In a vacuum, the Rams’ decision to give quarterback Jared Goff a record-setting four-year extension worth $110 million guaranteed seems reasonable enough. While Goff’s average annual value of $33.5 million is eye-popping, it’s a bargain for a good quarterback. And Goff appears to be well worth the deal: He has been in the top five in adjusted net yards per attempt (a decent rough measure of a quarterback’s efficiency as determined by yards, touchdowns, interceptions, and sacks) in back-to-back seasons, just put up 4,688 yards and 32 touchdowns, led his team to the Super Bowl, and is only 24 years old. He is exactly the type of passer teams can struggle for decades to find.
But most of the credit for the success of Goff’s team has gone to head coach Sean McVay, who, in the words of Trent Dilfer, turned the Rams from “a shit sandwich into an ice cream cone” after he took over in 2017. Goff had debatably the worst rookie season in NFL history under head coach Jeff Fisher, and many had already written off the Rams QB as a bust. So when he became a Pro Bowler under McVay, there was widespread hesitation: Was it that Goff had improved, or was McVay’s system so incredible that it made a mediocre QB look good?
It’s not possible to completely untangle any quarterback’s abilities from the system he is in—no quarterback can block for himself or catch his own passes, so all QBs are, to some extent, “system QBs.” But that label has stuck to Goff like no other quarterback, in part because McVay’s system has been so effective—and Fisher’s was so bad—that it’s been impossible to even begin to separate Goff from the system he’s in.
Virtually every aspect of the Rams offense—from the blocking to the wide receivers to the play-action usage—was turned upside down with McVay’s arrival. This is no secret, but a peek under the hood at some advanced numbers can help isolate some of the different parts of McVay’s offense, revealing just how stark the transformation was—and whether the Rams are making a mistake in signing him long term.
Over the past two years, the Rams have laid the foundation for their offensive success by putting together the best offensive line in football. In 2018, the Rams were the top pass-blocking offensive line by ESPN’s pass-block win rate, a year after they had the no. 2 overall line by the same metric. Yet under Fisher, the Rams had an abysmal line, ranking 30th in that stat. In 2016, Goff was pressured on 43.6 percent of his dropbacks, but that number dropped to 35.7 percent in 2017 and 32.0 percent in 2018, per Pro Football Focus.
That jump—caused by a combination of a schematic shift, a new line coach in Aaron Kromer, and an infusion of talent thanks to free-agent additions Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan—has been particularly critical to Goff’s success. Over the past two seasons, Goff has been one of the best quarterbacks in the league when kept clean. He had the fourth-highest passer rating on such plays last season, and was third-highest in 2017, per PFF. But when under pressure, that dips: Goff had the ninth-lowest passer rating (out of 30 qualified QBs) when under pressure in 2018. He was a bit better in 2017, with the 18th-lowest passer rating (or 12th-best, out of 29 QBs), but was still nothing to write home about. Every QB is worse under pressure, but Goff occasionally has that deer-in-the-headlights look when defenders get close. Just look at the pass that essentially handed the Patriots the Lombardi Trophy:
To be fair to Goff, this throw came one play after a perfectly placed would-be touchdown that Brandin Cooks dropped. But the broader data points toward Goff’s benefiting from relatively easy throws under McVay. In 2018, Goff threw just 13.2 percent of his passes into tight coverage, per Next Gen Stats. That was the seventh-lowest mark in the league (out of 39 qualified passers), and it marked a dip from 2017, when he threw 14.3 percent of his passes into tight coverage (fifth-lowest out of 41). Yet under Fisher—you guessed it—Goff threw a whopping 25.9 percent of his passes into tight coverage as a rookie, easily the highest percentage in the league.
It’s not a bad thing for a quarterback to take advantage of “easy” throws. Other names that were near Goff on that list in 2018 include Patrick Mahomes (a ludicrously low 12.4 percent), Aaron Rodgers (13.7 percent), and Tom Brady (13.9 percent). It’s not totally clear whether this number is the result of a quarterback intentionally avoiding risky passes or offensive schemes generating easy throws (the answer is almost certainly a bit of both), and Goff has shown that he can fit balls into tight windows when he needs to. This touchdown from Week 4 is one of the best throws made by any quarterback last year:
Even with throws like that one on the tape, there is still more evidence that points toward Goff’s getting a boost from his pass-catching corps. In 2018, the Rams had the top-graded receivers unit in the league, per Pro Football Focus. That was a decent improvement over 2017, in which the team ranked 10th, but was, of course, a massive boost over Fisher’s squad, which ranked 31st in 2016. As the Football Outsiders Almanac notes, the Rams’ three starting wide receivers—Cooks, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp—all finished in the top 25 in DYAR, and that’s despite Kupp’s missing eight games in 2018.
We did get a glimpse of what Goff looks like without his top receivers last year when Kupp was out of the lineup, and it wasn’t pretty. In the seven games that Kupp played (not including Week 6, when Kupp recorded just one target before exiting the game with a knee injury), Goff averaged 348 passing yards per game on 9.9 yards per attempt with 17 touchdowns against five interceptions. In the 12 games without Kupp (including the playoffs), those numbers fell to 247 yards per game, 16 touchdowns, nine interceptions, and 7.0 yards per attempt. That dip may not have been entirely due to Kupp’s absence—and these sample sizes aren’t the largest—but the contrast in performance is jarring and signals Kupp’s importance to Goff’s effectiveness.
Goff has also gotten a lot of help from the Rams’ rushing game. By DVOA, the Rams had a top-10 rushing attack in 2017, and they improved into an otherworldly unit in 2018. The Rams had a rushing DVOA of 21.3 percent last year, which was better than the passing offenses of all but nine teams. That was a whopping 65 percent better the second-best team by that metric (Carolina, at 12.9 percent). In 2016, the Rams were terrible on the ground, recording a negative-26.6 percent DVOA, handily the worst mark in the league.
The rushing success with McVay has likely played a part in the Rams’ use of their favorite play concept: play-action passes. Teams don’t necessarily have to establish the run to have success on play-action, but it certainly can’t hurt to have a serious ground threat. Goff used play-action on 35.8 percent of his dropbacks in 2018, per PFF, second-highest rate in the league, second to only Lamar Jackson (42.9 percent). In 2017, Goff rated third with 29.1 percent (Nick Foles led with 32.7 percent). Goff is one of the best play-action passers in the NFL, averaging 10.0 yards per attempt on such passes in 2018, the fourth-highest mark. On non-play-action plays, though, Goff’s yards per attempt dipped to 7.4, tied for 12th. Most passers are better off of play action, but that’s especially true for Goff: His boost of 2.5 yards per attempt when using play action was tied for the seventh-highest mark in the league. Predictably, Goff in 2016 under Fisher used play-action on just 14.1 percent of his passes, the lowest rate in the league.
This is the system that has allowed Goff to flourish: one of the best offensive lines in football, a stellar receivers corps, an incredible running game, and plenty of play-action. It’s comical how all of that was virtually the exact opposite of what Goff had under Fisher. That’s what makes Goff so difficult to evaluate.
It’s tempting to say that all this data about the Rams offense points toward Goff being the embodiment of a system QB. But Goff is still the driver in McVay’s sportscar, and I’m not convinced that Blake Bortles—the Rams’ backup—could take this offense to the same heights, even with all the advantages any Rams passer gets. It’s worth reminding ourselves how good Goff has been: He’s one of only three quarterbacks in league history to record two seasons with an era-adjusted ANY/A above 120 before his age-25 season. The only other names on that list are Dan Marino and Peyton Manning.
Still, Los Angeles decided to hand Goff an extension after just three years when it easily could have waited—as a first-round pick, Goff is under team control for another two seasons. These types of early extensions are relatively uncommon:
By my count, 14 first-round picks have signed extensions before starting year four of their rookie deals.— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) September 4, 2019
The Rams are now responsible for four of those 14 deals:
- Robert Quinn
- Tavon Austin
- Todd Gurley
- Jared Goff
We may soon find out what Goff looks like when he isn’t playing in a quarterback’s paradise or an offensive nightmare. The first place that could happen is along the offensive line: Whitworth is now 37, the oldest left tackle in the league by a wide margin. The Rams chose not to re-sign Sullivan in free agency, and left guard Rodger Saffold left to take a payday with the Titans. If the Rams start allowing pressure closer to league-average rates, will Goff’s performance also take a hit?
McVay’s scheme is also changing. After heavily using three-receiver sets in 2017 and 2018, there are rumblings that the Rams could use more two-tight-end sets in 2019. While McVay should be trusted with any change he makes, shifting away from 11 personnel (three receivers, one running back, one tight end) would take one of the Rams’ talented receivers off the field.
Oh yeah, and Todd Gurley’s reportedly arthritic knee is a concern for the Rams’ rushing game, which probably can’t repeat its historic 2018 performance even if their lead back is at 100 percent all year long.
And the Rams’ historic run of health isn’t likely to continue forever. Even with Kupp’s injury, the Rams were the fourth-healthiest team in Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost metric after ranking first in that stat in 2017 (and, shockingly, first in 2016—Fisher did one thing right!).
Even with McVay, the Rams can’t maintain their dominance in virtually every offensive area forever. If the line crumbles, the running game falls to earth, the receivers regress, or the injuries pile up, we may soon finally see Goff in something approximating a league-average system. One of those things is likely to happen sooner or later—and that could finally shed a light on whether the Rams’ $110 million bet proves to be worth it. But until that happens, Goff will continue to be the league’s ultimate system QB.