefit. The line won’t be required to hold for as long; the receivers will be able to trust when and where they’ll get the ball. If everything works in concert, Goff’s development will unlock the entire offense around him.
Dilfer saw myriad issues with former Rams offensive coordinator Rob Boras’s scheme last season, but the most glaring was a lack of what Dilfer calls “gimme plays.” Completion percentages and quarterback efficiency rates across the league are at all-time highs in part because of the uptick in short, simple throws built into offenses. “[The quarterback] doesn’t have to read a defense,” Dilfer says. “They don’t have to handle anything complex. They just play catch. And that’s not a criticism. It’s great! You need that.”
Those throws were largely missing from Goff’s repertoire as a rookie. This year, he’s already had plenty incorporated into the playbook.
As a play designer, McVay does his best to present quarterbacks with easy throws by exploiting the alignment of receivers and playing their routes off one another. Through two games this fall, the Rams have consistently used formations that feature two wideouts bunched to the same side of the field. This was a staple of both McVay’s offense in Washington and the system that LaFleur helped lead as the former quarterbacks coach in Atlanta. The tight spacing allows the receivers to create instant separation at the line of scrimmage, easing Goff’s burden as both a decision-maker and a passer.
If Goff identifies the opposing defense’s coverage—either before the snap or early in the down—he can take advantage of quick, ready-made throws that are part of the fabric of McVay’s approach. But sometimes Goff still looks like a quarterback with nine games of NFL starting experience. By misreading a defense or not fully trusting the system, he can sabotage plays that should otherwise stand a chance. His crushing late-game pick in a 27-20 loss to Washington in Week 2 represented the worst-case scenario, but there are subtler examples of Goff struggling to acclimate, too. When he fails to use proper footwork to time his release of the ball, plays around him can start to collapse.
The Rams have tried to further streamline Goff’s thinking with a heavy dose of play-action. According to Pro Football Focus, Goff used play-action on just 14.1 percent of his dropbacks as a rookie—the second-lowest rate in the NFL—yet improved his passer rating by more than 21 points when using a play fake. Washington used play-action at about a league-average rate under McVay, while LaFleur comes from a Kyle Shanahan scheme that used it on a league-high 27 percent of dropbacks in the team’s run to the Super Bowl.
Through two weeks, the Rams have leaned on play-action throws as the centerpiece of their passing game, and they’ve provided Goff with the cleanest throws he’s had as a pro. His conviction when making them is the best indicator to date that he’s gaining the confidence that Olson imagined, and the offense’s commitment to play-action has been made more effective by L.A.’s bevy of offseason reinforcements. General manager Les Snead signed left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center John Sullivan to shore up the line and added Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, and Sammy Watkins to revamp his roster’s receiving corps. Then there’s Everett, the tight end out of South Alabama who’s already showcased his skills as a deep threat.
“You’ve got to be able to present five different eligible options for the defense to defend in the passing game,” Dilfer says of NFL offenses. “Sean does a great job, like he did in Washington, of creating pass plays where you have four or five [options].”
The most important change among Goff’s supporting cast, though, might be the revitalization of the guy behind him in the backfield. The Rams finished dead last in Football Outsiders’ rushing DVOA in 2016; after two games in 2017, running back Todd Gurley has shown some of the juice that made him a revelation as a rookie. Gurley couldn’t get much going on the ground in a season-opening win over the Colts, but McVay still made a point of getting him the ball in a variety of ways. Gurley already has eight catches this fall after tallying 43 in all of 2016. Like a struggling 3-point basketball shooter who finds his stroke after hitting a free throw, a toiling back can get going after notching a touch in the open field. Following Gurley’s 136-total-yard performance in last Sunday’s loss to Washington, the Rams’ hope is that he’s found his stride and will be able to give Goff a number of easy looks.
Entering Thursday night’s matchup against the 49ers (0-2), Goff and the Rams remain a work in progress. Yet on the heels of last season’s bleak outlook, progress should be a welcome sight. The difference between Goff’s play this season and last is proof of just how much a staff and system can mean to a young quarterback. The Rams hope that this is just the start.
“So far, he’s done a lot of good things, but he still has a long way to go,” Olson says. “And he’d be the first guy to tell you that. He’s nowhere near where we’re hoping to get to.”