Los Angeles Rams  

 

Rams' top-secret QB tour bred blockbuster trade for No. 1 pick

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Jeff Fisher and Les Snead arrived in Berkeley on a cloudy February morning, and as soon as quarterback Jared Goff began his private workout at California Memorial Stadium -- as if on cue -- the rain came pouring down like the Andy Dufresne escape scene in "Shawshank Redemption."

By the end of the former Cal star's sublime throwing session, all had become clear for the two men deciding the immediate fate of the newly rechristened Los Angeles Rams. And it was that clarity of purpose which, two months later, would trigger the blockbuster trade that shook up the 2016 draft and brought some serious gridiron glitz to Tinseltown.

Having flown to Northern California straight from Fargo, North Dakota -- where they'd watched the 2016 draft's other top quarterbacking prospect, ex-North Dakota State passer Carson Wentz, perform impressively in a similar session -- Fisher, the Rams' veteran head coach, and Snead, the team's fifth-year general manager, were completing the second and final stop of their under-the-radar, Find a Franchise Quarterback Tour.

They weren't prepared for the inclement weather, but they weren't complaining, either. After all, one of the few raps against Goff was his perceived inability to throw a wet ball, a stigma that began early in his freshman season in 2013, when he performed so miserably on a rainy afternoon at Oregon that he was pulled from the game in the first quarter.

Even as Fisher vainly attempted to shield the footballs under his light jacket before handing them to Goff, he understood the beauty of the moment: If throwing a slippery ball were still a legitimate weakness, Goff would surely be exposed.

Instead, as if channeling the artistry of dreadlocked Cal alum Adam Duritz, Goff summoned a performance so tremendous, he might as well have crooned, "I am the Rain King!"

Goff, according to one witness, flat out "ripped it" while throwing to former Cal teammates Trevor Davis and Maurice Harris. "The ball never hit the ground," said another person who attended the session.

"It was a great opportunity to see him throw a wet ball," Fisher recalled Thursday morning, a couple of hours after the announcement of a pricey trade with the Tennessee Titans that put the Rams on the clock with the No. 1 overall pick. "We were just going through the process, and he made all the throws, and he was outstanding."

Whether the Rams use the No. 1 overall selection on Goff, as I believe they will, or call Wentz to the podium in Chicago on April 28, Fisher and Snead already have made one thing obvious: After methodically building a talented defense, a process fueled by the bounty they acquired in their own blockbuster pre-draft trade four years ago, and last year bolstering the running game by selecting star halfback Todd Gurley and a slew of offensive linemen, the Rams can no longer get by with mediocrity at the game's pivotal position.

Speaking of which: With records of 7-8-1, 7-9, 6-10 and 7-9 during their four years in St. Louis, the newly relocated coach and GM understand that they'll have to step up it up to stay employed in Southern California beyond this season.

So Fisher and Snead, in a strategy they employed as far back as their first season in St. Louis, hit the road and got an up-close-and-personal view of what was out there. And when they loved what they saw in Fargo and Berkeley, they set their sights on the top of the draft.

With the 15th overall selection, Fisher and Snead knew it wouldn't be easy. Not since 1984 had a team (the Patriots, who came up from 16th to land receiver Irving Fryar) moved up so far to land the first pick. But the Rams had an important chip: an extra second-round pick in 2016, obtained in last year's trade with the Eagles that sent oft-injured incumbent quarterback Sam Bradford to Philly for Nick Foles. And while Foles' stint as the Rams' starting quarterback had been short and inglorious -- ultimately, he was supplanted by Case Keenum, who technically still resides atop the L.A. depth chart -- that extra second-rounder turned out to be a godsend.

As fate would have it, the Rams' ownership of that pick -- and the Eagles' lack thereof -- may have allowed L.A. to outjockey the Eagles for the Titans' top pick. The Eagles, according to sources, have a high degree of interest in both quarterbacks, particularly Goff, and were also engaged in talks to trade up in the draft.

Meanwhile the Browns, who hold the No. 2 overall selection, may lose out on the quarterback they covet most -- and, in response, might try to trade down to a team interested in acquiring the passer the Rams pass over.

Again, this intriguing scenario is layered with the seeds of past developments: Last March, before trading Bradford to the Eagles, the Rams -- according to a high-ranking team source -- believed they had a deal in place to send him to Cleveland for a first-round pick, but the Browns backed out the following morning.

Throw in the fact that Fisher closed the deal for the first overall pick with the franchise that employed him as head coach for 17 seasons, and there have been a whole lot of dramatic arcs to this story. And make no mistake: He and Snead are intent on milking the drama for all its worth between now and draft night, with organizational sources sending out conflicting reports of which quarterback the Rams prefer to numerous reporters, a process likely to continue right up until the moment when the Rams are officially on the clock.

Regardless of the noise, Fisher and Snead will get their man -- and their immediate futures will likely depend on the young quarterback's aptitude. For what it's worth, their bosses (Rams owner Stan Kroenke and COO Kevin Demoff) were absolutely on board with the trade. As one high-ranking Rams official put it in an internal conversation, "We can go with Case Keenum and [second-year backup] Sean Mannion, and if everything breaks right, we can probably be a wild-card team. But we're not chasing wild cards. We want to go after championships."

To get to that level, a young man will have to guide them -- and something Fisher and Snead saw in Fargo and/or Berkeley two months ago convinced them that there's at least one quarterback in this draft who can transform their team in a hurry.

"We're not looking over our shoulders here," Fisher told me Thursday. "We're planning for the future, and we're building this team, and this is the next step. Last year we drafted Todd Gurley, and we drafted [four] offensive linemen. This year, we know what we want, and we're going after it."

Rain or shine.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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