The Rams have a quarterback controversy.
Nobody can seem to agree on whether Jared Goff is a championship quarterback.
The smartest young mind in football loves him, Rams coach Sean McVay raving about him as if he were Tom Brady.
But the national pundits do not love him, in some cases even ranking him below Baker Mayfield.
The regular season loves him, as he has been voted to two Pro Bowls while improving in each of his three seasons, capped by last year’s top 10 finishes in passing yards and touchdown passes.
“I think the world of him,” McVay says. “I know I don’t want anybody else to be our quarterback.”
Yet according to the national narrative, he’s just a system quarterback, benefiting greatly from masterful play-calling.
“I see a quarterback who makes the reads, makes the throws, stands in the pocket … doing all these things to lead his team, to be a great quarterback, to be a Super Bowl contending quarterback,” receiver Robert Woods says.
Yet the narrative says it was really Todd Gurley’s team, and when Gurley crumbled at the end of last season, so did the Rams.
Back and forth the debate rages, the only certainty being the date and place of its conclusion.
This season. Right now. This is when we’ll find out exactly what resides under the No. 16 jersey and whether or not it can shoulder the Rams to a championship.
Gurley is hobbled. McVay is trusting. Teammates are buying. For the first time since the Rams emptied their pockets to move up a record 14 spots to pick the lanky blond dude with the top pick in the 2016 draft, this is clearly Goff’s team.
The most important story line of the season will be, what will he do with it?
The last time most folks around here saw Goff, he was banging his hands against his helmet after throwing a wobbly, off-balance pass to the Patriots’ Stephon Gilmore deep in Patriots territory. It essentially clinched New England’s 13-3 Super Bowl victory and made Goff one of the authors of arguably the worst offensive performance in Super Bowl history.
Six months later, during practice Wednesday in Thousand Oaks, he looked like a different person, joking with lineman, shouting audibles, and finding receivers in the tightest of spots.
“He has seamlessly and naturally become a leader,” McVay says.
A stilted and uncomfortable demeanor in Goff’s rookie year has morphed into a confident ease. Where once he projected uncertainty, now he carries himself with a sort of genial gravitas. Unlike some other NFL stars, Goff isn’t even making an issue about a seemingly inevitable contract extension that could be the richest in Rams history.
“It’s starting to become that even more and more every day as I get more comfortable, my leadership continues to grow, I continue to be the best teammate I can be,” Goff says.
He adds, “I enjoy it, I think it’s the way it’s supposed to be, something I don’t take lightly … when a quarterback grows older, it should become their team and I’m hoping I’m putting the right foot forward every day to make that happen.”
More specifically, this summer Goff is owning this team by taking more control of its offense, changing his plays with McVay’s blessing, the “system quarterback” making this system his own.
“Some plays, McVay is pretending his [helmet] mic went out, and says, ‘OK Jared, call your favorite play here,’ and he’s doing it,’’ Woods says. “It’s a great to see.”
One of his linemen said sometimes he’s calling plays that even they don’t see.
“He’s a special player. I think his production kind of speaks for itself.”
“Some of the checks, the audibles, are coming more natural to him now,” tackle Rob Havenstein tells The Times’ Jack Harris. “Sometimes it comes out and we’re like, ‘Huh? I guess he sees something.’ Turns out, he’s right.”
Asked about this newfound control, Goff smiles. He understands his increased responsibilities. He clearly relishes it.
“It’s been great, man,” Goff says. “As time goes on you continue to grow and continue to learn.
“This offseason in particular, I feel like I’ve taken a big jump in that regard. Just continuing to understand the intricacies of our offense, just trying to become more and more of an extension of Sean. The best I can do that, the better we’ll be.”
McVay echoes that last statement, noting that the Rams will be better as Goff is more empowered.
“We’re able to do a lot more because of his comfort level, his ownership with the operation,” McVay says. “When you have a player that is, in essence, an extension of the coaching staff, you can operate in a lot of special ways.”
The Rams surely are hoping one of these special ways will be more confidence and better decisions by Goff in the postseason.
Goff has completed just 55% of his postseason passes, and has a 73.6 career postseason passer rating. Compare that with his regular-season 62.1% completion rating and 94.7 quarterback rating, and some have seen a system quarterback who struggles when forced to make pressure decisions outside the system. This has led to the various rankings that have left Goff out of the top 10 with some strange choices in front of him. In one poll, Goff is ranked 12th behind Carson Wentz and Mayfield. In another poll he’s 13th behind Dak Prescott and Deshaun Watson.
“Whose rankings?” Goff asks with a laugh before getting serious.
“I don’t have a feeling on it honestly,” he says. “I understand where that narrative started from and it doesn’t bother me because I know what these people in this building are thinking. The only thing I’m concerned about is the team, coaches, close family and friends. Anyone else, it doesn’t matter to me.”
He then pulls out the pocket ace that beats the likes of Wentz and Mayfield and Prescott and Watson. In three years, he’s already quarterbacked a team to the Super Bowl. They haven’t.
“They can say that all they want, as long as we keep winning games, I’ll be happy,” he says.
Not only doesn’t McVay buy the rankings, but also he bristles at those who continue to call Goff a system quarterback.
“Everybody wants to talk about that, he makes the system what it is … we’re able to do the things we are because we have the right trigger man that can really do anything that we ask,” he says. “He’s a special player. I think his production kind of speaks for itself.”
This season, it certainly will.