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Rams franchise rests on whether Jared Goff can lead the team

The Rams lost to the Cardinals, 44-6, at the Coliseum on Jan. 1 to end the season 4-12.

Jared Goff began the first year of his Rams career standing sturdily on a downtown hotel podium, cameras flashing, fans swooning.

He ended it on a patch of grass down the street, crumpled in a heap.

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Goff began his journey here last spring as a No. 1 overall draft pick, Hollywood's newest star, the next Kobe, the new Kershaw.

He ended it smothered in bruises, boos and the most basic of questions.

Is he any good?

It is perhaps the biggest shame of a shameful Rams season that even after 16 games, nobody knows.

On a day the Rams mercifully ended their homecoming horror show by absorbing an unmerciful 44-6 beating by the Arizona Cardinals at a dreary Coliseum, the bigger picture could be found buried under a pile of red jerseys.

Goff was down there, somewhere, sacked by giants, handcuffed by his coaches, left lying in the limbo of a lost autumn.

He didn't win a game as a starter, but he was only given seven chances to start. He threw seven interceptions and only five touchdown passes, but he did so while being hammered for 26 sacks, more than the number given up by some teams for the entire season.

"Probably got hit more than me,'' Todd Gurley said.

He completed only one pass of 40-plus yards, but he was playing in a conservative system run by a defensive-minded coach who has already been fired. He ran an offense that couldn't hold two late leads against Miami and San Francisco, but he did so while handing the ball to Gurley, the team's biggest disappointment, a running back who suddenly can't run.

"You can say he didn't win a game as a starter but we also weren't very good in, really, any of the positions on offense to give him a chance,'' interim Coach John Fassel said.

The Rams stunk at 4-12, and Goff's passer rating was a sick 63.2, so feel free to put it all on the 22-year-old kid, and maybe you'll be right. But understand that right now, nobody, not even the Rams, has enough solid evidence to make a sound judgment.

"I don't think so,'' Fassel said. "The only thing you can judge about Jared is that he's tough.''

Give him that. Behind that boyish smile and laid-back presence, Goff is tough, especially during a season finale that featured seven sacks, Cardinals swarming him from every direction, pounding and pummeling and dancing over his increasingly curled body.

He was booed on miscommunication with some of his hapless receivers. There were cheers when he was finally replaced, for his own safety, in the fourth quarter by Sean Mannion. On what would have been the Rams' only touchdown, a 38-yard, direct-snap run to Tavon Austin, Goff nullified it by illegally going in motion.

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It was a long day. He still does dumb things. But he shows flashes of brilliance and signs of leadership. After Sunday's game ended, he was upright again, walking gingerly around the locker room in a cutoff T-shirt and football pants, shaking hands and patting backs and speaking firmly.

"Just remember what this feels like,'' Goff said he told the players "It's going to drive you through the off-season. It's going to drive you into next year. It's maybe even going to carry you for the rest of your life.''

Goff said he then imparted a message that could be construed as his first pep talk of the 2017 season.

"I tried to let them know that this isn't the end of anything,'' he said. "It's really the beginning.''

If so, then the Rams need to begin the new chapter by doing everything possible to help Goff succeed. He's not only their future, he's their present, he's their everything. They went all-in by pushing six draft picks across the table to acquire him. It's too late to hedge that bet now. As with any NFL quarterback, he is more important than everyone else in the room, and the Rams need to build accordingly.

Their new head coach? More than any other requirement, he needs to be a Goff Whisperer.

Their personnel decisions? Before anything else, they need to strengthen the players standing around Goff in the huddle, better blockers, more downfield threats.

Their new playbook? Let the kid fling.

"I know there's guys in there that think the same way I do and understand that … the culture needs to be changed and a million other things have to be changed,'' Goff said.

Others in the locker room agree. Even the Rams defenders, who have been biting their tongues for weeks when asked about the struggling offense, are defending Goff.

"He's light year ahead of what he was at OTAs,'' said defensive end William Hayes, referring to the Rams' spring workouts. "You are taking a guy who played in a college-style offense, always in the shotgun, and actually, to a certain degree, teaching him how to take a snap from under center. I've see him grow. That kid's future is really sharp.''

That change must, of course, begin with Goff. He said he hoped nobody would judge him by this season — "It's only been seven games and I know it's my rookie year,'' he said — but he also said he would be offering no further excuses.

"I've got to be better,'' he said.

Maybe he will, maybe he won't, the only thing that makes sense is that we're all just going to have to wait to find out.

One glimmer of hope for Rams fans can be found in Goff's freshman season at California, when the team finished 1-11 and the kid quarterback learned and grew and, two years later, led the Bears to an 8-5 record.

"It's pretty identical,'' Goff said. "We changed the culture in the building, and then we won in the coming years with the same guys that were 1-11.''

OK, so with that historical template, in two years the Rams will be invited to play Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl.

At this rate, they'd take it.

Twitter: @LATimesklein

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