IRVINE, Calif. — Jared Goff bites his nails, which is weird because that’s a habit you normally associate with nervous people, and Goff doesn’t otherwise strike you as a nervous person.
“I need to stop. It’s gross,” the Los Angeles Rams’ 23-year-old quarterback said, inspecting the gnawed-down nubs of his fingertips between training camp practices here in late July. “It’s terrible. I’ve never been able to stop. Because most times, I’m unconsciously doing it. I don’t even know I’m doing it until I look down. And I know it’s terrible. It hurts.”
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Not to minimize the issue of nail-biting, but if this is what qualifies as a major problem in Goff’s world, he has come a long way in 12 months. This time last year, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NFL draft was coming off a frustrating rookie season, confronting an external perception that he might be a bust, and working with a new coaching staff that didn’t initially know what to make of him.
“I would say that we had a lot of confidence in terms of what he could become, but we were really just getting familiar with each other,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “What you did really like about him was, when you look at his history, this is somebody that’s overcome some adversity. And I never sensed that he was fazed by the way the rookie year went.”
He was not, and the result of the Goff/McVay partnership was a stunning 2017 turnaround for both quarterback and franchise. The Rams went 11-5 last year, their first winning season since 2003, and won the NFC West. That may not have been possible if not for Goff’s ability to shrug off negatives.
“He has a great ability,” Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth said of his young quarterback, “to not let the past be his label.”
Which was great last year, but this year is a different story. Now, for Goff, McVay and the Rams, the pressure is on. They’re not sneaking up on anyone this time. They’re the favorites to repeat as division champs and they’re being hailed as a Super Bowl contender in what looks like a loaded NFC. The question about this year’s Rams is no longer “When will they get it together?” It’s now, “What can they do for an encore?”
“We can’t rest on our laurels,” Rams general manager Les Snead said. “Even after successful seasons, there are going to be those moments where you’re watching the film and throwing your remote. And you can’t let the wins diminish those moments. You have to take a hard look at where we can improve.”
Snead and the front office got after that in a big way, bringing in marquee defensive players such as Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib and Ndamukong Suh, trading for speedy wide receiver Brandin Cooks and locking up star running back Todd Gurley on a lucrative four-year deal. At this writing, they still hadn’t done the same for defensive superstar Aaron Donald, but they’re working on that. Assuming Donald gets signed and in camp in time for the start of the season, the roster looks primed for big things.
But much of the Rams’ 2018 story will rest on the continued development of Goff, who’s still a very young quarterback-in-progress and knows his story is still at its beginning. Last year was about establishing something and shrugging off a rough rookie season. This year is about Goff growing into what he and the Rams believe he can be.
“I think there was a lot of stuff going on last year, with the new system and just trying to focus and get better daily,” Goff said. “I wasn’t really too concerned with the past. I know what I can do. So it was just trying to focus and get where I needed to be to lead this offense and be successful, and I felt like we did a lot of good things. So, trying to continue to build on that and get better this year.”
It’s not as if Goff doesn’t pay attention to what’s said about him. He was aware, for example, when details were reported of how the Rams’ offense would hustle to the line quickly so that McVay could relay as much pre-snap information as possible to Goff before reaching the 15-second mark on the play clock, which is the point where coach/QB headset communication is cut off. Goff thinks that got a bit too much attention.
“God forbid a guy in his first year in a new system, second year in the NFL, is getting a little information from the head coach. Not the end of the world,” Goff said. “We’re just doing things the way everyone else does, but the way [McVay] talks and the way he communicates is just so vivid and detailed, he really does give me a lot of information.
“As time goes on, I’ll hopefully become more in control of that. … I expect some of that this season and as time goes on.”
Aqib Talib says there’s no adjustment needed for him as the Rams’ defense under Wade Phillips is the “same defense” he’s accustomed to.
The Rams wouldn’t have traded up to take Goff No. 1 in the draft — ahead of Philadelphia wunderkind Carson Wentz — if they didn’t expect him to shoulder a great deal of responsibility. When they looked at him coming out of college, they saw a guy who performed well under pressure, in spite of some offensive line issues Cal was having while he was the Golden Bears’ quarterback.
“The nuance of that was the little subtleties — to be able to step here or there in the pocket, make a pass from unscheduled positions. … There was a deceptive mobility there,” Snead recalled. “And also the ability to throw touchdown passes in the red zone. There’s a lot of people in college football that may throw the touchdown pass outside the 20-yard line, deep balls and things like that. Those are low-percentage shots in the NFL. But to be able to go inside the 20, inside the 10, where things squinch up and the windows get tighter — doing some analytics over the years, guys who were able to throw touchdowns in those tight windows in college translate.”
Goff had 23 touchdowns and no picks in the red zone last season, compared to four TDs and one interception in the red zone in seven starts during his rookie year.
He is now poised to take on more responsibility. Yes, the Rams have done everything they could do to surround Goff with people who help get the best out of him. Veteran offensive linemen like Whitworth and center John Sullivan. Receivers like Cooks and 2017 breakout star Robert Woods. A true franchise running back in Gurley, who was drafted a year before Goff. An extremely quarterback-friendly head coach in McVay.
But the development of the Rams’ offense going forward will track the development of Goff himself. All of those other pieces are established in their roles. (Sure, McVay has only one year as a head coach, but his chops as a nimble offensive mind are well established.) If Goff plays exactly the same as he did last year, the Rams know what they can do with that. The goal is for him to continue to improve, develop and take on more responsibility, so that they can find out how high they can push the ceiling of what they can do.
“I think it’s just going to be about that continued ownership,” McVay said. “We always talk about the quarterback being an extension of our coaching staff, understanding the intent of every single play, being disciplined, being able to read with his feet. You look at the guys around the league that have consistently produced. They don’t take sacks. They’re finding completions, getting the ball out of their hands. Those are the things we expect him to continue to grow with.”
Goff’s in a place right now where he can breathe, and maybe not concern himself with 2017 perceptions that he was the wrong pick at No. 1 or whether he got enough development as a rookie. Now, he can get really specific on ways in which he’s trying to get the ball out more quickly so that he can be an even bigger part of his own protection. He’s drilling down on the specifics of his receivers’ routes and the various concepts McVay’s trying to articulate — not just in the final pre-snap seconds, but all week in meetings.
“Just the little details of it that I maybe couldn’t understand last year, just because I wasn’t as in-depth with it purely because of time — not having enough time to learn it all,” Goff said. “I think last year, I felt like I knew a lot. But looking back, you didn’t know that much. And I think next year, I’ll feel that way about this year, and on and on like that as you go.”
Of course, if Goff’s first couple of years in the league have taught him anything, it’s to not look back. As the 2018 season dawns, Goff and the Rams are looking forward, and hoping things can continue to get brighter for all of them.