Why context rules...
Jared Goff is the No. 10 fantasy quarterback after Week 3. We know there's a lot more football on the schedule so this ranking is not a big deal. However, if we went by the knee-jerk analysis on Goff in 2016, Sean Mannion would have been the starter by the third quarter of Week 1.
This is the nature of studying the trees without trying to understand the forest. Even so, a lot of those analysts could still wind up right for the wrong reasons. Many of them are okay with that, but that's not a satisfying path for me.
The odds were against Goff after 2016 for several reasons. Rams ownership has a bad track record when it comes personnel decisions on general managers and coaches. Those personnel managers have had a bad track record with its choices of offensive linemen and wide receivers—the two most important areas to support a passing game. They've also had bad luck with injuries to good prospects that set back the opportunity for linemen, quarterback, and receivers to develop rapport when it comes to route options and protection calls.
If that wasn't enough, the Rams have been a coaching turnstile, which means that even veterans were learning new schemes and never developing a deep enough understanding to execute on a higher level of football. Teams that are consistently good over the long haul have stability with coaching and scheme. Those players know the scheme so well that they can begin to work on advanced ways of interacting with each other as well as reacting to the defense.
Whether you're a performer or an office worker, you know that the longer your team is together and the processes remain the same, you develop a shorthand for layers of information that you don't even have to think about. All of you react quicker without the need for detailed communication. And if the processes are well constructed and your teammates aren't dysfunctional idiots on the job, you also handle unexpected situations efficiently and productively.
The Rams haven't had these benefits since the Dick Vermeil era. Worse yet, fans had to seriously entertain Eric Dickerson's criticism of the offense and staff. When a retired player takes aim at the team, the organization is a mess.
We're just now getting to the fact that Goff when from the Air Raid offense to the West Coast system. As I mentioned several times last year and almost as often this, anyone who was shocked that Goff was nowhere near ready to start was either ignorant about quarterback play or more likely, disingenuous and playing readers for clicks:
Quarterback Coach Will Hewlett says that learning the West Coast Offense from the Air Raid system Goff used is like learning Chinese. When an adult learns a new language the practice of that newly acquired skill often sublimates the notable aspects of an individual's personality.
That individual might be witty, sensitive, and perceptive, but those qualities aren't as easily on display or even functional to him or her when preoccupied with basic questions like "Where is the bathroom?" and making sure they can understand the response before they have an embarrassing accident.
Essentially, this is where Goff was this summer. At Cal, he had an excellent pocket presence, tight-window accuracy, an attacking mindset as a vertical thrower, and pre-snap smarts with reading a defense. But with the Rams, he was learning 19-word commands for a single play call while working more often under center and reading far more complex defenses stocked from top to bottom with better athletes than any single unit he's ever faced.
I thought it was wise for the Rams to wait as long as it did to put Goff into a game. When the Rams decided to start him this weekend, I wondered if the organization was succumbing to public pressure.
Add this up and it was difficult to imagine that in less than a year, Goff would get a quality coach who has offensive chops, an upgrade to his line and receiving corps, and a second chance to prove that he was worth a first-round pick when new coaches usually try to churn the roster and "get their guys."
It's why I said that Goff had the skills to become an NFL starter, but the odds were stacked against him. Others simply looked at this box score stats and projected their doubts about him on his film. A smaller sample of analysts offered compelling analysis that expressing appropriate doubts but as we know, projecting quarterback development is a fool's errand.
I definitely belong in that club.If you are interested in learning more about my thoughts on quarterback development, this in-depth article at the Rookie Scouting Portfolio details why we cannot apply a broad brush to quarterback development without leading to ignorant analysis.
If I'm the fool about Goff, my corner of the clubhouse will likely be labeled, "remained too optimistic about Goff's ability." However, I saw evidence that Goff had a fighting chance of developing if the Rams organization defied my doubts about it doing its job to supply Goff a supporting cast.
The Film: Then and now
In 2016's Top 10 from Week 11, I studied Goff's first start and apparently was one of the few who didn't dismiss the rookie after what he did:
Based on what I saw, I'm more optimistic than I thought I'd be. A key indicator that Goff has learned the system well is evidence that his pre-snap smarts have returned. Dolphins Head Coach Adam Gase told Michael Silver, "We pressured the s--- out of him, and he didn't look bothered at all...from what I could tell, he handled the moment and executed the plan. It's a good sign for them."
When Goff faced his first taste of this pressure look, it wasn't even an obvious pressure like the examples Prescott and Rodgers saw above. Goff's first look was disguised and he sniffed it out pre-snap.
When the Dolphins' pressure reached the pocket, Goff maneuvered it with a similar aplomb that he showed at Cal.
Goff's maneuverings were impressive, but more so was his ability to find receivers in tight windows with confidence.
I was also impressed that Goff didn't press for big plays that weren't there. His lone vertical opportunity was an example of a good process, bad result.
Overall, Goff had a good outing against an aggressive defense. If not for a collapse of the Rams defense that yielded 14 points during the final six minutes, Los Angeles wins this game.
Despite the overwhelming conclusions that Goff was horrid last year, he showed moments of comfort against pressure, found open receivers who dropped the ball and took punishment without climbing into a hole. Considering the team around him, the new language of the most complex offensive system in football, and coaches who apparently didn't have the sophistication to make the offense competitive schematically, Goff's rookie year should not have been measured against other rookie quarterbacks.
But that's what the public does and trying to convince them otherwise isn't going to happen until there's proof that they should have looked at things differently in hindsight. Goff's early returns in 2017 offer the public this opportunity.
One of Goff's strengths at Cal was handling pressure. The best quarterbacks know when certain pressure requires them to wait until the defender is a step away from contact before making a move. Defenders accelerate into contact with an opponent and this requires committing to a path. Pocket-savvy quarterbacks understand how to bait this defensive commitment in order to maximize separation with their maneuvers away from the defender.
I'm also impressed with Goff's aggressive confidence on this target. Knowing the defender's back is to him, Goff fits the ball over the reach of the defender with pinpoint accuracy while delivering on the move. He's not Joe Montana, but the poise to avoid pressure and deliver this way deserves props.
Montana's greatest strength was his smooth, precise footwork. One thing that I've learned about quarterbacking through thousands of hours of study per season for the past 13 years is that a quarterback's feet are often a window into his thought process and emotional state:
- Peyton Manning always had a nervous energy to his feet, but they were almost always in the right place at the right time. Manning was an intense, urgent leader with some aggressive fire to his style of play. He liked to attack downfield and get rid of the ball fast. One could argue that his feet were a reflection of his internal impatience that stemmed from knowing what the defense was going to do and he couldn't wait for that moment he had been anticipating since he first identified the pre-snap weakness to attack it.
- Marcus Mariota moved like a robot with precise speed early in his career. It was as if his feet were revealing every thought process in Mariota's brain as he followed the step-by-step recipe of how to make a good play.
- Jameis Winston's feet often seemed to be working ahead of his body. His feet were a reflection of his impulsive on-field nature and while it led to big plays and an aggressive mentality, it also led to throws where he clearly didn't see the obstacles in his path.
- Montana's footwork as described above fit the nickname 'Joe Cool' and the story about him chilling out his teammates during one of the most important drives of his career by pointing out that he just spotted actor John Candy in the stands of the Super Bowl.
Goff's footwork has the chill quality to it. He's smooth, quick, and in control. He'll stare down the speeding locomotive, knowing he can take get his feet into position to step aside and pluck the envelope from a passenger's hand reaching from one of the car's open doors.
Some people mistake hitches and hinges for happy feet. Goff does not usually show happy feet in the pocket. He's a cool character whose ability to set within tight confines actually affords him strong opportunities to deliver accurate passes in compressed pockets.
Remember, Cal's offense didn't have Goff dropping from the center. You've already seen numerous throws from under center with traditional drops and play-action. Goff looks like he's been operating under center for years. He's also dropping the ball into that Cover 2 honey hole with pressure bearing down and he has precise footwork leading to the release.
Here's another throw that illustrates this skill.
Many quarterbacks in this situation don't have the feel or control of their footwork to know how to make small adjustments to their stride to deliver an accurate throw. Goff does and he also can deliver the ball from some static foot positions, which is something that CBS analysts Tony Romo praised about Tom Brady two weeks ago in New Orleans.
Goff is also demonstrating advanced placement of the football against zone coverage so his receivers have every opportunity to earn yards after the catch. This throw to Sammy Watkins is a perfect example.
Say what you want that these defenses are the Colts and 49ers, but what I'm showing you are things that Goff can control against blitzes, compressed pockets, and zones underneath that he'll also see against Arizona, Seattle, and other units considered superior to his first month of opponents. Remember, Seattle and Russell Wilson didn't come close to the offensive outburst that the Rams achieved against San Francisco a week later.
There's a lot to take away from Goff that bodes well for his development:
- He's throwing the ball in rhythm from under center with control and accuracy.
- He's stepping into pressure and taking hits to reach targets on routes over 20 yards downfield.
- He's executing a variety of play-action fakes and throwing accurate passes from them.
- He's baiting pressure until the last moment, sliding to a side and delivering an accurate target.
- His throws are pinpoint. When they aren't, he's targeting receivers who have defenders with their backs to the quarterback, which increases the odds for a receiver making the catch or the opponent drawing a defensive pass interference penalty.
- He's selectively targeting the correct shoulder on zone routes to help the receiver know where to turn for yards after the catch.
Goff has one of the smarter centers in the league in John Sullivan, who may not be as physically skilled as he was when he entered the league, but he's good at the mental side of the game and bringing cohesiveness to a unit. Andrew Whitworth is still a stud tackle at Goff's blindside. These two positions are the most important along the offensive line for pass protection.
Because most NFL linemen are better run blockers than pass protectors, the Rams have a fighting chance to develop into a productive unit for Todd Gurley if Goff continues winning downfield and forcing opponents to respect the passing game. Opponents rightfully didn't have an ounce of respect for the Rams passing game in 2016. Goff was a rookie, Tavon Austin runs a limited route tree and his usage was predictable, Kenny Britt plays like a guy who refused to spend extra time with his quarterback as requested, and the offensive line lacked stability.
The same was true as L.A. began the 2017 season. However, Goff has increasingly made teams pay for that attitude and as he has, Gurley is earning creases that get him into the defensive backfield where can be at full speed and break tackles for yards after contact.
Everything I mention hinges on Whitworth and Sullivan remaining healthy and at least one of either Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins also staying intact. If so, these are my fantasy takes on the Rams fantasy options:
- Goff and Gurley will produce against most below-average pass defenses, which include Dallas, New Orleans, Houston, Tennessee, and San Francisco in Weeks 4, 10, 12, 16, and 17.
- Although Gurley's fantasy floor remains higher than average due to his receiving skill, Goff has a better opportunity than Gurley to exploit units with stouter front-sevens but weaknesses with its secondary. These units include Jacksonville, Arizona (twice), Minnesota, and Philadelphia in Weeks 6, 7, 11, 13, and 14.
- Sammy Watkins remains the best target for Goff. He has always been a smart zone receiver with YAC skills, and we're seeing evidence of Goff finding him over the middle. Watkins has a true likelihood of sustaining his WR1 status in fantasy leagues because he's being used as the multidimensional route runner he has been capable of becoming. He's still learning the offense but the repertoire of routes I've seen is promising.
- Robert Woods has a WR3 ceiling and flex-play floor. I like that Goff is finding him 15-30 yards downfield on intermediate crossing routes. Goff's patience with progressions before breaking down and scrambling is better than what I've seen from Tyrod Taylor thus far.
- Cooper Kupp has a boom-bust WR2-flex-play dynamic to his game. He's better than Woods on 50/50 passes and earning yards after the catch. He's also earning more attention from defenses earlier than I expected.
- Josh Reynolds, Gerald Everett, and Tyler Higbee will deliver some significant weeks, but predicting who and when will be too difficult. If I were to put a chip on a player without injuries to starters influencing a decision, I'd bet on Everett because he has already demonstrated skill in the vertical game as a receiver detached from the formation.