Jared Goff was bad in 2019. He was 27th in adjusted completion percentage while also coming in at 27th in depth of target. He was 25th in passer rating under pressure and 32nd when holding onto the ball for more than 2.5 seconds. His completion percentage was 3.6% lower than his expected completion percentage, as measured by separation, depth of field, and pass rush—that was the sixth-worst difference in the NFL.
So Jared Goff was bad in 2019—and as the quarterback goes, so goes the offense as a whole.
The Rams were less effective running the football in 2019, after replacing two offensive linemen and seeing Todd Gurley’s health finally complete its nosedive. As the offensive line suffered and the running game petered out, the Rams’ play-action passing game lost its bluster. Goff was third in the NFL in play-action snaps with 32.8%, a 3% dropoff from last season; his 8.4 yards/attempt out of play-action was 18th in the league, an even bigger difference from his 2018 production, which saw 10 yards/attempt as the fourth-best number in the NFL.
The play-action game also lost its teeth because the offensive line couldn’t pass protect for as long. Play-action snaps in the Rams’ offense typically put Goff on 5- and even 7-step drops for deep-breaking routes, but such plays require sustained blocking from an offensive line that had to initially sell run action. That’s a tough ask in general; for a weakened offensive line, it’s a dangerous proposition altogether.
Play-action is characteristic of the McVay offense, and the solution was accordingly working shorter drops and quicker passes off of play-action. Consider this RPO-like isolation route to Brandin Cooks, which the Rams used whenever they had single-high safety coverages against their reduced sets, to attack the intermediate hole in front of the deep safety.
The 2018 Rams would have had Goff on a deeper drop and given him a vertical option, in case the deep middle safety stepped forward to rob the intermediate crosser. That was the nature of the would-be touchdown of the 2018 Super Bowl when the Rams got a quarters coverage miscommunication, and the intermediate crosser attracted so much safety attention that the deep bomb to Cooks was wide open.
The fact that Goff was late on this throw matters a fair bit. In 2018, Goff famously benefitted from the angel on his shoulder that was McVay, who could use the open communication line in Goff’s headset up until the play clock reached 15 seconds. McVay could rush the offense to the line of scrimmage, take a gander at the defensive structure, and either audible directly into Goff’s headset, or give him reminders or keys that the offensive savant himself noticed from the sideline.
So, in that Super Bowl, Bill Belichick and then-DC Brian Flores would send multiple calls into their defense, with the intention of changing the structure of their defense post-15 seconds, and forcing Goff to react and adjust without any hand-holding from McVay. As in the play above, the Patriots initially look to be in a single-high structure, before rotating to quarters coverage after the snap.
In 2019, defenses are spinning their coverages against the Rams as much as possible. The Browns spent much of their Week 3 game against the Rams sitting in muddled shells that saw four defenders floating somewhere between 8-15 yards off the line of scrimmage. They could drop a safety into the intermediate hole to take away crossers or bracket isolation routes on 2- or 3-man route combinations that often accompany the Rams’ play-action.
On all of these interceptions, two things are true: the defense rotated their coverage off of their pre-snap look, and Goff was late to his throw. Goff is one of the most reliable first-read passers in the league and can be deadly as a point guard distributor from the pocket when working the quick game. When you knock Goff off of his first read, however, two things tend to happen. First, his accuracy wanes, as we can see on these errant picks that expose his average ball velocity. Second, he panics, and attempts throws from bad platforms out of rhythm that he otherwise wouldn’t attempt.
The point we’ve arrived at is an interesting one. Goff was bad in 2019, and his dropoff was even more eye-popping when you hold it against his astronomical 2018 numbers. As we largely surmised in 2018, it was really the offense that was great, and Goff that was a functional, efficient piece of it. In 2019, the entire offense was worse, and so was Goff.
But this is true of most quarterbacks, at least to some degree. It is impossible to fully untether the quarterback from the system, the passer from his catchers, the play-caller from the play-enacter. There is no quarterbacking in a vacuum.
So why is it more so true for Goff than most quarterbacks? Goff is far from the first quarterback to lose starters on his offensive line or a star running back.
It really isn’t 2019 that we should look at, but rather 2018. In 2018, the Rams averaged 32.9 points per game and were fourth on the NFL record books in first downs generated (401). They were barely bumped off their blistering course before they slammed into the Belichick wall. If that offense was truly not elevated at all by its quarterback, which is what we’re currently positing, then it was one of the greatest offensive efforts of all-time.
We know this because, once the Rams’ offense became bad, it bottomed out. There was nothing Goff could do outside of the structure to salvage it. As we said above, he was terrible after his first read, terrible under pressure, and generally terrible at just completing passes. Jared Goff was bad in 2019, but we should start entertaining the possibility that he was pretty bad in 2018, as well—bad after his first read, bad under pressure, bad at completing passes.
Earlier this month, I wrote about system quarterbacks, of which I believed Jimmy Garoppolo was the shining example. I’ve watched every pass of Goff’s 2019, and I can’t explain to you how this passer captained that 2018 offense, other than to say that everything around him must have been picture perfect. Goff does not elevate his teammates with ball placement, with play extension, with pocket management, with pre-snap recognition, or with arm talent. There is little, if anything, that is exemplary about Goff’s game. He is a system quarterback.
Now, there may not be a better system than McVay’s in the NFL, and that’s why Goff’s evaluation is still a tough one. There also may still be time for Goff’s development, as the kiddy gloves with which he plays under McVay are slowly coming off now that the offensive line is worse and the running game has regressed, and he has a newfound responsibility accordingly. But Goff is nothing more right now than what McVay makes him, which is a terrifying sentiment for a $134M quarterback.
There’s nothing wrong with being a system quarterback. You may not be an engine of your team’s offense, but you aren’t an impediment, either—and the two biggest system passers in the league are the two most recent Super Bowl losers, which isn’t a shabby stat by any means. But any hope for a Goff renaissance in 2020 is hope in a Rams’ offensive renaissance altogether: that Cam Akers can join Darrell Henderson and revitalize the running game behind a largely unchanged offensive line; that Josh Reynolds can step into Cooks’ starting spot while Cooper Kupp remains healthy; that Tyler Higbee can play up to his extension; that McVay can continue to surf on the edge of innovation. Because Goff will go as his offense goes; not the other way around.