The story behind Jared Goff's sophomore success

In head coach Sean McVay and quarterback Jared Goff, the Rams have two of the elements essential to an organization's long-term prosperity. Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports

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This is going to be his moment, and his alone. He doesn't know it right now, because right now he is doing what he always does, standing a few yards behind the center and making sure everyone lines up around him in the formation he commanded seconds before. You'll figure this out soon enough, so there's no narrative reason to hide the outcome: This play will end in a touchdown. The suspense isn't in the result but in the path Jared Goff takes to create it.

The play, a second-and-goal from the 7, starts with 4:29 left in the second quarter of Week 12, with the Rams leading the Saints 10-7 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Goff has relayed the words that coach Sean McVay has spoken into his helmet, but as the play clock ticks down, McVay's double-reed automatic-fire voice cuts out like a dropped call, a casualty of the NFL's mandate that shuts down in-helmet communication for the final 15 seconds of the clock. That's when Goff senses a problem: The Saints look as if they're going to sink eight into coverage and rush three. The assigned play -- a quick-hit slant -- simply won't work, not with so many bodies clogging passing lanes.

Goff takes a couple of steps toward the line and leans forward to shout a few words that mean something only to the men who share his uniform. Sometimes he shouts "Ric Flair!" and other times "Obama!" or "Tupac!" This time, whatever he says seems to make sense, because the linemen turn their helmets toward him and immediately back to their opponents in a choreographed wave.

He backpedals into position and stands up tall as he scans the Saints' secondary like he's trying to decide between cereals on a shelf. The clock is ticking down, and yet he's in no particular hurry, which provides the opportunity to note that everything he does emanates from a demeanor that can occasionally be mistaken for disinterest. "Totally, totally unflappable," center Jeff Sullivan says. "Never seen him flustered."

As the play clock hits one, Sullivan sends the ball flying toward Goff's outstretched hands. Three Saints begin a cautious pass rush and eight fall into coverage as Goff's feet chop right, then center, then left, his body staying square, as if neck, shoulders, hips and knees work on the same axis. He's not particularly fast, or even elusive, but he conducts the pocket like a cutting horse, making it appear that he's herding thousands of pounds of human rather than avoiding them.

As the bodies recede around him, leaving him to cavort in the world's largest pocket, he looks like an assertive, confident young man. This vision, and the sudden expectation that something good is about to happen, takes a moment to compute. Is this self-assured quarterback really Jared Goff, and is this routinely prolific 2017 team really the Rams? Bend your brain to the new reality: The malignant perception of a year ago -- Goff as the slouchy, skinny and overwhelmed No. 1 pick of a doomed franchise-requires serious reconsideration.

The arc of a quarterback's career is supposed to travel a predictable path. A great one, with a few exceptions, is always great. A good one improves gradually, fighting through the mythology of the position to become his best Andy Dalton or Kirk Cousins. A bust, sadly, is always a bust.

So what do we make of a guy who doesn't seep from one category to another but jumps it before anybody can see him coming? After being picked first in the 2016 draft, Goff started the final seven games of his rookie season -- which included the final four games of Jeff Fisher's 31-45-1 run as Rams coach -- and lost all seven. It was seen as only mildly exonerating that his seven bad games happened when he was 22, starting his first real job, doing it in front of a skeptical and mostly uncaring city while working for an inflexible coach in a dysfunctional workplace. No, a bust is a bust-such is the durability of the label.

Thirteen weeks and nine wins into year two, Goff responds to the slight with his default response: a shrug.

"I'm not the first guy to play seven games and not win," he says. "It's not the first time in the history of football. Last year didn't go according to plan, so it's made out to be that this year is some sort of revival. I don't see it that way. It's more me just being myself again, getting back to what I know and what I'm used to doing."

In the offseason, Rams general manager Les Snead reupholstered the NFL's 32nd-ranked offense by hiring McVay, landing receivers Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods, drafting the NFL's most productive rookie receiver in Cooper Kupp and strengthening the offensive line by signing Sullivan and tackle Andrew Whitworth. Surrounded by more talent and more assured in his role, Goff has become the first Rams 3,000-yard passer since Sam Bradford while leading the team to a 9-3 record and a one-game lead over Seattle in the NFC West heading into Week 14.

Those seven games, though, hang over him like a cartoon anvil. He must explain this year and defend last year at the same time, over and over. To adequately praise this year, last year must first be exhumed.

"A lot of people had written him off after seven games with that offense last year," says Adam Dedeaux, a quarterbacks coach who's worked with Tom Brady and Matt Ryan and who conducted more than 30 sessions with Goff this offseason. "The biggest thing I hope will come out of last season is that people will be a little less eager to call someone a bust. Hopefully people will say, 'We were quick to judge, and he came back the second year and killed it.'"

But the temptation to fashion an alternative reality -- to hear hoofbeats and conclude zebras rather than horses -- is apparently too strong to resist. And the NFL, as much as any other American institution, exalts patriarchy, whether it's an elderly owner or a 31-year-old boy wonder head coach.

So after it became known through the cameras and microphones of NFL Films that McVay sometimes pushes tempo by getting his offense to the line early enough to help Goff read defenses through the magic of the helmet speaker, a much tidier explanation for Goff's success emerged: The virtuosity of McVay's brain must be the reason his quarterback no longer looks like a bust. And so it was decreed that McVay deserves the credit, because sometimes it's easier to push credit in another direction than to reassess facts.

McVay speaks without commas, the words and sentences and paragraphs racing for the safety of open air. He's the youngest head coach in the NFL, a fact that will be mentioned immediately before or after his name until the day someone younger is hired. He is small and fit, perhaps the only head coach who can jump into individual drills and backpedal fast enough to give Watkins -- running at about three-quarter speed, but still -- a semi-legitimate approximation of a defensive back. As McVay speaks, you can catch a hint of early-onset coach voice. The gravel is building on the backbeat, and you can already hear what he's going to sound like as an old man.

But McVay's most observable trait is his recall of plays -- no, not plays, exactly, but the grainy elements that comprise the broader concept of a play, and maybe even some of the grainier elements encased within those grainy elements. "He could eliminate a lot of people's worries about his age if they just sat with him," says Whitworth, who is four years older than his coach. "Age is irrelevant when you listen to him."

His ability to rattle off details about max drop 8s and man beaters and three-man rushes with loaded zones is not just impressive but, frankly, borderline disturbing, though McVay laughs off the suggestion that he possesses a photographic memory. "I probably don't have any room in my mind for anything but football. My dad tells me I'm a total vegetable outside of just knowing football."

On the day he interviewed to be the Rams' coach, McVay mentioned how much he would love to sit down and speak with Goff. Snead, who had already determined that McVay was probably getting the job, arranged for Goff to drive up the coast from Orange County to Marina del Rey for a meeting the following day.

To prepare, McVay went to his room and cut a tape of Goff's 2016 season. He made sure to mix in enough good to lessen the sting of the bad. The next day they met for more than two hours, with McVay outlining the broad strokes of his philosophy while Goff marveled at the energy. "He was speaking the way Coach does," Goff says, "and I was trying to keep up."

"I was really impressed with his ability to take full accountability for what had happened," McVay says. "He could have had a tendency to blame everyone else for things that happened, but he didn't do any of that. I thought, 'This guy's wired the right way.'"

McVay promised to fashion the offense to his players' talents, starting with Goff. Perhaps because of his youth and relative inexperience (he was Washington's offensive coordinator for three seasons before coming to LA), he is not bound by a signature style or some 23andMe banyan tree of coaching legacies. In his mind, it's not a brand, it's a team. He solicited input from his offensive linemen on details as small as line-of-scrimmage verbiage and as big as their favorite run plays.

"He's young, and he's not stuck in his ways like some coaches are," Goff says. He pauses and rushes to add, "I'm not referring to any of the staff I've been with. I'm just saying in general you hear about guys who say, 'This is the way we do it.' If there's some sort of footwork or concept I don't feel comfortable doing, he's more than willing to adjust."

After a recent practice, guard Rodger Saffold sat at his locker singing as he tossed his practice gear over his shoulder. When asked if he sang as often during his previous seven seasons with the Rams, none of which produced a winning record, he said, "I might have been singing, but it would have been to raise my spirits." He laughed, and when asked another question -- what is the biggest difference with Goff this season? -- he said, "Different coaching. That's the key. Always is, man. Always is."

The Rams were such a persistent nonfactor (an NFC-worst 12 straight nonplayoff seasons makes them the Browns without the annoying laugh track) that it's hard to overstate the enormity and immediacy of the turnaround. The team went from dead last in scoring offense (a Dickensian 14 points per game in 2016) to tied for first (30.1) through Week 13, a transformation few saw coming. Other than McVay, that is. During the offseason, Snead told his coach, "You know, if we can go from 32nd to 20th or so on offense ..."

McVay cut him off.

"You really think that's all we're going to do?"

"But that's good, Sean," Snead said. "That's showing progress."

McVay, unconvinced, gave his boss a look. It suggested that progress was an insult.

Goff stands there chopping his feet and looking for seams in the Saints' defense. The three defensive linemen continue their halfhearted rush, and the Rams' receivers continue their recess-level route improv. For a moment, it seems possible that this one play might consume the rest of the afternoon.

Goff looks off his first two reads before motioning with a flick of his left hand -- something resembling a no-more-cards motion to a blackjack dealer -- for rookie receiver Josh Reynolds to keep running along the back of the end zone. And just as Reynolds creates the slightest sliver of daylight, Goff fires it low and hard, past three defenders and to a spot accessible only to Reynolds, who catches it at knee level and protects it with a roll.

You want vision, leadership, confidence? This isn't McVay whispering the sweet secrets of genius into Goff's ears before the helmet mic shut off at 15. You want intelligence, fearlessness, adaptability? This is a young quarterback in a big game, with his 5 o'clock stubble that probably took three days to grow, improvising and succeeding in a way that causes the game's poets to expound with florid and hyperbolic prose about leaders of men and seers of defenses.

After the Rams beat the Saints, and the Cardinals the next week to ensure their first winning season in 14 years, that play became a symbol of New Goff. "This is a miracle turnaround, right?" Snead asks. "It's deemed a miracle when in essence you took a kid who was 20 years old, he went through some growing pains and got better in year two. When you break it down like that, it doesn't necessarily seem like a miracle, does it?"

The following Wednesday, during his weekly news conference, Goff is asked to break down what he saw, from beginning to end, on the touchdown pass to Reynolds. He gives it his best, in a slow and decidedly non-McVay fashion. He answers the question while anticipating the one that will follow. It's been there in some form or another, week after week, win after win, hanging in the air above each questioner like a thought bubble. You can almost read Goff's mind: Wait for it ... wait for it ... and, predictably, as soon as he stops talking, there it is:

Do you think you could have made that play last year?

What's the statute of limitations on last year? "He's tired of that," Snead says. "He's so tired of that." At what point does the calculus -- nine wins and a division lead this year compared with seven losses last year -- tip in his favor? Goff looks out at the room like he is disappointed it is still there. What can he do? Refuse to answer? Object on the grounds of relevance?

"I can't speak on whether I could have done it last year," he says. "I don't know. I didn't get the opportunity to, I guess."

The predictability makes it kind of funny. The predictability makes it kind of infuriating. The happiest fatalist you'll ever meet has resigned himself to his one intractable truth: He can't shake last year, even while he's shaking it.