Los Angeles Rams  

 

Jared Goff's dream debut turns into nightmare Rams loss

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LOS ANGELES -- She was leaning over a railing atop the wide, well-worn tunnel leading from the L.A. Coliseum's locker rooms to the corner of the west end zone, waiting for the chance to make a visual connection with her son before he took the field to thunderous applause, when Nancy Goff's eyes got unmistakably moist.

Alas, she wasn't tearing up: The moment Nancy's son, Jared, had been dreaming about for most of his 22 years was about to arrive, but instead of being awash in sentiment and emotion, she was wiping away raindrops from her seemingly ageless face. It was an act Nancy -- whose game-day attire included stylish aviator shades, a long, thin, white sweater and white sandals -- would perform over and over throughout a soggy Sunday afternoon in Southern California. Wash, rinse, repeat.

"It's just so un-friggin-believable that it's raining here, today, of all days," Nancy said as she waited for Jared to appear a few minutes before kickoff, while standing a few yards from her and her family's seats near the bottom of Section 10. "I mean, how is this happening? I just never thought that when this day came, it would be like this."

It was Mother Nature 1, Mother Goff 0 -- and by nightfall, she was on the wrong side of a more significant score. After utterly dominating the Miami Dolphins for 53 minutes, the Rams dropped a 14-10 decision in front of 83,483 fans, spoiling the promising but ultimately unfulfilling debut of the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.

While Goff's future may be bright, the Rams' newly installed quarterback of the present had a mood to match the dreary weather as he stood alone at his locker following Sunday's stunning defeat.

"That was just brutal," Goff told me, slapping his right hand against his knee for emphasis. "We had it. We let it slip away. And the worst part is, we did it to ourselves."

He wasn't lying: With the Rams (4-6) holding a 10-0 lead midway through the fourth quarter and Goff guiding them toward what looked like a potential game-clinching score, it appeared as though this was a heartwarming, made-for-television Tinseltown tale approaching its inevitably cheery ending. Instead, for Goff and the home team, a horror flick ensued.

Call it Nightmare At Exposition Park.

"Jared was everything we needed," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said as he stood in the hallway leading to the coaches' locker room, a few minutes after completing his press conference. "His presence was great. His communication was great. He made reads and checks and got us in the right protections and had command of the run game. He slid in the pocket and he made throws. He was in control, and he knew it -- it was no different than the way I was feeling.

"He didn't lose it. Had the defense made a stop, we'd be in here smiling, and the story would have been, 'Jared won the game for us.' And up until the end, he thought he was gonna win this game, and so did I."

Seven months after the Rams selected the former Cal star with the top pick, and five days after Fisher announced that Goff had supplanted placeholder Case Keenum as the starter, there was a palpable sense of excitement in the misty air as fans flocked to this aged stadium steeped in so much history. And nowhere was the anticipation greater than in Parking Lot 1, where a couple dozen of Goff's family members (including father Jerry and big sister Lauren) and friends tailgated outside an RV, with pulled pork and California microbrews enhancing the festivities.

"I'm nervous, but I'm also very, very excited," Nancy said. "The first few weeks, they were doing well, and I think Jared was fine sitting and watching. But the last few weeks, he's been like, 'I can't wait' -- and now, the wait is finally over."

Why now? Well, glad you asked. Four games into the season, the Rams -- on the strength of a surprising, 17-13 road victory over the Arizona Cardinals -- were 3-1, and Fisher felt no compulsion to rush his rookie into action. They then proceeded to lose their next four, with Keenum becoming increasingly unproductive.

Last Sunday, L.A. slogged out a 9-6 road victory over the New York Jets, marking the second time this season the Rams had managed to win a game without scoring a touchdown. By that point, Fisher was already convinced that the time had come to go with Goff, whose promise had compelled the franchise to swing a blockbuster deal with the Tennessee Titans allowing them to move up 14 spots in the draft.

"Look, he's the future of the franchise, and we went up and drafted the kid for a reason," one Rams source familiar with Fisher's mindset said before Sunday's game. "The offense needed a spark, and we're not totally out of [playoff contention], so we might as well see what he's got.

"There'll probably be some moments where he makes throws that make you go, 'Wow -- I see why he's the No. 1 pick.' And there'll be others where he looks like a rookie making his first start. But the bottom line is, what's the worst thing that's gonna happen? We don't score a touchdown?"

After the game, during which Goff put up relatively pedestrian numbers (17 of 31, 134 yards, no touchdowns, no interceptions) but was hardly overwhelmed by the moment, Fisher told me, "It was a progression. All the way through [the season], he grew. We saw it every week. And finally, we'd seen enough where I knew it was time."

On Tuesday morning, Goff and Keenum were alone in a room watching game film at the team's temporary training facility in Thousand Oaks, California, when Fisher walked in and abruptly informed them, "I'm going to go with Jared this week," explaining his reasoning over the next few minutes before departing. The situation could have been abundantly awkward, "but it really wasn't," Goff recalled, "because Case has been such a pro about this, and we've really been supportive of each other the whole time."

Goff spent the next several days grinding as though it were finals week at Cal. "I called him Thursday night to check in," Goff's cousin, Kevin Mirchandani, said at the pregame tailgate. "I said, 'What are you doing?' He said, 'I'm alone at the facility, just watching film.' And that's pretty much how it was all week. I'm anxious, but I've been watching him play since Pop Warner, and I've never seen a game be too big for him."

Seconds later, as if scripted by a Hollywood screenwriter, it began to rain -- and it was impossible not to think back to Goff's freshman year at Cal, when he had such a miserable outing in a rain-drenched game at Oregon that he was pulled in the first quarter. In the months leading up to the draft, he addressed his can't throw a wet ball stigma by shining in a private workout for the Rams in a Berkeley downpour and, at the end of his Pro Day throwing session, uncorking a football subjected to some squirts from a Gatorade bottle by Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton.

"This isn't even really rain," Jerry Goff said hopefully as he stood in his seat in Section 10, near the southwest corner of the stadium, a few minutes before Sunday's kickoff. "It shouldn't make much of a difference to him. When I watched him spin it in pregame warmups, it really calmed me down."

As the rainfall steadily increased, however, it became clear that both offenses were affected by the elements. In fairness to Goff, he seemed to handle the wet conditions at least as well as veteran Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, whose first 11 drives of the game ended with 10 punts and a third-quarter interception (one play after Miami had recovered a fumble by Rams tight end Lance Kendricks, who'd just caught a nice throw over the middle by Goff but subsequently lost his grip).

The Rams, meanwhile, punctuated their second drive with a 24-yard touchdown run by halfback Todd Gurley, one play after Goff's crisp slant to receiver Kenny Britt that resulted in a 19-yard gain. Moments like that warmed a mother's heart -- even as Nancy Goff's sandal-clad feet were subjected to an unanticipated stream of chilliness.

"We obviously didn't see the rain coming," Nancy said during a third-quarter TV timeout. Turning to her daughter, a UCLA graduate student who also spent her undergraduate years at the Westwood campus, she asked, "Lauren -- during all the years you've lived here, how many days have been like this, where it just rains steadily?"

"Like today?" Lauren asked, laughing. "Maybe two. I mean, growing up in Northern California, we got days like this all the time, and sometimes I kind of miss them. But it would be great if I could just be curled up on my couch."

Said Nancy: "You know what this is? It's 'The Goff Luck.' "

The Goff Luck?

"Obviously, we've been very lucky in life, so it's not literal," Nancy said. "But sometimes odd things happen, where we go, 'Is this really happening to us right now?' and this goes waaay back on Jerry's side of the family, so it's something we've always kind of laughed about. The rain today is classic Goff Luck."

There was some Goff skill on display, too. He showed the propensity for smart, quick decision-making and trademark rapid release that made him such an enticing prospect. He picked up blitzes, uncorked some of the throws (like deep outs) that Keenum had trouble completing and made relatively few mistakes. Goff also slid in the pocket to extend throws and surprisingly did some damage with his feet, rushing four times for 11 yards. In the fourth quarter, he had a crowd-pleasing, 11-yard scamper (on third-and-10) that was called back because of an illegal block by left tackle Greg Robinson.

After one run, Goff told me later, referee Gene Steratore came up to him and joked, "You keep running around like that, and I'm gonna have to make you quit."

Conversely, Goff at times looked like a player making his first career start, sailing some passes and largely failing to stretch the field in the manner his coaches had hoped. He took only one sack, but it was a doozy: On a third-and-4 play in the second quarter, Goff spun in the pocket, seemed to lose his spatial awareness and drifted right into the path of Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake, who put a hit on the quarterback that loosely translated to, Stay Woke.

"That was pretty much my 'Welcome to the NFL moment,' " Goff said afterward as he left the stadium, walking about three feet behind the smiling Wake. "I made a bad decision, and he made me pay for it. He crushed me."

In the end, however, Goff was still standing -- and at least one renowned quarterback guru was impressed.

"We pressured the s--- out of him, and he didn't look bothered at all," Dolphins coach Adam Gase told me after exiting his postgame press conference. "I mean, believe me, I had my own problems -- but from what I could tell, he handled the moment and executed the plan. It's a good sign for them."

All signs pointed to a Rams victory after they got the ball back at midfield with 11:07 remaining and a 10-0 lead. Goff confidently drove the Rams to the Miami 30, with Britt catching a 6-yard pass on fourth-and-7. Fisher considered going for it but instead sent kicker Greg Zuerlein onto the field, only to watch his 48-yard field-goal attempt hit the left upright.

Then, suddenly, the rain abated -- and Tannehill and the Dolphins awoke, sandwiching a pair of rapid-fire touchdown drives around a three-and-out on which Goff threw underneath to Brian Quick for a six-yard gain on third-and-10. A pair of untimely personal fouls on Rams defenders (linebacker Alec Ogletree and defensive tackle Aaron Donald) didn't help the home team's cause, either.

"I almost wish it had kept raining the whole game," Goff said. "When it was raining, we didn't want to put it in the air and take too many chances, and they were kind of approaching it the same way. Then the rain let up and it was like they said, 'Whoa, maybe we can throw it.' "

Tannehill's 9-yard touchdown pass to DeVante Parker put Miami ahead by four with 36 seconds remaining, but the Dolphins' fifth consecutive victory would not be secured until the final play. Benny Cunningham returned the ensuing kickoff to the Rams' 41, and a pair of Goff completions moved the ball to the Dolphins' 48 with five seconds to go.

The young quarterback dropped back one last time, deftly swept to his left to avoid pressure and uncorked a high pass that drifted toward the middle of the end zone.

"The main thing was, I didn't want to get sacked," Goff said. "And when I let it go, I really felt we were gonna get lucky on the Hail Mary."

Instead, the Rams got The Goff Luck: The ball sailed toward the waiting hands of Parker -- moonlighting as a defensive back in the prevent defense -- who deflected it out of the end zone.

The Rams trudged into the locker room a grumpy bunch, but harboring hope that their young franchise quarterback will build upon an unsatisfying debut and provide some punch to an underwhelming attack.

"The kid has some s--- to him," one Rams assistant said afterward. "It sucks to lose, but you never really know how it's gonna go until you throw him in there, and it went well. He definitely has the poise you want in a quarterback."

For what it's worth, one quarterback who knows a bit about the subject -- a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer -- said he liked what he saw of Goff.

"Yeah, absolutely," said Dolphins special advisor to the president/CEO Dan Marino. "He did good."

Well, for the most part, he did. Goff's biggest failure on Sunday, it turns out, may have been his ill-advised wardrobe choices (hey, it runs in the family). The NorCal native walked out of the Coliseum and into the rainy SoCal night wearing jeans and a button-up dress shirt and was summarily soaked by the time he reached the parking lot, where scores of Rams family members were huddled under a white tent.

"I hate going in there," Goff said of the family area. Instead, he stood out in the rain until his family members spotted him. When Nancy reached her son, she wrapped him in a robust hug and said, "Jared, you did great. I'm so proud of you."

"Thanks, mom," he said softly.

This time, her eyes were filled with more than raindrops.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.

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