By David Kang
The Rams offense has taken quite a turn from 2016 to 2017. The 2017 Rams are the first team in NFL history to jump from last in scoring offense to first. It suffices to say that replacing the putrid Jeff Fisher with the bright Sean McVay has completely changed the outlook of the Rams offense, and the main beneficiary of this change has been Jared Goff.
Goff had one of the worst rookie QB seasons in NFL history. He only completed 54.6% of his passes while maintaining an awful 5.3 yards per attempt, amounting to an abysmal 2.82 ANY/A. Aside from just looking at his passing statistics, he was also miserably failing the eye test. He played like a deer in the headlights while being extremely inaccurate and mistake prone. He did not show any sort of competency in any aspect of the game that many (myself included) already wrote him off as a bust. His numbers in 2017, on the other hand, might make you think that someone kidnapped Jared Goff and replaced him with a much more competent quarterback. Through 11 games in the season, he’s completing 61.8% of his passes while posting a great 8.2 yards per attempt and a much better ANY/A of 7.81. His quarterback rating jumped from 63.6 to a 98.6.
The sheer difference in statistics leaves you to wonder how a quarterback can change so drastically in one season. The improvement for the most part can be attributed to the improvement of the supporting cast around him, both players and coaches. Tavon Austin and Kenny Britt were the starting receivers on the team in 2016. Calling Austin a WR at this point of his career would be misguided, and Britt was serviceable but nothing to write home about. Brian Quick was also the third man in their WR corps. In 2017, they were replaced by Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp, all of whom superior to the 2016 trio. This allowed the Rams to relegate Austin to the strictly gadget player role that he belongs, albeit an extremely expensive gadget player. The offensive line underwent some changes as well. Greg Robinson, a colossal bust at this point at LT, was replaced by Andrew Whitworth, arguably a top 5 LT in the league, and Tim Barnes, another mediocre player, was replaced by the solid John Sullivan.
The offense went from one of the most boring and predictable offenses in football under Jeff Fisher to a very cleverly designed one with many misdirections and fakes under Sean McVay. The latter’s offense is designed to make the quarterback’s life much easier. Most of us now know that much of the pre-snap processing is done by Sean McVay. Although it may appear during the games that Goff is of Peyton Manning’s caliber in adjusting an offense’s playcall after seeing the defensive look, it is purely McVay calling in the play before the snap. The offense after every play lines up to the line as quickly as possible and almost always features early motion by one of the receivers to glean some information about the defense’s front. The Rams are lined up and ready to go at around 24 seconds left in the play clock, which gives McVay plenty of time to relay the play call to Goff before helmet communication gets cut off at 15 seconds. This allows the Rams to optimize their playcall based on the defense’s look and largely takes the pre-snap thinking out of quarterback play, making the QB’s job much easier.
Through misdirection and clever play design, McVay allows the offense to consistently gain easy yards on offense. His offense consists of many bootlegs (see here, here, and here) built off a strong running game, screens, and plays with motion and stacked receivers designed to confuse defenses.
Here’s an example of how great play design leads to big plays for the offense:
This is late in the 3rd quarter on 1st and 10 with the Rams up 10. Saints line up in a type of 3 deep zone with the outside CBs covering their sidelines vertically with the FS playing deep middle 1/3. The assignments of the underneath defenders are not very clear due to the play the offense ran, but it seems the SS and the NCB have the curl flats, the MLB carries the “#3” vertical, and the SAM covers Austin in the jet sweep.
The play that the Rams run is a very interesting twist on four verts. They start off with trips on the right with the RB, and then motions Austin over to fake a jet sweep with the LG pulling to try and sell the fake. What this presents to the defense is quads on the right side with four on four coverage. The Saints except for the outside CB do a good job in reacting against this. The SS/curl flat defender does a good job of initially riding the wheel from the TE before adjusting to the RB running the vertical and passing off the wheel vertical to the boundary CB. The problem is that the boundary CB is nowhere to be found. This is where the brilliance of play design comes in. The WR/TE stack combined with the switch release confuses the CB. With the Saints top 2 CBs in Lattimore and Crawley out, they have inexperience on the outside. The outside CB in this play, De’Vante Harris, likely has #1 vertical release responsibility as the CB usually does in Cover 3. He does exactly that in this play. McVay brilliantly has the #1 release straight-line vertically before turning into a seam route up the middle of the field. Harris hesitates and follows the #1 WR, instead of following the wheel like he should have done.
Also notice the alignment of the ball and the close alignment of the WR/TE. The ball being placed on the far hash combined with how close the WR/TE line up to the OL affords the wheel route a lot of space riding up the sideline, which forces the boundary CB to cover a lot of ground when switching from the #1 seam to the wheel route. Goff throws an accurate ball on time to a wide open WR, which results in a 38-yard gain.
McVay has also done a good job in simplifying Goff’s reads in the majority of plays. There are strict progression reads in a lot of the Rams plays and does not require Goff to consistently read and diagnose the coverage.
An example of this is a Kyle Shanahan staple, the Yankee concept off a hard play action from under center. The Rams run this play multiple times in a game, and it has proven to be an effective shot play for the offense.
This is a simple 1-2-3 progression read going from the skinny post, 10-yard dig, and the flat route from the FB. All the QB has to do in this particular play is read the deep safety and see whether or not he bites the post or the dig. In this case, he bites on the post. Combined with the hard play action, which draws the underneath defenders in, and Watkins getting open against outside leverage, Goff makes a good throw to a wide open window for a 24-yard gain. Goff did not need to adjust his footwork or radically change body position, which makes it a very easy play for the quarterback to make. The Rams called a variation of Yankee two more times during the game, which you can see here [Q1.720] and here [Q3.505]. On the former, you can see Goff going through all of his progressions to the flat, and on the latter, you can see how the safety bites hard, which allows Goff to test the defense deep with the skinny post.
Another example of McVay simplifying the reads of a quarterback is the shallow cross and fly/out combination.
This is another simple progression read for the quarterback. The QB first reads the fly/out combination. If none of them is open, then all the QB has to do is slightly adjust his eyes toward the middle of the field, and the next progression reads present themselves rather readily to the quarterback. Again, there’s no need to drastically adjust your footwork to the backside of the field or make any big movements. The Rams ran this play for a whopping 5 fives this game with subtle variations (not running switch releases on the stack [Q2.1408], running the shallow cross from the stack [Q2.648], etc).
Now back to the original question at hand, is there a large discrepancy in Goff’s actual ability as a quarterback independent of his teammates? While the answer is not a simple one, I would contend that the improvement in coaching staff and teammates surrounding Goff afforded him a much larger margin of error this season than it did in 2016, but the overall skillset of Goff with all his strengths and weaknesses remain the same.
In particular, a big wart in Goff’s game is how he deals with pressure as he often struggles to feel pressure that is not directly in his field of vision. When he does feel the pressure, he too often drops his eyes into the rush and either neglects receivers down the field for a sack or panics and makes a rash throw to the checkdown. This wart shows up in both of Goff’s 2016 tape and his 2017 tape. The only difference is that his protection is much better in 2017.
This is during a 2-minute drill at the end of the half on 2nd and 10. The Rams run a simple Inverted Smash play that’s a high low read with the CB and the Safety. The Saints run a 5-man pressure with Cover 1 man behind it. Pressure comes around the corner quickly and prompts Goff to throw with anticipation under pressure.
Despite oncoming pressure, there is still plenty of time for Goff to make the pass as the receiver is making his break. Another weakness of Goff’s that shows up here is his necessity to have a good platform to throw off of. He simply does not have the arm talent to deliver the ball accurately on time without good footing. To be able to make a far hash throw to the sideline, Goff needs to take a hitch step at the top of his drop to give him enough torque to drive the ball. Unfortunately for him, he does not have enough time to do so and needs to deliver the ball as soon as he got to the top of the drop. Instead, the hitch step cost him precious seconds, and Goff is taken down for the sack, which effectively kills the drive.
Goff’s lack of arm talent frequently shows up and gives defenders way too many opportunities to make plays on the football.
This is a simple go route from Watkins against press coverage in a single high defense. Watkins beats PJ Williams pretty cleanly off the snap and creates about 3 yards of separation down the field. Goff does a good job of stepping up in the pocket to mitigate the pressure, but badly underthrows the football. The ball only travels 30 yards, but it is a lame duck and struggles to reach Watkins. Watkins has to slow down and drastically adjust to the football in the air. He should catch this as the ball hits him in the hands, but Watkins does a poor job of adjusting and deflects the ball to PJ Williams.
The lack of arm strength shows up again here. As an aside, this play in particular is a good example of how McVay’s late audibles can get the offense into very favorable looks. The Saints line up in a Cover-1 Press man look, and McVay audibles the play to a slot fade play to the twins side on the left. The ball is on the right hash with the deep safety lining up in the right hash, and it’s too much space for the deep safety to get to the slot fade on the left. Josh Reynolds is matched up against Kenny Vaccarro and blows by him handedly. Goff again throws another flutterball severely behind the defender, which allows Vaccarro to make a play on the football.
Another glaring weakness for Goff is his inconsistent intermediate accuracy. For some throws, he hits the receiver with perfect placement in stride to allow the receiver to gain yards after the catch (see here and this insane placement throw), but his intermediate inaccuracy shows up too often to make up for all his other deficiencies (see here and here)
This play is a combination of both lack of arm talent and intermediate inaccuracy. Watkins runs a 15-yard out route against off-coverage and beats his defender easily for about 5 yards of separation. Goff has no pressure around him and is able to deliver with his feet set. This is the quintessential “NFL” throw, the deep 15-yard out from the far hash, that so often gets mentioned in college football broadcasts, and Goff underthrows it a couple of yards in front of Watkins.
Look at how Goff delivers this ball:
Although Goff might not have sheer arm strength like a Matt Stafford, his footwork is certainly not helping ball velocity either. Look at Goff’s plant leg. It is perfectly straight out in front of his body. This hurts Goff’s ability to use his legs to generate torque and velocity on his throws, and the result of which is an underthrown ball. This is definitely something that Goff can improve upon over time, and the added velocity will help lessen the number of flutterballs that he throws, which DBs can easily make plays on.
In summary, the Rams rapid turnaround from the worst offense in 2016 to the best offense in 2017 has been done in spite of Jared Goff. Although you can argue that he has made some strides in becoming a better decision maker and avoiding turnovers, a lot of it is attributable to the dramatic upgrade in scheme and coaching. McVay has done a good job of simplifying the decision making of the quarterback while providing easy yards here and there. Combined with the much improved WR corps and offensive line, the margin of error for Goff improved much more than Goff’s actual ability itself. Goff’s warts, specifically his limited arm talent, processing, and ability to react under pressure, place a ceiling on the potency of the Rams offense and will likely come back to hurt the Rams come playoff time, especially in rough weather conditions. It’ll be interesting to see how the Rams deal with constructing the roster both in the short term and the long term. In the short term, they have very little cap flexibility with marquee players such as Sammy Watkins and Aaron Donald up for contract extensions. In the long term, they will likely encounter a similar scenario with Goff like they did once with McVay’s protégé in Kirk Cousins. His statistics and counting numbers will look fantastic but will be largely due to the great supporting cast and coaching around him. However, this future dilemma is a long ways away (3 years to be exact), so let’s just enjoy this Rams offense while they are still together.