It’s a sunny December afternoon at the Coliseum. Quarterback Jared Goff, the first overall pick for the Los Angeles Rams in the 2016 NFL Draft, works out of the shotgun. Running back Todd Gurley, previous season’s rookie of the year, flanks Goff to the left while wide receiver Tavon Austin, the Rams’ top pick in 2013, is lined up in the slot. At a glance, this looks like the team of the future. From Goff to Gurley to Austin to tackles Rob Havenstein and Greg Robinson, the Rams have youth all over the field. Yet, with three minutes to go in the third quarter, they are down 35-0 to the Atlanta Falcons.
Goff takes the snap from center Tim Barnes and immediately begins shuffling to the left, anticipating pressure from the strong-side blitz. However, it isn’t enough. As he begins his release, he is engulfed by a crimson flash. Linebacker Vic Beasley has gotten to Goff’s blind side and is now scurrying, eyes fixated on the loose football. As Goff spins in desperation, trying to set his bearings, Beasley has already scooped up his prize. Untouched, Beasley waltzes into the end zone. Touchdown, Falcons.
That play was one of three turnovers and many other miscues by Jared Goff over the course of that afternoon. Even by rookie standards, it was an alarmingly bad performance. Unfortunately for Goff, it was not the only one. Over the course of his seven forgettable starts, Goff turned the ball over multiple times in four of them and failed to throw for 250 yards even once. When compared to the early success, or at least stability, of fellow young quarterbacks like Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott, Trevor Siemian, and even Cody Kessler, Goff looks markedly worse. The discussion of the former No.1 pick as a bust has already begun, and, unfortunately for him, it might be justified.
By the Numbers
On paper, Goff’s rookie campaign was as about as bad as they get, even in the context of only seven starts. His rookie averages of just 5.3 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 63.6 rank below those of Blaine Gabbert, a 2011 NFL Draft bust for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Goff’s touchdown percentage of 2.4% is worse than the 3.0% put up by JaMarcus Russell, who is regarded by many as one of the greatest draft busts of all time. Goff’s completion percentage, interception percentage, and yards per game average are equally alarming, as his figures of 54.6%, 3.4%, and 155.6, respectively, are all worse than the totals from Brandon Weeden’s 2012 rookie year. Even Goff’s TD:INT ratio, 5:7, is alarming in today’s mistake-free, game manager-heavy NFL. With numbers like these, the comparisons to Gabbert, Russell, and Weeden–all big-time draft busts–are not only inevitable, but reasonable.
This is not to condemn Goff as a bust, or even to suggest that the Rams should consider moving on. Many quarterbacks have had bad, even terrible rookie seasons and have still gone on to have successful careers. In his nine starts after being selected No. 1 overall in 2004, Eli Manning had worse numbers than Goff in nearly every statistical category. With 48.2% completion, a 55.4 passer rating, a 6:9 TD:INT ratio, 115.9 yards per game, Manning did not start his career off on a promising note. However, two rings, four Pro Bowl appearances, and a potential Hall of Fame career later, Manning has proved that a quarterback is not to be judged by a handful of starts in his rookie year. Alex Smith, the first overall pick the following year, was somehow even worse. With a passer rating of 40.8, a touchdown percentage of 0.6, a per-game average of 97.2 yards, and an abhorrent 1:11 TD:INT ratio, Smith’s rookie year was so terrible that there may never be one by a top pick that is as bad again. Yet, despite this, Smith still went on to become a solid long-term starter for not just the San Francisco 49ers, but also the Kansas City Chiefs. With Goff, there is a chance that there could be much of the same. However, players like Manning and Smith are the exception, not the rule.
The Eye Test
What is especially concerning in Goff’s case is that there was no real discrepancy between his performance on film and his performance on the stat sheet. Though his supporting cast was, admittedly, the worst in the league last season, Goff had only himself to blame for a vast majority of his miscues. Whether it be missing a wide-open receiver in the end zone against the Seahawks or completely misreading coverage and throwing an interception directly to a dropping Deion Jones against the Falcons, no amount of help can prevent these kinds of mistakes. They are on the quarterback, and on the quarterback alone.
Many of Goff’s issues as a rookie were the same issues that he battled with during his time at Cal. In college, Goff had two main problems: consistency with his accuracy and reaction to pressure. While Goff hit tight windows or placed deep balls better than any other quarterback in that draft class, he was often inexplicably wild with the basic passes. Against Arizona State, Goff threw behind his running back, Khalifani Muhammad, by almost two yards on a routine screen pass. As talented as he may be, a young quarterback has to start with the basics first and build up to have any chance to be successful. This erraticism was only amplified in the face of pressure. Regularly, when faced with a rusher, Goff would rush to his primary read and quick-snap the ball in that direction, throwing off-balance and often missing wildly. This was not a singular occurrence: it would happen multiple times a game, but was often masked by the rapid-fire nature of Cal’s “Bear Raid” offense. During Goff’s rookie year, it was much of the same. All season, Goff routinely failed to set his feet under pressure, struggled throwing outside the numbers, and had numerous inexplicable misses on short crossers and timing routes.
However, as bad as Goff’s rookie tape may be, the upside is still there. He was, after all, the No.1 pick, and my No.1 quarterback prospect, for a reason. As inconsistent as he was at Cal, if his game was on, he could hit just about any window, especially throwing deep. In almost every game he played, he would go on a run of multiple picture-perfect passes, one after another. Arm strength was never an issue, since he would make up for any time lost due to velocity with his lightning-fast release. His movement in the pocket was also incredibly fun to watch. Though he sometimes failed to set his feet while throwing, he always moved efficiently and knew how to find open space and buy time for himself. With the Rams, all this talent was still highly evident. Against the Saints, Goff threw open a tightly-covered Tavon Austin on a corner route for a deep touchdown. In that same game, he hit multiple long comeback routes into tight windows. Although it was against one of the worst secondaries in the league, that game was still a glimpse into exactly what Goff could develop into: an efficient vertical passer with a quick release.
Goff has talent, but it does not look good for him going forward. The biggest reason for why so many consider Carson Wentz’s rookie season a success is because he got the basics down. Though he was not a precision passer by any means, he had a good sense of timing, hit his checkdowns consistently, and methodically moved the offense. Goff may throw a prettier ball, but if he can’t even hit a drag route consistently, there is no way to advance beyond that and allow him to stretch the field. Furthermore, the offense that surrounds Goff is in no shape to help him mask his problems. Seeing that Goff’s biggest strength is deep passing, the best way to help him is by surrounding him with prolific deep threats.
This is exactly what the Colts did for Andrew Luck in Luck’s rookie season: they added WR T.Y. Hilton and tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen in the draft to stretch the field, and it worked to perfection. However, in Goff’s case, his top receiver may be 2017 third-round pick Cooper Kupp, who is closer to the recently-departed Kenny Britt than Hilton. Kupp may be valuable to have, but he likely won’t be the explosive player that Goff desperately needs. Until rookie tight end Gerald Everett becomes a true mismatch on the seams, it is safe to say that the Rams are only doing Goff a disservice. Furthermore, the Rams’ porous offensive line only serves to expose Goff’s struggles under pressure. Even with the presence of Andrew Whitworth at left tackle this coming season, the Rams’ offensive line is still among the league’s worst.
Though there is still time for Goff to turn it around, as harsh as it may seem, it is highly unlikely that he does it with the Rams. Even though new head coach Sean McVay has a track record of past success with quarterback Kirk Cousins in Washington, he now has to work with far inferior offensive personnel to improve a quarterback with a completely different skill set.
In all likelihood, Goff will continue to struggle next year, but should get a fresh start somewhere else. The Pittsburgh Steelers seem like a perfect fit. With Ben Roethlisberger on the cusp of retiring, the Steelers need a new quarterback in the building. For the price of their late first-round pick next year, or potentially even less, the Steelers could take a flyer on Goff. Although Goff will likely continue to struggle under pressure, having an offensive line as stifling as Pittsburgh’s would mask it, as the Oakland Raiders’ line does for Derek Carr. Additionally, with one of the most aggressive vertical offenses in football, equipped with “home run hitters” like Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Sammie Coates, the Steelers would make the most of Goff’s skill set. In a place like Pittsburgh, Goff may finally show off what made him so attractive to me and many others back in 2016. However, until he is given that kind of support, it will be extremely difficult for Goff to flourish.