September 27, 2021

How can the Detroit Lions maximize Jared Goff?

How can the Detroit Lions maximize Jared Goff?

The Saturday night trade of Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams sent immediate reverberations through the football world. The Rams are now without a first-round pick for years, having shipped multiple first-rounders to the Motor City – along with a third-round pick – for Stafford.

But there is another piece to the deal, one that has largely stayed under the radar. The Rams also included a quarterback in the deal, one who you can assume will be a starting quarterback for the start of the 2021 season.

So the question is this: How can the Detroit Lions maximize Jared Goff?

It is important to remember at this moment that the new Lions general manager, who was integral to this deal, is Brad Holmes. His previous job? He was the Director of College Scouting for the Rams. During his tenure Los Angeles drafted players such as Aaron Donald, Todd Gurley, Cooper Kupp, and yes, Jared Goff.

Holmes, in fact, was at least one of the people in Los Angeles “banging the table” for the Rams to trade up and draft Goff back in 2016, so Goff is reunited with a general manager who truly believes in what he can be as a passer.

So how can new Lions offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn make the most out of Detroit’s new quarterback, bolstering Holmes’ beliefs in the QB?

First, Lynn needs to identify the issues with Goff in Los Angeles. These have been covered extensively in the past, and they boil down to a single word: hesitation. Goff, even at this point in his career, still can be too cautious in the pocket. It is an issue that can be traced from this season back to Super Bowl LIII and the 2018 campaign:

By now everyone probably knows how Sean McVay was able to prop up Goff and make him effective in the Rams’ offense. Using eye candy, play-action and a very quarterback-friendly scheme, McVay put Goff in a position to be successful. But even in that environment, Goff never fully developed. Yes, the McVay/Shanahan system has proved that it can make average quarterbacks look good due to the scheme, but does it perhaps hold back their development? By creating so many crutches for them, does it stunt their growth?

Consider this. Over a year ago I wrote a piece with the title “Ruining Quarterbacks 2.0: Zheng He, Admiral James Stavridis, And the Precarious Handling of Young Quarterbacks.” While reading “Sailing True North,” written by Admiral Stavridis, who was once the Supreme Commander of NATO, I came across a passage that made me think of quarterbacks.

Goff in particular:

At every port of call, Zheng He was confronted by new and often dangerous situations, which required him to make a range of quick decisions weighing his mission, the safety of his ships and crew; and his perception of the scene on the ground. During his third voyage, Zheng He called in Sri Lanka in the midst of a three-way civil war between a Sinhalese Buddhist kingdom in the south, a Tamil Muslim kingdom in the north, and a rebel Sinhalese warrior who fought both.

His instructions to establish relations with the people on the island were silent on this unforeseen and challenging situation, which must have taken the admiral himself some time to decipher. (By chance, Zheng He’s first contact was with the rebel leader, which could not have made things easier for him.) He was forced to adapt to the events on the ground without recourse to “instructions” from higher authority. He was able to establish trading relations with all three groups and kept Chinese neutrality – and opportunity for further trade – alive.

Even with the ubiquity and speed of modern communications, today’s leaders still frequently find themselves called to make similar decisions: on the scene, on the spur of the moment, and on limited situational understanding. In many cases, developing the ability to operate autonomously while remaining within the intent of one’s mission is an important part of a leader’s developmental process–and one that today’s leaders may have to develop on their own initiative. If a young leader comes to over-rely on constant and near-instant access to higher authority, he or she can miss out on this crucial maturation step. (Emphasis added)

All I could think about was Goff, and how McVay structured his offense down to breaking the huddle early in the play clock so he could continue to give his quarterback advice through the helmet radio.

It made Goff effective, but was he too missing out on the critical maturation step identified by Stavridis?

Perhaps Lynn can find a way to tap into the QB that Goff can be, and there might be a way.

If indecisiveness is the problem, have there been moments – outside of the schematic elements of McVay’s offense – where Goff has been more decisive with the football?

I found them when the formation was emptied and Goff was alone in the pocket.

(Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports)

Sometimes to help a quarterback you have to look backwards rather than forwards.

Familiarity is a critical component to the success of a QB. The more familiar they are with the elements around them, be they personnel, playbook, coaches, scheme, the better prepared they are, the more comfortable they are, and ultimately the more successful they are as a result.

A few years ago I wrote a piece for the Pro Football Weekly draft preview magazine. I spoke with a number of people about quarterback development, including former NFL scout Dan Hatman, former college quarterback and now quarterback coach Tony Raccioppi, Seth Keysor who has chronicled the rise of Patrick Mahomes through his coverage of the Kansas City Chiefs, and Ted Nguyen of The Athletic, who also played the position and knows offense and quarterbacks inside-out. But it was something that Matt Bowen, who played safety in the NFL before moving to the media side, told me that is seared into my brain: “If I am an offensive coordinator in the NFL with a young QB, I am making a visit to his college head coach to learn their playbook and the schemes that I can then use in the NFL to have the QB ready as a rookie.”

When Goff was at California, he was running the “Bear Raid,” a version of the Air Raid offense implemented by Sonny Dykes and Tony Franklin. Goff was in the shotgun on almost every snap and the Bears were throwing the football more than 40 times a game.

It turned Goff into the first-overall selection.

So while McVay’s offense, with the eye-candy and the condensed formations and the reliance on play-action propped Goff up, if it did hold back his development a bit perhaps the key to unlocking the QB within is by going to more of a spread-based, wide open offense that Goff is familiar with?

Curious, I spent my Saturday night/Sunday morning charting out Goff’s 2020 season, like all normal people do. I found 22 plays last year with a gain of over 20 yards in the air, and a throw of more than 15 yards. I am trying to strip out big gains that are more a result of the QB himself rather than yardage after the catch or a schematic element such as a screen play.

Of course, a lot of these came due to the McVay system. Play-action boot-action and all the elements that have the young head coach labeled as a genius. But there were eight plays where Goff was in an empty formation. So I dug into those eight.

I found a decisive quarterback. One that looks nothing like the hesitant passer we have seen over the past few years.

Take this third-down throw from back in Week 1 against the Dallas Cowboys:

Goff hits his drop depth and immediately the ball is out on a vertical route to Van Jefferson. No hesitation, and when Goff makes his decision to throw Jefferson is not exactly wide open. But the QB drops this in perfectly, and the Rams have a huge gain.

Against the Buffalo Bills in Week 3, attacking the middle of the field to once more move the chains on third down, without any hesitation at all:

Then there is this throw against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 10. Again Goff moves the chains on third down, finding Tyler Higbee on the corner route:

No hesitation at all. And Goff drops in the corner route, one of the toughest throws to make, extremely well. This is a pass that he has excelled at since his days at Cal.

Finally, perhaps his best throw of the season, all things considered:

NFC Divisional round. On the road at Lambeau Field against the first-overall seed. Surgically-repaired right thumb. First read taken away so he has to reset and attack downfield while pressure is collapsing the pocket.

And against one of those middle-of-the-field open coverages that have given him so much trouble to boot.

This is the quarterback that Goff can be, the quarterback that was at one time the first-overall selection in the draft. Anthony Lynn, who was instrumental in developing Justin Herbert, has to find this player again.

Going back to campus might be where to start.