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Jared Goff's chill factor has led Rams to Super Bowl

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LOS ANGELES -- The mood was tense. The stakes were enormous. The din was deafening -- and that was just in the Los Angeles Rams' huddle.

Trailing 13-0 early in the second quarter of the NFC Championship Game in New Orleans two Sundays ago, his team rattled by a cacophonous Superdome crowd he'd later describe as "the loudest thing I'll ever experience ... disorienting ... dizzying," 24-year-old quarterback Jared Goff finally snapped. Yet it wasn't the relentless roar of the 73,028 fans that triggered the young passer; rather, it was the well-intentioned intervention of some of the equally besieged men in his midst.

"He took control in a way that I'd never seen before," veteran tackle Andrew Whitworth recalled last Thursday. "It was crazy loud, and a bunch of us kept trying to chime in and give input, and he just said, 'Hey! Everybody shut up. I'll get you guys into the right places. This is my show. I've got it.' First time I've ever heard him do that ... and you know what? Everybody listened."

Said guard Rodger Saffold: "He said it with some bass in his voice. That was pretty cool. It was like, OK, Jared -- I see you. The noise was insane, but the fact that he was able to settle us down, show his leadership and lead us to victory shows you how much he's grown these last three years. He had so much poise -- and that's the biggest thing you need to know about Jared Goff: He has poise, win or lose."

After spurring the Rams to a 26-23, overtime victory over the Saints, Goff charged onto the field and made some noise of his own. As he recalled last Wednesday during an interview at his home near Calabasas, California, that will air on NFL Network's "GameDay Morning" on Super Sunday, "As soon as we got a few points on the board, it started to get a little more quiet. The more we'd score, the more quiet it'd get. You know, after a big play, it'd be dead silent. And when Greg (Zuerlein) hit that (game-winning, 57-yard) field goal, all you could hear was us screaming."

Now, Goff and the Rams have a chance to make some legacy-defining noise in Atlanta, where on Sunday they'll face living legend Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The matchup between a pair of quarterbacks raised in Northern California a generation apart is not one Goff will take lightly; he called the opportunity to compete against the 41-year-old Brady, who has been to eight previous Super Bowls and won five, "an honor."

That said, he is highly unlikely to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the occasion. For if Goff, the first overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, has a defining characteristic, it's probably not his golden arm, wicked release or bold nature; rather, it's his uncanny ability to remain calm and collected in adverse conditions or, similarly, to stay grounded when things are going great.

Or, more succinctly: His chill factor is off the charts.

"He is unfazed," Rams coach Sean McVay said of his quarterback. "He has unreal poise and confidence that allows him to handle the success and adversity the same -- which is a great characteristic for your quarterback to have."

And Goff, who has absorbed an inordinate share of outside skepticism during his young career -- having been stigmatized for, among other things, having small hands, going 0-7 during a rough rookie season and being a so-called system quarterback -- believes that staying even-keeled gives him the best chance to be exceptional.

"I think that's the way you should be as a quarterback," he told me last Wednesday. "I think there is some time to show emotion and to have passion, and to show that intensity to people. At the same time, I think having a guy that can be the same all the time, good or bad, is super important."

And, it turns out, Super: In becoming the first passer to guide the Rams to the Ultimate Game since Hall of Famer Kurt Warner 17 years ago -- with a chance to emulate Warner's Lombardi-seizing performance in Atlanta two years before that -- Goff has made a mockery of those critics who wrote him off as a bust as recently as the summer of 2017.

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As with many rookie quarterbacks, Goff's indoctrination into the NFL was a choppy one. Unlike many No. 1 overall picks, however, this signal-caller's path to the top of the draft was also a choppy one.

Goff, who grew up north of San Francisco in the sleepy town of Novato, didn't earn the starting job at Marin Catholic High School until three games into his junior year. Despite a highly prolific prep career, the 6-foot-4 passer wasn't a blue-chip recruit when he enrolled at nearby Cal in the fall of 2013. He proceeded to win the starting job as a true freshman -- only to suffer through a 1-11 season bracketed by indignity and injury. As a sophomore for the defense-deficient Golden Bears, Goff was occasionally sent to the sidelines in favor of his more mobile backup, and Cal failed to qualify for a bowl game once more. Then, after guiding the Bears to an 8-5 mark and an Armed Forces Bowl victory as a junior, Goff declared for the draft, and a steady procession of snide comments began.

Some of the negative perceptions quickly evaporated. Goff, who as a freshman had been pulled from a game at Oregon because he'd struggled amid rainy conditions, refuted that stigma when he shined during a wet pre-draft workout for the Rams in Berkeley. At the NFL Scouting Combine, Goff's hand measurement caused a stir -- at nine inches, he was supposedly deficient in that department. To this day, Goff and his closest friends laugh at the "small hands" imbroglio. As he said last week: "They're big enough to get to the Super Bowl, I guess."

When the Rams traded up to land the first overall pick a couple of weeks before the draft, they were targeting Goff, who would begin his career as Case Keenum's backup. He got his first start on Nov. 20, when the Rams were 4-5; three weeks later, after a blowout home defeat to the Atlanta Falcons, head coach Jeff Fisher was fired. Playing behind an underperforming offensive line, Goff would end up losing all seven of his starts as a rookie, and the 'B' word -- bust -- began popping up in TV segments, newspaper columns and various social media platforms.

"It didn't really mean anything to me," Goff said. "I played seven games, and three of them without a head coach. I had a good perspective on it. I understood that seven games shouldn't define me and won't define me. I know what I can do and I know who I am. I never lost any confidence. And I hope all the rookie quarterbacks out there this year can look at my story and see how quickly it can turn around, and just continue to keep their head up."

The Rams' hiring of McVay, who at 30 was the youngest head coach in modern NFL history, was inspired by his reputation as a budding quarterback guru. It would end up being a game-changer, for both the franchise and the young franchise quarterback, but Goff's transformation wasn't as sudden or immediate as is commonly perceived.

"Honestly, we didn't really know how it was gonna go, 'cause there were so many things he needed to improve upon -- from having consistency with his football, to his movement in the pocket, to reading defenses with his feet, to having the confidence to stand in there and deliver the throw," recalled newly hired Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur, who was McVay's offensive coordinator in 2017. "He got beat up pretty good the year before, and it wasn't like we got there and it was magical. Early on, in OTAs, our defense made a ridiculous amount of sacks. But to his credit, he worked extremely hard, and it was the coolest experience I've ever had in coaching -- to see his confidence grow by the day, to see a young player mature before our eyes. It was like watching a boy become a man."

At first, Greg Olson -- now the Raiders' offensive coordinator, he was the Rams' quarterbacks coach at the time -- didn't embrace Goff's chill.

"Initially, I thought it was indifference," Olson admitted. "But I soon realized it was a calm demeanor under pressure. I've never, ever sensed panic in him. It's just his personality. He never gets rattled. He has nerves of steel."

Said LaFleur: "That's the one thing I can say about him as a person: He's got a resilient mindset. A lot of people would have crumbled and failed. He's unfazed. The thing that's so cool about him is, if he makes a mistake, he's able to bounce back. Some guys pile on; he's able to hit the reset button."

After a strong second season that featured the Rams winning their first NFC West title since 2003, Goff got much, much better in 2018, spurring the Rams to an 8-0 start. Yet even as he entered the upper echelon of quarterbacking, Goff's achievements were often marginalized by outsiders who credited the team's offensive success to McVay's innovative game plans.

Goff, some critics charged, was merely executing the coach's orders, sometimes receiving input through his helmet before receiving the snap (as allowed by NFL rules before the play clock reaches 15 seconds). Others claimed he was simply a product of -- wait for it -- The System.

The tag became a running joke among Goff's cadre of close friends since childhood -- one of whom, Patrick Conroy, showed up at the Rams' playoff opener wearing a T-shirt he'd just ordered off the internet, complete with Rams colors and the words "Los Angeles System QB" scrawled across the front.

"When people started coming out with that, we kind of laughed -- people wanted to put that claim on him," Conroy said. "So when I saw that online (on a website with merchandise that poked fun at various L.A.-based athletes), I had to grab it. He saw it and said, 'That's pretty good.' And yes, I'll be wearing it to the Super Bowl."

Said another of Goff's close friends, Cam Croteau: "We've had some fun with that. We'll be at a game, and every time Jared drops a dime, we'll go, 'Oh, wow -- that was a great throw, Sean.' McVay has been hyped up as The Guru, and understandably. For a lot of people, things like (the Rams' rapid improvement) are binary: There's one reason why this happened. It's a little bit of a chip on the shoulder for [Goff], but it's not what defines him."

For what it's worth, the person most bothered by the System QB label is McVay himself. Said the coach: "He makes 'The System' what it is -- because he's great."

Goff's response: "I appreciate him defending me. And, you know, it means a lot. But [the label] doesn't bother me. I mean, honestly: We win games, and you can call me whatever you want."

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Midway through the season, with the Rams sitting atop the NFL with a perfect record, many people were calling Goff a legitimate MVP candidate. In mid-December, after a three-game stretch (including defeats to the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles) during which the quarterback threw seven interceptions and only one touchdown pass, Goff was suddenly being portrayed as a liability who'd leveled off after a promising start.

In both cases, Goff stayed level-headed and even-keeled. His parents, Jerry and Nancy, say he has always been that way, sometimes to the point of semi-absurdity. This past November, when a pair of wildfires raged near the Rams' training facility, Goff's parents were visiting from Northern California. As the flames drew closer to his home in the hills, Goff unplugged and checked out.

"That (Thursday) night when the fire got close to the house, he just went to sleep," Nancy recalled. "He was trusting the people close to him to look out for him, which is true to his nature. Once we saw how close it was, we woke him up, and it was, 'Alright, let's go.' He got in the car like it was nothing (and evacuated). He worries about the things he needs to worry about, but not what other people need to worry about."

Two months later, Goff stood on the Superdome field feeling besieged. The coach-to-player communication system in his helmet malfunctioned before the Rams' first drive, forcing him to wear backup Sean Mannion's helmet instead. At times, Goff put his hands over his earholes in an effort to hear McVay's play calls, and when that footage was broadcast on the stadium scoreboards, things got even louder.

At the end of the first quarter, the Rams trailed 13-0 and would need a fake punt from their own 30 to extend their first scoring drive -- with Goff's shut up and let me handle this huddle speech sparking a new level of focus.

"I essentially realized how much of a premium communication in there needed to be," Goff recalled. "Even more so than we initially thought, because of the noise. I don't remember what I said.

"It was definitely a stressful first few drives there. You never want to start off that way. I could barely hear anything. I'm wearing someone else's helmet. They got up 13-0. It was not a good situation for us, but it was an awesome one to scrape our way back and come out on top."

In other words, even though he stays calm on the outside, Goff is not completely impervious to pressure.

"I think part of it is just the way I am," he said. "Stuff just kind of rolls off my back pretty easily, regardless of the situation, if it's pressure-packed or not. And I think a lot of it is, I am feeling that pressure. I'm just trying not to show and trying to be the steady, calm personality that I think a quarterback needs to be."

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On Super Sunday, Goff will go up against the most accomplished quarterback ever to play the game -- a man who won his first Lombardi Trophy 17 years earlier against the then-St. Louis Rams, when Goff was in second grade.

Brady was 24 at the time, and that victory launched him on a path that made him one of the sports world's biggest celebrities. Goff, the same age now as Brady was then, knows that a victory over the Patriots could be life-changing.

"I hope so," he said. "I hope we win and I hope it's great. (But) I don't think I'll change too much; I don't think my immediate circle will change too much."

And if Goff starts to show signs of affectedness -- well, the noise he hears from his friends and family members will be Superdome-level loud.

"He's always been the same, and stuff never gets to his head," said Robbie Terheyden, another of Goff's close friends since childhood. "If it starts to, we'll bring him back."

Goff's father, Jerry, has little doubt about that: "His friends would tune him up so fast. If he wins, there are gonna be a lot of things thrown his way -- at least, I assume there will be -- but in terms of his personality, he would never change, because we would call him on it. We know he has humility, and we know what he stands for. It's not something I'd ever stress out about."

Chances are, neither will his son. And if he does, you can bet he won't show it.

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