Same No. 16 on the jersey, same GOFF across the shoulders, but Rams quarterback Jared Goff is a completely different player than the Arizona Cardinals beat in last season’s finale.
By comparison, it was Ryan Gosling lining up under center last season. Goff might have looked the part, but he was nowhere near the player who guided the Rams to a 32-16 victory Sunday, ensuring the franchise of its first winning season since 2003.
“Night and day,” Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu said of the two Goffs. “Last year, he was just itching to get the ball out, throwing into double coverage, not anticipating the blitz. Now, he’s just taking his time with the football. He’s not forcing throws. If nothing is there, he’s just checking it down to his back. He’s playing great football right now, smart football.”
In the 2016 finale, the Rams were buried 44-6 and Goff threw for 120 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions. The team went 0-7 with the rookie at the helm. Although Sunday wasn’t his best performance of the season, he threw for 220 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, and the game’s outcome was never in doubt.
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians was more succinct in comparing the 2016 Goff and this one: “It was deer in the headlights versus a guy who really knows what he’s doing.”
Now the stage is set for a marquee matchup pitting Goff and Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz, the top two picks in the 2016 draft. They’re both quarterbacks, so they won’t be on the field at the same time, yet they will be forever linked. They’re atop their respective divisions — a stunner relative to what was expected — and they’re a welcome upbeat story for the NFL in a season filled with downers.
“I think it’s exciting for those guys,” Rams coach Sean McVay said of Sunday’s game at the Coliseum. “I think everyone has a tendency to say, ‘It’s Jared Goff vs. Carson,’ but really, Jared is going to be going up against Philadelphia’s defense, and Carson will be going against our defense. It’s going to be a great challenge.”
What’s more, the Cardinals have played both of them, getting swept by the Rams by a combined 65-16, and in Week 5 losing at Philadelphia 34-7. Arizona has a thorough understanding of Sunday’s showdown.
“Both of them have made tremendous sophomore leaps,” All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson said. “Both of them look poised, comfortable in the offense. They’ve got great athletes around them.”
Wentz threw four touchdown passes against the Cardinals, three coming on three consecutive attempts in the opening quarter. He’s the only player in Eagles history to throw three touchdown passes in a quarter.
In terms of which quarterback is further along at this point in his young career, a sampling of Cardinals defenders said Wentz — but not by much.
“If I was to say who is the most commanding at the line, I’d probably have to go with Wentz,” Mathieu said. “But those guys are neck and neck when you talk about potential, how much they’ve grown, how well they protect the football. Are they able to spot blitzes? Are they able to spot coverages and try to put the offense in a different position?
“Goff’s not overwhelmed. Neither of them are. We tried to play a lot of man today and blitz a lot, and he doesn’t get rattled, he doesn’t get overwhelmed. A lot of that has to do with confidence, but you can tell that his team believes in him as well.”
Cardinals defensive lineman Frostee Rucker gives a lot of credit to McVay, pointing out how Goff gets to the line of scrimmage quickly, enabling McVay to speed-read the defense and deliver instructions to his young quarterback before the in-helmet radio cuts off with 15 seconds left on the play clock.
“Defenses stress to get on the ball because they think you’re going to snap it, and then they get to see what you’re in,” said Rucker, a former USC standout.
“What [both Philadelphia’s and the Rams’] offense allows them to do is let them do things that they’re comfortable doing. A lot of people get drafted into situations and it’s the coach’s way or the highway. But what you’re seeing with these guys is new football, the coaches are adapting to what their skill sets are.”
Wentz, listed at 6 feet 5 and 237 pounds, is slightly thicker than the 6-4, 223-pound Goff, and, Cardinals defenders said, was harder to bring down. Wentz, who turns 25 at the end of the month, is also almost two years older than Goff, and that extra experience can make a big difference.
In a highly unusual twist, Goff and Wentz have the same agent, and they worked out together before the draft with former USC coach Ted Tollner. The quarterbacks still stay in touch from time to time.
“We texted most recently four or five weeks ago,” Goff said. “I don’t remember what we were talking about, something…”
Meanwhile, the football world is talking about them.
They are Generation Next. It’s not Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning, but who knows what their rivalry will evolve into a few years down the road?
“They’re in good systems, they’re coached well, and the sky’s the limit for both those guys,” Arians said.
And with all those passing touchdowns between them, they certainly aren’t limited by the sky.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer