The subtle hints of a divorce between Rams coach Sean McVay and quarterback Jared Goff slowly intensified as the season progressed, culminating Saturday when an agreement was made to trade the quarterback to the Detroit Lions, along with 2022 and 2023 first-round draft picks and a 2021 third-round selection, in exchange for Matthew Stafford.
But there might be no better illustration of what went wrong and what needs to be corrected than what happened in a two-play sequence against the winless New York Jets in December.
The Rams trailed 23-20 late in the fourth quarter and were on the New York 37 needing four yards on third down to convert a first, but McVay saw opportunity for more.
Often praised for his offensive ingenuity, the coach saw a chance to exploit the Jets’ man coverage and shoot for the end zone on third and fourth downs, with alternative shorter options.
On both plays, Goff locked on to his primary target and missed open receivers on underneath routes. McVay acknowledged after the game that those were aggressive calls, but believed they would convert one way or another.
“Clearly have to be able to progress there,” McVay said after the game. “ Ultimately we didn’t make those plays.”
That might have been the culmination of the Rams’ frustrations on offense, but Goff was inconsistent all season. He had 20 touchdown passes, his fewest since his rookie season, and turned the ball over 17 times. He fumbled three more times but the Rams recovered.
That’s the kind of play that keeps coaches up at night.
His three turnovers against the San Francisco 49ers in November cost the Rams the game and prompted McVay to utter a rare public criticism that Goff “has to take better care of the football.”
Stafford has had fewer passes intercepted than Goff in each of the last three seasons, and that’s with a lousy Detroit team often playing from behind and being forced to throw. Stafford had 26 in those seasons, including just five in 2019 (in eight games played), and Goff had 41.
Last season, Stafford averaged 7.7 yards per pass attempt and Goff 7.2. That might not seem like much, but consider this: Stafford threw 13 touchdowns on passes of 20 yards or more, according to Next Gen Stats/Zebra Technologies. Goff threw only four such touchdowns.
After the Rams traded speedy Brandin Cooks to create salary cap space, they no longer had a deep threat to stretch defenses. That tightened coverage and forced the Rams to endure long drives to score.
That was also a downfall in their NFC divisional round playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers.
“That’s not the world I want to live in,” McVay said a day after the Green Bay loss. “I think you have to create explosives. I do think it’s important to have catch-and-run opportunities, but the margin of error is so slim and when you’re not efficient on first down, it seems like it’s way too much to overcome.”
Receivers Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods finished with 974 yards and 936 yards, respectively, but most of that production came on short or intermediate routes. Free agents the Rams could target in their price range to add speed include Nelson Agholor and Marvin Jones, Stafford’s former teammate.
“There is an element to the skill sets players bring that are more than the catches and the yards and the touchdowns, but they come to life over a 60-play game,” Rams general manager Les Snead said. “The way defenses are having to defend you — things open up.”
Goff thrived in a play-action system with bootlegs and a solid run game, and it doesn’t seem a coincidence that the Rams’ offense was in stride with the decline of Todd Gurley’s left knee.
In his stead, rookie Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson had difficulty staying healthy, although Akers still rushed for 625 yards and scored five times despite missing three games and being slowed by injury. Henderson finished the season on injured reserve for the second consecutive season. but rushed for 624 yards and five touchdowns.
Compared to what Stafford is accustomed to in Detroit, that seems like a motherlode. In his 12 seasons, the Lions only had a running back top 100 yards in a game 11 times.
Still, since 2016, when Goff entered the league, Stafford has led 18 game-winning drives on a team with a 32-47-1 record. Goff produced eight. More intriguing, only 1,738 of Stafford’s 4,084 yards passing last season came after the catch. Goff threw for 3,952 yards and 2,131 came after the catch.
Stafford was successful downfield.
“The long explosives and some of the shots down the field wasn’t as prevalent as years past,” McVay said the day after the Rams’ season ended. “I think it made it a lot more difficult, and your margin for error is much slimmer as an offense when you feel like you’ve got to go 10 and 13 plays to score touchdowns.”