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Jared Goff Is Championship Sunday’s Least-Proven Quarterback—and May Also Be Its Most Important

The former no. 1 overall pick is the biggest QB question mark in a field featuring Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Patrick Mahomes II. How will Sean McVay put him in the best position to succeed?

Jared Goff Elias Stein/Getty Images

For the Rams, success has many fathers. Sean McVay, his staff, and his veteran offensive line are the brains of the Los Angeles Rams; Todd Gurley is the face of the team; Aaron Donald is the best defensive player in the league for the second year in a row; and C.J. Anderson is a sentient bowling ball. But Jared Goff is likely the key to the Rams making the Super Bowl. The third-year QB was asked to mostly play game manager in Los Angeles’s 30-22 win over Dallas last week as his offensive line paved the way for 273 team rushing yards in a dominant performance partially fueled by L.A. linemen having hints before the snap as to what the Cowboys front seven was planning to do. Against the Saints in the Superdome, the Rams won’t be able to suss out those same tells, and McVay will likely rely more on the passing game than he did last week, when he called 48 runs and 28 passes. Whether Jared Goff can execute his coach’s game plan on Sunday will likely be the difference between the Rams having their season end on Sunday or going on to Atlanta to play for the Lombardi Trophy.

Goff is the least proven quarterback left in the playoff field by a long shot. Drew Brees is the all-time passing leader. Patrick Mahomes II is in his first year as a starter, but he’s the favorite to be named Most Valuable Player and just completed one of the best passing seasons in NFL history. And Tom Brady is, well, Tom Brady. Meanwhile, Jared Goff is such an unknown commodity that he once took part in a Red Bull campaign that centered on his anonymity.

Goff put up excellent numbers this season. He finished fourth in passing yards (4,688), fourth in yards per attempt (8.4), and tied for sixth in passing touchdowns (32). He averaged just under 23 completions on just over 35 attempts for exactly 293 passing yards and two touchdowns with just over two sacks and just under one interception per game. He’s a top-10 quarterback by just about every statistical measurement except completion percentage. But the Rams haven’t relied on Goff to nearly the extent the Pats rely on Brady, the Saints rely on Brees, or the Chiefs rely on Mahomes. In fact, Goff hasn’t been the key ingredient in a Rams win that mattered since their epic shootout against Kansas City in Week 11. Since that 413-yard, four-touchdown performance, he has thrown six touchdowns and six interceptions in six games: a win over Detroit that was closer than the final score indicated, losses to the Bears and Eagles, a dominant win fueled by 269 rushing yards over Arizona’s near-league-worst defense in Week 16, a Week 17 blowout against San Francisco that featured four passing touchdowns, and a run-heavy performance against Dallas last week. For the first time since mid-November, the Rams could lean on Goff to win a game that matters.

The Rams’ rushing performance against the Cowboys hid Goff’s mediocre day. His stat line wasn’t impressive—he completed 15 of 28 passes for 186 yards with no touchdowns, picks, or sacks—but it wasn’t game-planned to be an impressive day for Goff. What was concerning was Goff’s inability to execute on several plays he was asked to make. On the Rams’ second drive, the team faced a third-and-goal from the Dallas 5-yard line. Goff dropped back and looked for Brandin Cooks in the end zone, but Cooks caught the ball out of bounds.

It’s a tough throw—along the sideline and in a tight window in the corner of the end zone—but Goff didn’t make it easier on himself. He threw the ball while backpedaling despite having no pass rush in his face. If he had stepped into the throw, he would have had a better shot at driving the ball in to Cooks. More importantly, the window would have been far bigger had Goff threw the ball earlier. If Goff had released the ball when Cooks was running on top of the “R,” he likely would have been able to get the ball to Cooks inbounds in the corner. Instead, Goff releases the ball when Cooks is almost to the corner of the NFL shield, and Cooks has to leap out of bounds make the catch.

It’s a throw a former no. 1 overall pick should be able to make, and it forced the Rams to settle for a field goal, costing them four points. Still, it’s unfair to read too much into one missed throw that Goff would probably like to have back. More concerning was a play Goff made in the final drive of the first half, with the Rams coming out of their final timeout, facing a first-and-10 at their own 41-yard line, and trying to get into field goal range. Looking for receiver Josh Reynolds, Goff nearly threw an interception to Cowboys cornerback Chidobe Awuzie.

It’s a bad throw, and a peek at the coaches film makes it look even worse. Reynolds was streaking across the middle of the field wide open, but had to immediately stop running as soon as the ball left Goff’s hand, and the ball still comes in about a yard behind Reynolds. Even considering where he was running, the throw was roughly 10 yards off target.

The throw is so bad that Goff may have thought Reynolds was running a different route (and perhaps he was supposed to be). Either way, it’s less than ideal coming out of a timeout. If the throw had been completed, Reynolds could have reached at least the Dallas 35-yard line, and the Rams could have spiked the ball to set up a 52-yard field goal attempt. Instead, the Rams settled for a 63-yarder, and kicker Greg Zuerlein missed wide right. Whatever the reason for the incompletion, it likely cost the Rams three points considering Zuerlein is 4-of-6 from beyond 50 yards this year, and it also nearly ended in a Dallas interception that could have given the Cowboys a chance at a field goal.

Goff also had some issues on the second drive of the second half. Facing a second-and-2 at Dallas’s 47-yard line, Goff dropped back and fired a ball to Robert Woods on a slant, but the ball went over Woods’s head. Goff’s miss doesn’t look egregious at first glance, but considering Woods beat his man, Cooks was given space at the bottom of the play, and Goff had perfect pass protection, the quarterback should either nail the throw or hold the ball and let the play develop. Still, it happens, right? Onto the next one!

About that … here’s what Goff did on third-and-2:

This is what people in the NFL would call “some Blake Bortles shit.” Goff sailed the ball over a wide-open Gerald Everett, and the Rams were forced to punt—their only of the night.

None of this is to say that Goff had a terrible game. He certainly made some excellent plays as a passer on the day, and his bootleg on the final drive sealed the game. But Goff left enough plays on the field on Saturday that the Rams won by just eight despite rushing for more than five times as many yards as the Cowboys, gaining 11 more first downs, and holding onto the ball for 36-plus minutes. His throw to Everett on third down was terrible, and considering their field position at the time, it probably cost the Rams a field goal attempt. Goff’s pass at the end of the first half toward Reynolds was probably (but not definitely) on Goff, and that also likely cost the Rams three points. Goff’s pass in the end zone to Brandin Cooks was not a bad pass, but Goff could have gotten a touchdown with a better pass, and that cost the Rams four points. That’s 10 points that Goff left on the field against the Cowboys, which is exactly the amount the Rams lost to the Saints by in their 45-35 Week 9 loss.

After Saturday night’s win over Dallas, Rams left tackle and team captain Andrew Whitworth said that the preparation leading up to the game wasn’t different than their loss to Atlanta in the wild-card round last year. Rather, the team executed this time.

“I thought last year [against Atlanta], we didn’t execute very well at all,” Whitworth said. “It was really one of our worst games we played all season from an execution standpoint. This year, that was in Chicago. In some ways, it’s benefitted us to get that game out of the way and kind of have a re-check and say, ‘All right, how do we build ourselves back into what we really started this season?’ I feel like we’re on that path.”

Todd Gurley, C.J. Anderson, and the Rams’ offensive line crushed the execution against Dallas last week, and now Goff has to execute the game plan McVay draws up for Sunday against the Saints. Many of the opportunities Goff sees will likely come from play-action passing, which he has typically excelled at this season. The Rams ran play-action on more than a third of their pass plays in 2018, the most in the league, and they were among the most efficient at it too. On his regular dropbacks this season, Jared Goff averaged 7.5 yards per pass attempt, tied for ninth-best mark in football. But on his play-action passes, Goff averaged 10.0 yards per attempt, tied for the fourth-highest in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. In other words, every time the Rams ran play-action in 2018, the average gain was enough for a first down.

(To put the efficiency of play-action passing versus rushing in perspective, Green Bay’s Aaron Jones led qualifying running backs with 5.5 yards per carry this year.) The efficiency is impressive enough, but what makes it stunning is the volume of play-action plays the team ran. The players ahead of Goff in yards per attempt are Ryan Fitzpatrick, Philip Rivers, and Nick Mullens, who dropped back on a play-action pass 53, 101, and 74 times, respectively. Goff dropped back into play-action 213 times, by far the most in the league, and he also led the league in passing yards and passing touchdowns on those dropbacks.

Perhaps sensing that his team had yet to hit any diminishing returns in the play-action game, McVay doubled down against the Cowboys and used it on just over half of Goff’s dropbacks. Of Goff’s 28 attempts, 14 came on play-action, and he completed eight of those for 104 yards. Goff’s 14 non-play-action attempts resulted in seven completions and 82 yards. It was the highest rate of play-action fakes per dropback of Goff’s career.

“We run the ball to set up the play-action pass, we get big chunks off of that, it limits your dropbacks [and] your exposure to known pass-rush scenarios,” Rams center John Sullivan said after the game. “It’s all complementary football.”

When the Rams can’t do that, it can get ugly. Their worst stretch of the season coincided with a huge dip in Goff’s efficiency, including on play-action. In the three weeks following the Rams’ Week 12 bye, they had a three-game swoon that included a 30-16 win over Detroit that was 16-13 entering the fourth quarter, the loss to the Bears in Chicago in Week 14, and a 30-23 loss to the Eagles on Sunday Night Football. In the latter two games against two of the best defensive lines in football, the Rams offensive line struggled, and so did Goff and the run game. In those three games, Goff went from the best quarterback on play-action to below average, dropping to 6.4 yards per attempt (22nd of 35 passers). His non-play-action passes were among the worst in the league in that stretch, falling to 32nd of 35 quarterbacks with 5.3 yards per attempt, only ahead of Marcus Mariota, Josh McCown, and Mark Sanchez. In the games since, Goff has either played bad opponents (Arizona and San Francisco) or not been the focus of the game plan (Dallas). He’ll likely be the center of the game plan against a quality opponent for the first time since that epic Chiefs game.

Even with the Saints missing defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, who ruptured his Achilles last week against the Eagles, the Rams likely won’t be able to dominate the Saints up-front the same way they dominated the Cowboys by out-preparing them. But considering the value of the play fake is mostly in the fake itself, and that the Rams already crushed Dallas last week, the play-action is likely to be a staple of Los Angeles’s plan against New Orleans. After all, the Rams know Goff can weave an excellent game together in the Superdome after his performance in Week 9. In that game, Goff completed 28 of 40 passes for 391 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception. Of his 40 passes that afternoon, Goff attempted 13 play-action passes for 11 completions, 183 yards (14.1 yards per attempt and 84.6 percent completion), two touchdowns, and a perfect 158.3 passer rating, according to Pro Football Focus. On his 27 non-play-action attempts against New Orleans, Goff completed 17 for 208 yards (7.7 yards per attempt and 63.0 percent completion) for one touchdown, one interception, and an 83.6 passer rating. Here’s Goff faking a sweep to Gurley before completing a great throw to Cooks in the corner of the end zone to give the receiver a score against his former team.

And here’s Goff faking a handoff to Gurley and then tossing a 48-yard pass to Cooks down the sideline over the heads of safety Vonn Bell and cornerback Marshon Lattimore, the latter of whom had two interceptions on Sunday against the Eagles on Sunday.

Goff can certainly make play-action passes against New Orleans, though it might be even tougher on Sunday than it was in November. Since their meeting in Week 9, the Saints lead the league in sacks (32) and takeaways (16). That could be an issue for Goff, who holds onto the ball more often than any other quarterback. Goff spends more than 2.5 seconds in the pocket on more than two-thirds of his dropbacks, the highest rate in the league. Meanwhile, Goff’s counterpart on Sunday, Drew Brees, spends 44.7 percent of his dropbacks in the pocket for more than 2.5 seconds, 32nd out of 36 quarterbacks in football. It may not sound like a long time, but 2.5 seconds can be a dangerous proposition in the NFL’s two-seconds-or-less pass-rush battle. The Rams just put up one of the best pass-protection performances of the season against the Cowboys, but that was aided in part by the tells Dallas inadvertently gave away. If the Saints are able to get to Goff with defensive ends Cam Jordan and rookie Marcus Davenport, it could prove decisive.

The Rams will depend on Jared Goff to get the win on Sunday. A win would further cement his teammates’ trust in him and go a long way to elevating him as a peer of Mahomes—and probably get the players at Ventura College to recognize his face, too.