Jared Goff is ready to fight

Everyone loves piling on the Rams quarterback whenever anything goes wrong but, believe it or not, Goff is his own man. He's finding himself in 2020. And he is ready for another Super Bowl moment.

Jared Goff still radiates so much cool, so much calm.

He sounds like the same quarterback. A quarterback who — back when everybody was calling him a bust off an 0-7 rookie campaign — kicked his legs up on a desk at his football camp, backwards hat tilted upward, and all but predicted precisely what happened next. Wins. So many wins. Since promising that summer day in 2017 that he’s someone who will “fight until I can’t fight anymore,” Goff has the second most victories (43) in the NFL. Only Tom Brady has more.

Today, Goff still speaks with such breezy, yet point-blank conviction.

And yet so much has changed in the last 3 ½ years.

The kid who said then he’s trying to approach the job with a What would Tom Brady do? What would Drew Brees do? mentality is his own man now. Goff led the Rams to the Super Bowl. Goff signed a four-year, $134 million contract. Goff’s Rams are 8-4, thinking Super Bowl and he is a major reason why. Not that anybody can really tell. The perception, per usual, is that there’s a virtual string attached from Goff’s hip to his head coach. It’s fascinating, really. Any time the Rams do well, Sean McVay is a genius. Any time the Rams struggle, it’s Goff’s fault.

That’s not hyperbole. That’s the universally sanctioned narrative spewed everywhere.

Vultures circle this 6-foot-4, 222-pounder from Novato, Calif., game to game to game and, damn, doesn’t everyone desire to be recognized for what they do to some degree? It’s human nature.

Goff, never one to BS an answer, sincerely does not care. Who’s the hero? Who’s crucified? Such a blame game is “irrelevant” to him, occupying zero square feet of residency in his mind. And, no, that is not the case for all quarterbacks. Goff does know this: he is the man for the job. He has grown immensely in Year 5 of his career. He relishes the pressure and absolutely can vault these Rams back to that Super Bowl moment, back to the stage on which they all choked so badly Feb. 3, 2019. A win Thursday night would be a massive step in that direction. The Rams face those Bill Belichick-led Patriots for the first time since the Hoodie essentially put all 11 players on offense in straightjackets, since Goff juuust missed a throw that could’ve defined his career forever.

The NFC is wide open.

The NFC is theirs — if Goff takes it.

So, right at this critical moment in his career, Go Long chatted at length with Goff to see how he’s processing this all. It is abundantly clear the quarterback has not lost one iota of conviction. He doesn’t “dwell” on that Super Bowl misfire. That night made him more of a fighter and he’s still fighting.

“You always have to fight through some sort of adversity,” Goff says. “And you end up facing it pretty often in this league. It’s a tough league. It’s a tough place to be successful. If you are successful, you’re one of the greats. And that’s my goal. I think the Super Bowl is something you use as motivation — absolutely. … I would love to get back there and get another shot at it. Every year, that’s what the goal is.

“You’re working toward winning that championship.”

He doesn’t feel trapped in any sort of public-opinion vice. He doesn’t care if everyone seems to have made up their minds about him. Goff insists he gets along great with McVay. One week after the head coach publicly blamed him for a loss to the 49ers, Goff authored a masterpiece. Goff sliced ‘n diced the Cardinals. And, sure enough, there was McVay wrapping Goff in a hug after that 38-28 win. Even with a mask on, you could tell McVay’s face was stretched into a huge smile.

Goff is his own man. Goff is in a fantastic mental space.

Goff does not hesitate for one second when this 2020 season is presented in Super Bowl-or-Bust terms, when he’s told it’s really all up to him.

“You don’t play the game if you’re not ready for those expectations,” Goff says. “That’s how we prepare every day. That’s how I prepare every day — to win a championship. At the same time, it’s one week at a time and we’ve got to win each week. You’re not wired right if that’s not how you’re thinking every day.”

If things do go south, the quarterback here will again get all the blame.

Goff isn’t counting on things going south, though.

“What you’re called to do”

The California cool can throw you off. Jared Goff can appear emotionless.

Utterly emotionless.

When nothing went right his rookie year, when he was essentially a punching bag in a No. 16 jersey, at least one teammate was a bit worried. Something would go very wrong — he’d throw a bad pick, he’d take a sack — and Goff simply did not react. At all. Obviously, amnesia is a great quality for any NFL quarterback to possess. Goff wears that No. 16 for Joe Montana, “Joe Cool” himself, but this was… odd. Extreme.

As tight end Tyler Higbee explains, it was almost like the play didn’t happen at all.

“At first, I was kind of concerned,” Higbee says. “I was like, ‘This guy just threw a pick and he doesn’t care.’ … Like, ‘Does this guy even care?’ It’s proven that he is, ‘Wipe it. Next play. I’ll learn from it later.’ I’ve always thought that was cool about him, how he keeps his cool. He’s never too high, never too low.”

And those closest to Goff say that’s how he’s been his entire life. When he got the snot beat out of him as an 18-year-old freshman at Cal, Mom and Dad could never tell anything was wrong.

So, no, the Super Bowl loss would never doom Goff. That isn’t the case for other quarterbacks who lose this game. In the last five years alone, we’ve seen league MVPs Cam Newton and Matt Ryan descend to earth after Super Bowl thuds. Neither has recovered. While Higbee knows Goff was “pissed” about that 13-3 loss to the Patriots, he also knew that night would never, ever stunt his growth. Because of how he reacts to disaster. There’s even a coolness to what Goff would say to anyone out there dismissing him as a McRobot.

“My job,” Goff says, “is to win games and lead our offense to points. I’ve done a pretty good job of that throughout my career and expect to continue to do that.”

Consider where this franchise was when it drafted Goff first overall. Owner Stan Kroenke relocated the Rams from St. Louis to L.A. and ponied up for the most expensive stadium in world history — a utopian $5.5 billion palace — smack dab in a new market. In theory, it’d work. More than four million people live in L.A. Problem is, America’s second-most populated city is also its most distracted city. You don’t just have options in sports. You have options in life. This is the land of the Lakers and Hollywood and unlimited beaches, and averting eyeballs to a new football team is a much more gargantuan task than anyone in the NFL offices could’ve realized.

Thanks to Goff, there’s hope. Win and people have no choice but to pay attention.

The pressure of this all was never suffocating because nothing rattles Goff.

Now, there’s no need to think how Brady or Brees attack the profession. He has his own process and he has found new ways to push himself this season with offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell. Goff believes sharper footwork has led to his big jump in accuracy. His current completion percentage of 68.4 is by far the best of his career and even better than the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers. Another reason? Goff is decoding defenses and anticipating better than ever.

It’s not all smacking us across the face in the form of highlights we must re-watch 30 times to believe but this 2020 season feels like a breakthrough to Goff.

On the field, of course. (“My understanding of the whole game has gotten better.”)

But off the field, too. Back when we hung out for a weekend in ’17, Goff didn’t seem sure how his personality would fit in L.A. He didn’t possess one fraction of the flamboyancy you see in other star athletes here. He wasn’t jonesing for a celebrity relationship, saying bluntly, “Do you think Tom Brady is with Gisele if he doesn't win a Super Bowl?” Hollywood wasn’t that appealing — he turned down all but two invites to movie premieres, only seeing Beauty and the Beast because his Mom and sister wanted to go. And outside of a really good sushi spot downtown, he didn’t feel the urge to soak in that L.A. nightlife.

For a while, so many locals thought Goff was Ryan Gosling. But if his blonde locks and hazel eyes screamed L.A., his disposition never did. In a city that rewards self-promotion, Goff never gave a damn about massaging an IG-friendly brand.

And this year, he found his niche. His calling.

Another reason Goff is so at peace this season is that he’s found so much purpose in changing the lives of kids in Los Angeles. Specifically, in Inglewood. In one month alone, he helped raise $20,000 for Inglewood Unified School District, donated a library to one school in need and, every Tuesday, he’s been reading to kids via Zoom. Because, frankly, Goff knows he comes from a place of “privilege” with his parents providing him private education and pushing him to go to college. Sadly, he learned, so many kids in Los Angeles don’t even know that college options exist. If they do, too often, it’s only a dream. They can’t afford it.

Pre-pandemic, Goff made a point to see the rougher neighborhoods for himself. He knows what life’s like here. His goal? Send as many kids to college for free as humanly possible. So, he never looked up to any Hollywood starlets. He looked up to a teammate, Andrew Whitworth, whose work with L.A.’s youth is unparalleled.

Now, Goff has never been so comfortable in his own skin. He’s making a difference.

“That’s part of the job,” he says. “That’s part of who I am — wanting to help. But I think also, being the quarterback in this city, that is what you’re called to do.”

Back at the Rams facility, he’s in a groove too. Goff runs the same questions through his mind daily: How do I eat the right foods? How do I take care of my body? How do I get the most sleep I can get? He has to consciously make sure he’s getting enough sleep, too, because he’s obsessed with gameplanning and film sessions ‘round the clock. Any attempt in this conversation to pull Goff away from football — to see, for example, if he’s still listening to Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber — is redirected to the mindset Goff says drives him: “How do I get better today?” He’s pushing himself mentally more than ever, which as detailed by the Rams’ best QB ever, Kurt Warner is how a quarterback truly reaches his ceiling.

“There’s a million things,” Goff says. “It’s every minute of every day. You try to get your rest but — at the same time — you only get a handful of shots at this. I want to make the most of it.”

This season is as good a shot at a ring as most quarterbacks get in a lifetime.

He’s heating up, too. (And still listening to Swift, Higbee confirms.)

Goff shredded the Buccaneers, on the road, for 376 yards on 39-of-51 passing (76.5 percent) with three scores. And after a nightmarish outing against the 49ers, after McVay ripped him and all Goff said was “I’m a big boy, I can handle it” … he responded. He picked himself up off the canvas to throw for 351 yards on 37-of-47 passing (78.7 percent) in Arizona. That win magnified exactly how Goff is his own man. On one third and 4, he moved from read… to read… to read… before — Zip! — hitting Cooper Kupp for 12 yards and then — Whack! —  taking a smack to the facemask from 320-pounder Angelo Blackson. Goff’s head was yanked more than 90 degrees to the left. The Rams scored the next play.

On a third and goal at the one-yard line, with 51 seconds left in the half, Goff lofted a beautiful fade to Higbee for six.

And back at the one again, Goff plowed through the teeth of the Cardinals’ defense for another touchdown. There was emotion after this, too. Goff handed the ball to his center to spike and glided past McVay with a high-five and a smile.

“Reaching for perfection”

Other quarterbacks hog all the headlines. Rightfully so, too. This 2020 season has read like a thriller novel with gripping cliffhangers and valiant protagonists. We cannot wait to flip the pages every Sunday.

First, Russell Wilson is “cooking.” To everyone’s delight, the Seahawks fully unleash their quarterback on the world. Bomb after bomb, we can’t enough. Then, Josh Allen bursts onto the scene with his Wild West brand of quarterbacking and Kyler Murray hypnotizes defenses for a good 2 ½ months with one surreal Hail Murray in the desert. At age 37, Aaron Rodgers is enjoying his finest Eff You Tour yet. It’s as if his 36-touchdown, four-interception season is a direct response to his bosses drafting his replacement.

Baker Mayfield was “dangerous” once again on Sunday.

Obviously, there’s Mahomes. The MVP frontrunner boggles our minds weekly.

And here’s Goff. Other QBs are making noise and he isn’t paying much attention. He’s the character mentioned every fourth chapter in this thriller, loitering outside of the plot. Outside everyone’s minds. But by page 578, Goff just may supply the mind-bending twist.

“You handle your business,” he says. “You win games. You take care of the ball. You score touchdowns. Everything will take care of itself. Up to this point in my career, that’s worked for me and always will.”

Goff’s season is hardly registering nationally, but it should be. From digging the Rams out of a 28-3 hole and nearly stunning the Bills (you be the judge on this fourth-and-9 DPI) to KO’ing the Cardinals after near-decapitation, we’ve seen one trait persist: toughness. When I first met Goff, in ’17, this stood out most. Beneath that veneer of cool is more ruggedness than anyone realizes. He needed to make that clear to everyone on his team as a rookie, too. Amid a 42-7 shellacking to the Super Bowl-bound Falcons, he hurled his slender frame over the goal line knowing damn well he’d get “absolutely sandwiched.”

Sure enough, his chinstrap detached and his nose was bleeding. But he scored. As Goff said then, he’s “more afraid that people will be like, 'He's a little b----,’” than he ever is of actually getting drilled.

That grit has endured.

It’s not as noticeable as a Mahomes no-looker, a Kyler juke or an Allen missile but this is the Goff difference.

“That’s part of my game and that’s always been part of my game,” Goff says, “To be mentally and physically tough. … You hope to be strong in every situation. On the field, it’s being able to take any hit I can take. It goes back to that preparation of taking care of your body, being good in the offseason, taking care of everything you need to take care of and then, during the season, it’s just playing and allowing your preparation to take over. That’s something I’ve tried to pride myself on this year. And just continue to be better at it. It’s never-ending. It’s always a building thing.

“You’re never there. You’re always reaching for perfection. You’re probably never going to get it but it’s the journey.”

That mental toughness has been needed most.

Losing a Super Bowl, period, can crush any quarterback’s psyche for good. Losing one in that fashion — scoring three points after lighting the NFL on fire for 32.9 per game all season — absolutely could. Probably should. With each win since, McVay’s the savant. With each loss, Goff is deemed the problem. Now, the temperature climbs each day we inch closer to the playoffs. This Rams defense is loaded with a legit star up front (Aaron Donald could win his third DPOY award), a legit star at cornerback (Jalen Ramsey is shutting No. 1’s down weekly) and playmakers everywhere. Leonard Floyd has been a revelation off the edge, with seven sacks. Darious Williams is defying gravity, with four picks.

If any defense has a shot at shutting down all those thrilling QBs, it’s this one with 20 takeaways (third in NFL), 36 sacks (third) that ranks No. 2 overall.

Yet as talented as this Rams defense is, history shows your quarterback must deliver.

Make no mistake: It’s on Goff.

And that’s fine by him.

“Everybody can play quarterback and be happy and talk to the media when you’re winning games and throwing for a million touchdowns and everything’s going your way,” Goff says. “I think that’s the easy part. It’s when things aren’t going your way, the offense is struggling, you’re struggling, the team’s struggling and there’s some divisiveness maybe going on within the team. At that point, how do you make it right? How do you take care of business and do what you’re supposed to do as the quarterback? I think that’s the part I’ve always enjoyed — making things right and being that backbone for the team when they need it.

“Off the field, you’re the leader of 53 guys. You’re the leader of the organization. You have to be able to handle those situations gracefully. And at the same time, it’s being the person you are and being genuine.”

That’s someone who was never afraid to jump on teammates from Day 1. Upon taking over, Goff viewed playing quarterback like “being a parent.” Cooper Kupp is so detailed, so meticulous with every route that Goff knew right away he could be hard on him. And, by now, the QB knows how to handle all of his “kids” individually.

This core has been together for four years.

Higbee is quick to swat away the narrative that Goff is simply his coach’s puppet. He points to Goff dropping a deep ball to tight end Gerald Everett in a near-impossible window. He points to a corner route he ran himself where, Higbee says, “the ball’s on the money, I’m catching it in stride, I’m able to run.” All the big plays to Kupp. To Robert Woods. As Higbee says, Goff does everything in his power to ensure you don’t have to do too much thinking. More than ever, he’s taking ownership of getting everyone else lined up correctly pre-snap.

“You hear it from the news, the media — ‘system QB,’” Higbee says. “I think when you have continued success, you can’t call that card. You’re either getting better or getting worse. And he is always getting better. I don’t think it’s fair to claim when we do have success it’s Sean. Because he is part of this offense. He is making his own calls and getting guys lined up and doing his thing.”

Of course, there is one way to silence everyone forever.

“That’s the hope, the Super Bowl”

Before they even had one training camp practice together, Goff’s cell phone lit up all the time with messages from McVay. This was the first coach Goff ever had who texted back instantly. When we grabbed dinner at Chick-fil-A that summer in ’17 — precisely when Goff made this point — McVay checked in.

No, this head coach did not draft this QB. He inherited this QB. And you always wonder where loyalties lie when that happens. But four seasons and one whopping contract into this, Goff insists the partnership only strengthens with time. He calls McVay “extremely unselfish” and “extremely driven” and they’re still exchanging ideas all the time. They still get together several times throughout the week to devise a game plan. Together. McVay tells Goff which matchups he likes and Goff tells McVay which matchups he likes. It’s collaborative.

As Goff looks around the NFL — at all the coaches on hot seats — he feels blessed.

“We’re always working toward the same goal,” Goff says. “I’m lucky to have him and I know he feels the same way about me.”

The points are not coming as easily as they once did but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

In Super Bowl LIII, Belichick exposed McVay.

Some in the NFL scouting community are blunt: they no longer view McVay as a “genius” after that game. As one AFC personnel exec explains, Belichick played a “6-1” front to take away the Rams’ wide-zone, Todd Gurley-fueled running scheme. Belichick covered up everyone on the line except for the center and constricted the edges. The whole point of McVay’s scheme was to get defenders moving to create a one-cut lane. And Belichick killed the timing of it all. Belichick made it seem like a lane was open and it’d close shut — he made everything “cloudy” up front.

On the back end, the Patriots played man coverage so there was no confusion in the play-action game.

And whenever the Rams passed? The Patriots sent the house right at center John Sullivan, who Belichick deemed the weak link.

The result: Three points, 14 first downs, 62 rushing yards.

“McVay didn’t have an answer,” the AFC exec says. “Literally the whole game, he had no answer. The Patriots were like, ‘Alright, we’re going to just keep doing it.’ He had no answer. … Halftime. Third quarter. Fourth quarter. Eventually, you have to be like, ‘Alright, this is what they’re doing.’ You don’t need a whole new gameplan but you can tweak it. ‘We’ll put this wrinkle in there.’ He just didn’t. He had legit no answers. It was crazy.

“I don’t think McVay is a genius. The thing is always ‘He’s held back by his quarterback.’ Aren’t all offenses held back by their quarterback?”

McVay did dial up one play, the deep shot to Brandin Cooks, and Goff was a hair late.

That one throw essentially opened the floodgates of skepticism around the quarterback. L.A. missed the playoffs in ’19 and, no, the skepticism isn’t completely unfounded. Goff’s passer rating dipping from 101.1 to 86.5. He had 16 picks, 10 fumbles and just didn’t seem nearly as nimble as the playmakers redefining his position. Better pocket movement has helped in 2020. Now, that rating is up to 93.7 and, while it’s taken 1 ½ seasons, these Rams seem to be finding a counterpunch.

Out is Gurley. In is a three-headed monster. Darrell Henderson (5-8, 208), Malcolm Brown (5-11, 222) and Cam Akers (5-10, 217) all keep defenses guessing with different skills unleashed in totally different ways. They’ve combined for 1,284 yards. The video-game, 2018-like statistics aren’t there but, Higbee believes, this now is a better offense and a better quarterback than what we saw that Super Bowl season. Higbee praises Goff’s unselfishness, the fact that he’s OK handing the ball off all game if that’s what that game takes. He believes the Super Bowl taught the Rams there are three speeds — Regular Season Speed, Playoff Speed and “Super Bowl Speed.”

Those Rams were not ready.

These Rams — now capable of grinding out a different type of game — may be.

“We’ve adjusted. We’ve adapted,” Higbee says. “We’ve shown we can control the game and win games in different ways. We’ve won games throwing the ball. We’ve won games running the ball. Heavily. We’ve won games where it’s very balanced and we’re doing both very well. That’s all part of it. Defenses will adjust to combat certain things that we do. It’s about having a balanced offense so when teams take something away, we can do something else.”

Adds Goff: “It’s always different. It’s always evolving.”

Evolving just like the quarterback himself. Goff knows what he wants his legacy off the field to be — “changing lives.” Giving more kids in Inglewood a chance. The more he wins, the bigger that platform becomes to give those kids hope.

A defining moment in his career is coming. The spotlight will steer right back on Goff this postseason and everyone’s criticism will likely run red-hot again.

Goff cannot stress it enough — he isn’t getting too far ahead of himself. He’s taking this day to day. But getting another shot at that game and that throw? Getting a shot at hitting a receiver in the end zone with all of America watching? He can’t lie. That opportunity absolutely drives him.

“Being there once, you want to be great,” Goff says. “That’s the hope. The Super Bowl. That’s what you’re always driven to do. Striving for greatness — striving to be your best at all times — is what you do every day.”

Exacting some revenge Thursday, against Belichick, would be a step for Sean McVay, sure.

But it’d be a step for Jared Goff, too.

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