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Jared Goff's laid-back nature, blue-collar work ethic could be a first-class ticket to the top of NFL draft

Jared Goff's laid-back nature, blue-collar work ethic could be a first-class ticket to the top of NFL draft
California quarterback Jared Goff examines one of his father's commemorative baseballs in the family's home in Novato, California. (Sam Farmer / Los Angeles Times)

Jared Goff shuffled in his stocking feet across the hardwood floor of his boyhood home and flopped back on an oversized leather couch in the living room. His beloved Golden State Warriors were on TV, he had called for a post-workout pizza, and his golden retriever Leo was shadowing him step for step.

The rare moment of calm — precisely a week before he could become the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft — was a welcome respite for Goff, the former California quarterback who since January has zigzagged across the country meeting with NFL teams.

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As coachable as he is on the field, the 6-foot-4 Goff is patently uncoachable as a traveler. He hates getting shoehorned into economy class. Since a tortuous trip home from the scouting combine in middle seat 33B, he has taken to paying for his own upgrades.

"I was scheduled from Philly back to California on like a six-hour flight — in coach," said Goff, 21. "I was like, upgrade. I didn't even look at the price."

Soon enough, the money won't be an issue. When the NFL opens the draft Thursday at Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, Goff will either be selected first by the Rams, or second by the Eagles, and immediately before or after North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz. Barring a bizarre twist, quarterbacks will go 1-2 in the draft for the third time in five years — something that had happened only four previous times since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.

Talk about upgrading: With Goff as the starting quarterback, Cal went from 1-11 in 2013, to 5-7 in 2014, to 8-5 last season, with a victory over Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl.

Goff's Cal career had humble beginnings, even though he was the school's first true freshman quarterback to start the opener since at least World War II. The Golden Bears' lone victory in 2013 was a 37-30 win over Portland State, a jarring reality for a player who had lost a total of four games in four years at Marin Catholic High.

Something Goff quickly learned about being a leader: It comes easy when you're winning. He had to learn how to lead as the losses piled up. That's a badge of honor for him now, and enticing for NFL teams who know they will have to go through growing pains with a rookie quarterback.

Cal Coach Sonny Dykes, in his first season that year, stuck with Goff through all the turbulence. That included a 55-16 humiliation in a monsoon in Oregon, when the freshman lost two fumbles on Cal's first three possessions and was benched with 2:57 left in the first quarter. Goff's passing numbers: three for six for 11 yards.

With the benefit of time, Dykes can look back and see one of Goff's best qualities was surfacing. The coach watched his young quarterback on the sideline and noticed that while Goff clearly wasn't pleased with his performance, he didn't look hopelessly rattled, either.

"Let me put it to you this way," Dykes said. "Jared's body language was a lot better than mine."

Dykes said Goff has an uncommon ability to address problems and fix them.

"I don't know if I've ever seen a kid that's had more of an ability to come up with a plan and work that plan," he said.

During every extended break from football, Dykes said, Goff would pick two or three points of emphasis to work on, then spend that time addressing the weaknesses in his game.

After the 1-11 debacle, Goff's primary focus was becoming a better and more vocal leader.

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"I really just had to mature," he said. "I was 18 years old and we hadn't won any games, so it was hard."

Meanwhile, Cal strength coach Damon Harrington sent a not-too-subtle reminder to his players, removing the stylish blue Cal workout clothes from their lockers and replacing them with cheap, logo-less gray gear. The players had to earn the right to get their stuff back, and that didn't happen until just before the 2014 season began, meaning that particular blue-gray game lasted for months.

"It was the worst," Jared said. "We would joke around like we were prison inmates."

There was a lot of good-natured ribbing at Cal, and Goff was frequently on the receiving end, particularly when he started to get national attention.

"We knew J was going to be a high pick coming into this year," receiver Bryce Treggs said. "So if he threw a bad ball, we were like, 'That was a late-rounder! Undrafted ball!' We'd always give him a hard time that way."

What Goff has been working on the last three months — and part of that has been with Wentz in Irvine, because they're represented by the same agency — is making the transition from the shotgun spread formation he ran at Cal to a more under-center, pro-style offense he'll run in the NFL.

Helping Goff make that transition is Ted Tollner, the former USC coach whose son, Bruce, is one of the agents representing the two top quarterbacks.

"That's where the emphasis was, trying to get the pure fundamentals," the elder Tollner said of Goff, who had 43 touchdowns with 13 interceptions last season. "I said, 'Here's the things they want to see: Do you understand how your feet move and the rhythm that it takes? Do you have the right bend in your knees? Are your hands right? Are your eyes right? Are your shoulders right?' So I started there with those kinds of basics. Jared just caught on — bam! — like that."

Goff is highly competitive, yet doesn't come across as overly intense or emotional. He's more casual, closer to sleepy-eyed Eli Manning than everything-has-to-be-perfect Peyton. He's also known for staying cool under pressure, and at 218 pounds, he looks like a broad-shouldered but lanky surfer who prefers to go with the flow.

"I think Jared is who he is and is successful to the point that he has been so far because he doesn't have the prototypic Type-A mentality," said his dad, Jerry, a former major league catcher who's now a fireman stationed just across the 101 Freeway from San Francisco International Airport. Though he's 52, he still has the boyish look he did as a baseball player and punter at Cal in the 1980s.

"He's focused on the task, don't get me wrong. But I can only compare it to myself. Before a game, I had to know where my socks were, my shoes were. If something was out of place, I'd lose my mind."

Jared concedes his idea of picking out an outfit is grabbing a shirt off the floor, giving it a sniff, and pulling it on if it passes the smell test. One of his agents rolled his eyes when Goff showed up to talk to reporters at the combine and hadn't combed his hair, failing to capitalize on the $80 haircut he had just gotten.

Goff takes pride in his ability to remain even-keeled and not focus on any given play, good or bad, but to keep moving forward.

"That's what helped me be successful, is staying as calm as possible," he said. "It doesn't mean there weren't times when I'd get everyone fired up and be loud and everything. But I wasn't like Drew Brees doing the chants before the game."

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In that sense, Goff and his dad are a lot alike. While Jerry might have been meticulous about his clothes and equipment as a big league catcher, he's easygoing and unassuming as a denizen of his firehouse in Millbrae, which looks more like a residential home than a typical station. He doesn't volunteer that he's the father of a star quarterback, yet he's happy to talk about it if anyone should ask. His two shift-mates, who watched Jared grow up and went to his games whenever possible, are both off Thursday so as not to miss a minute of the draft.

Jerry and Nancy Goff, high school sweethearts, are the furthest thing from stage parents. They're just excited to see their son begin the next chapter of his career, whether it's with the Rams or Eagles, with the bonus of his possibly winding up in L.A., where Jared's older sister, Lauren, attended UCLA and still resides.

Multiple people with knowledge of the situation say the NFL has asked the Rams to keep their quarterback choice quiet until the draft, thereby sustaining the drama. Jerry Goff said "he has a pretty good idea" where his son is headed, without revealing his preference, but that he doesn't want to get his hopes too high before NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell reads Jared's name.

Dykes said the Goff family is as "low-maintenance" as any he has encountered in his career as a coach.

"We threw that poor kid to the wolves his first year," he said. "He just got teed-off on play after play, and nobody ever said a word. Mom and dad were never, 'Hey, wait a minute, guys, what are y'all doing to my son?' They were just supportive, exactly the kind of people you would want.

"I can remember we were having issues with one of our players," Dykes continued. "I was like, 'Look, I've had 15 conversations with you about an issue. I've never had one conversation with Jared Goff or his parents about an issue since he's been here. . . . He's going to be a first-round player, and you're a walk-on."

Part of that could be the blue-collar work ethic the elder Goff tried to instill in his son, one that Jerry leaned on during his journeyman career with the Montreal Expos, Pittsburgh Pirates and Houston Astros that spanned seven years.

California quarterback Jared Goff's father, Jerry Goff, a Millbrae firefighter is seen at the Millbrae Fire Station.
California quarterback Jared Goff's father, Jerry Goff, a Millbrae firefighter is seen at the Millbrae Fire Station. (Sam Farmer / Los Angeles Times)

"I was a decent player, but I made myself good enough to get to the big leagues because I worked hard," Jerry said. "I know how hard it is to get to the level [in] whatever sport you are playing or whatever job you are doing; you need to work hard. Be a kid, go ride your bike, go fishing, just do it in moderation, and understand that there's a time you need to work if you want to go to the level you want to get to.

"I didn't project him being an NFL player or getting a scholarship to college, that was not in our wheelhouse at all. We just wanted him to have a good high school experience, compete as hard as you can compete, and let the chips fall where they may."

Jared is quick to point out he wasn't a coddled player in high school, and didn't have anything handed to him. He might be one of the top two candidates for the No. 1 pick now, but he got only three scholarship offers, from Cal, Fresno State and Washington State. It's his work ethic that got him this far.

Still, he occasionally has to throw his dad a brush-back pitch, lest he become an overbearing helicopter parent. The two had a brief phone call Thursday after Jared had returned from a quick trip to L.A., where he dined with Rams owner Stan Kroenke and team executive Kevin Demoff.

"Have you gotten a workout in today?" Jerry asked, unable to resist a nudge.

"Dad," Jared said, raising his voice. "Stop!"

In truth, Goff doesn't need the workout reminders. He adheres to his routine, and now has shifted his focus from a combine-related regimen of heavy weights and sprints to a preseason maintenance mode.

"The combine's a great experience, and I'm sure everyone will tell you the same thing," he said. "Cool experience, lots of fun, would never want to do it again."

The past few months have been a whirlwind, filled with lots of heady experiences, and a few unexpected twists. For instance, he was scheduled to throw out the first pitch at a San Francisco Giants game, and was excited to do so, but had to decline when the Rams called at the last minute because they wanted to meet with him in L.A.

"[The Rams] were joking with me about it right when I walked in," he said. "They tossed me a baseball and said, 'Hey, you want to go throw one real quick?'"

For this onetime coach flier, that's a small sacrifice for a first-class payoff on the other end.

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer

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