What we do know is that circumstances matter to success. And so far, it looks as if Goff’s 2017 circumstances are a lot more favorable for success than his 2016 circumstances were.
How so? Glad you asked.
There’s a lot to be said for the way the Rams added pieces in key spots for Goff. Veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth was a shrewd signing and, along with veteran center John Sullivan, has helped stabilize things a bit on the offensive line. The training camp trade for Sammy Watkins brought Goff a true No. 1-type wideout, and the Rams might have stolen receiver Cooper Kupp in the third round of the 2017 draft. Los Angeles has constructed a roster that should help the new coaching staff make a truer, fuller evaluation of its young quarterback when this season is over.
But the more important circumstantial change is that new coaching staff and the coherent offensive philosophy that came with it.
“I would like to think that we have a pretty quarterback-friendly system,” offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur said last week.
LaFleur was answering a question about coach Sean McVay’s methods of game plan strategy and playcalling and the positive effect they’ve had on the Rams’ offense. He pointed to the success McVay had as offensive coordinator in Washington, where Kirk Cousins blossomed as a starting quarterback the past two years, helping McVay become a hot head-coaching candidate at the age of 30. (He has turned 31 since the Rams hired him.)
McVay’s system helps the quarterback with deceptive route concepts, with first-down play-action and with tight formations from which running plays and passing plays can originate without giving away which is coming. The system simplifies the quarterback’s reads, tying them to pre-snap defensive coverage recognition and shifting more of the responsibility to the receivers as they get off the ball and go downfield.
Moreover, the whole thing is well-defined and well-communicated. McVay and LaFleur know what they want to do because they’ve done it. Both came up under current San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan in Washington, and LaFleur was with Shanahan the past two years in Atlanta before joining McVay in Los Angeles this offseason. (LaFleur’s brother, Mike, was on that staff as well and is currently Shanahan’s wide receivers coach/passing game specialist in San Francisco.)
The Rams’ offense is the same one McVay was running in Washington — a derivation of Shanahan’s system that LaFleur knows well because of his experience with both. Everyone on the Rams’ offensive staff is on the same page, preaching and communicating stuff they’ve taught before with a confidence born of having seen it work.
The 2016 Rams were a different — and more complicated — story.
After the Rams drafted Goff No. 1 overall in 2016, he found himself plunged into a strange amalgamation of coaches and philosophy that never came together. Jeff Fisher was the head coach, but he came from a defensive background, so the offensive staff was more directly responsible for Goff’s initial development. That staff included holdover offensive coordinator Rob Boras, who had assumed the job when the team fired Frank Cignetti Jr. in December 2015. But the 2016 Rams also added Mike Groh as wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator, and retained Chris Weinke as quarterbacks coach. Weinke had never coached in the NFL before joining the Rams’ staff in 2015, and Groh came from Chicago, where he’d worked under offensive coordinator Adam Gase. So the Rams were trying to put together a hybrid offense that featured some of what they’d been doing under Cignetti and Boras, but also incorporated some of what Groh brought with him from Chicago. Meanwhile, Goff’s position coach was inexperienced at the NFL level.
“It was messy,” said one member of the 2016 Rams staff, who preferred to speak on condition of anonymity out of concern that his comments might be taken as criticism. “Not that these weren’t smart guys or good coaches, but there were definitely a lot of voices talking at once. And for a young quarterback, you can see where that might not be what you want.”
It’s well-known that Goff didn’t even get to start until the 10th game of his rookie season. He began the season as backup to Case Keenum while working to learn the NFL game and the complex system so many coaches were trying to teach him at once. He had to learn to operate from under center and manage a huddle — things he didn’t have to do at Cal. It was a lot to learn in a short period of time, so it’s no surprise that Goff struggled once he got the chance to play. In seven games, he completed 54.6 percent of his passes, threw five touchdown passes and seven interceptions, and finished with a QBR of 18.9, which would have ranked last in the league — by far — if he had enough snaps to qualify.
The new staff found a 22-year-old quarterback who had been picked first in the draft but had endured something close to a lost rookie season. Some benefit, sure, to being around and learning the NFL life, but as a player, Goff did not enjoy the same kind of success or development as fellow rookies Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott did in Philadelphia and Dallas. LaFleur said during camp that the Rams felt they almost had to treat Goff like a rookie as they prepared him for his second NFL season.
So far, though, so decent. Goff fired up 306 yards and a touchdown pass in the season-opening victory over the hobbled Colts. He didn’t play as well in a Game 2 loss against Washington, whose coach obviously knew what McVay’s offense would be trying to do, and the Rams could have a similar problem Thursday night against Shanahan’s 49ers. (Not that San Francisco has Washington’s personnel, but the staff knows McVay and his tendencies well.)
The Rams aren’t asking Goff to work miracles just yet. They just want to see improvement.
“From day one, he’s had the right mindset, and he’s prepared the right way each and every day,” LaFleur said. “It starts with his footwork. He seems much more balanced and comfortable in the pocket, and he’s grasped our concepts and what we’re asking him to do.”
It helps to start simple. And the improved simplicity and focus of Goff’s support system this season puts him in a much stronger position to succeed.