LOS ANGELES -- He arrived fashionably late to the pre-draft dinner, leaning over to greet his esteemed guest from North Dakota just as the food arrived. Then Jeff Fisher, the battle-hardened head coach of the newly rechristened Los Angeles Rams, felt a strange sensation unlike any he'd experienced in more than a quarter-century's worth of scouting players, or even in his 58 years on earth.
It was warm, brackish and not especially pleasant.
A waiter standing behind Fisher had, while carrying a tray of entrees, inadvertently tilted it in the coach's direction, causing a stainless steel gravy boat to empty its contents onto his neck. The au jus spilled down Fisher's back, under his jeans and all the way down to a highly unlikely place where the sun doesn't shine.
"It was pretty miserable," Fisher would recall Wednesday night at a downtown L.A. steakhouse while wearing the same white button-up with dark blue checks -- since laundered -- that 10 nights earlier had been drenched like a dishrag as he shook the hand of former North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz at Safire Bistro in Camarillo, a Ventura County town near the Rams' temporary training headquarters. "It's not an experience I'm eager to repeat anytime soon."
Yet in typical Fisher fashion, the unflappable man with the iconic 'stache managed to shake off the saucy shower, quietly asking the waiter for a towel and doing clandestine damage control before joining team owner Stan Kroenke, president Kevin Demoff, general manager Les Snead and others in getting further acquainted with the highly rated prospect.
Not that it mattered: Although extremely high on Wentz's potential, Fisher essentially knew that the FCS star would not be his next quarterback. That distinction belonged to former Cal passer Jared Goff, who later that week would be wined and dined by the same contingent at Mastro's in Beverly Hills and who Thursday night officially went first overall in the 2016 draft -- and became the young face of the first Los Angeles-based NFL franchise in more than two decades.
When Fisher and Snead completed the blockbuster trade that netted them the first overall pick, it was Goff who was the clear object of their affection, though they made an organizational commitment to refrain from confirming this to the masses.
It wasn't that hard to understand this strategic decision. Fisher, after all, was in possession of the No. 1 overall selection for the first time in his 35 years as an NFL player or coach -- and he wanted to enjoy every last minute of it, and manufacture as much suspense as possible.
So it was that Thursday night, as he paced around the Rams' makeshift war room on the second floor of the Residence Inn/Courtyard near the Staples Center five minutes before the Rams were officially on the clock, Fisher informed me that the team would not be turning in its card until the final stages of the 10-minute deadline.
"We're gonna take about nine minutes," Fisher said quietly. "The question is, what are we gonna do in here for nine minutes?"
A few minutes earlier, he and Snead had set the scene by stepping in front of the flat screens displaying the team's fully digitized draft boards and addressing the several dozen coaches, scouts and other team officials -- and Kroenke and Demoff -- in the room.
"Y'all want to go get this quarterback," Snead asked. "Here's what we're gonna do: We're gonna go get this quarterback and work our asses off and conquer this tough-ass division."
Then it was Fisher's turn. "Think about all those other drafts when we've had to sit in here and wait and try to figure out how it's gonna go and react accordingly," he said. "Hey, we're running this one. So here we go. This is a collective decision, and this is our quarterback."
And then: A protracted, almost eerie silence. The large, digital timer at the front of the room began counting down from 10 minutes, and almost nothing else happened. With just under three-and-a-half minutes remaining, Snead nervously looked at the young staffers over on the "nerd wall" and asked, "This clock's correct, right?"
There were two television sets, one in each corner, showing NFL Network and ESPN telecasts of the draft. On one, former Raiders and Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden compared Goff to former 49ers legend Joe Montana, as Kroenke looked on with great interest. Snead looked at his owner's intent expression and waited to make the fateful call.
About two-and-a-half minutes remained on the clock. In Chicago, where Goff waited in the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, he and his parents, Jerry and Nancy, were getting a little antsy.
"We were starting to get a little freaked out," Nancy admitted Friday while standing in the Rams' war room following her son's introductory press conference. "We were like, 'What's taking so long?!' "
After getting Goff on the phone, Snead quickly handed it to Fisher, who smiled broadly and said, "Jared, Jeff. It's over. ... Hey, this is the call we've been talking about right? ... We've got a group of people here that are really ... "
The coach's next words were drowned out by a loud roar, followed by a protracted round of applause.
"Congratulations, man," Fisher told Goff. "We're gonna turn it into a party in a couple of minutes."
The coach wasn't lying -- seldom has an NFL war room been so loose and relaxed during the first round, and when the celebration spilled over to the bar area of nearby Fleming's Steakhouse late Thursday night, there wasn't an ambivalent facial expression in the house.
"Look at the way this draft played out," Fisher marveled. "If we'd stayed at 15, it would not have gone well for us. And now? We have our quarterback."
In a sense, the party planning began long ago. Both Fisher and Snead recalled Goff having piqued their interest as far back as January of 2014. The quarterback was coming off a miserable 1-11 season as a true freshman, and yet while watching game tape of draft-eligible defenders beating up on the Golden Bears, the coach and general manager kept noticing certain inescapable traits: A lightning-quick release ... a natural and effortless throwing motion ... an ability to stay calm under pressure ... a penchant for quick and correct decision-making ... uncanny accuracy.
Then, a couple of months before the 2015 draft, Fisher was in his since-abandoned office at Rams Park in suburban St. Louis late one night watching game tape of a Pac-12 defender -- he can't recall which one -- when his son, Brandon, entered the room. As Brandon, then the Rams' assistant defensive backs coach (he has since had "assistant" removed from his title), approached Fisher's desk, he gestured toward the screen and said, "Can you believe this guy?"
His father did a double-take, believing the reference was to the defensive player.
"The quarterback," Brandon clarified. "He's ridiculous."
It seemed ridiculous that the Rams, picking 15th overall after a 7-9 season in 2015, would be in position to draft Goff after his prolific junior campaign, which ended with Cal winning a bowl game to complete a dramatic two-year turnaround, and NFL teams eagerly awaiting the early entry of the man most responsible.
To get Goff, the Rams knew they'd have to move all the way to the top of the draft. In January, newly hired Cleveland Browns coach Hue Jackson quickly became enamored with Goff's talents and, with his team holding the second overall pick, looked forward to building his franchise around him. Yet after being blown away by former Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III in a private workout early in March and signing him the following week, Jackson and the Browns felt comfortable holding firm with the second pick and letting the situation play out accordingly.
Meanwhile, the Rams were one of several teams interested in trying to deal for the Titans' first overall pick, joining the Jets, Eagles and Cowboys. All of those teams loved Goff; Philadelphia general manager Howie Roseman and owner Jeffrey Lurie were equally excited about Wentz, viewing him as a potential future star who would not have to play right away, given the presence of veterans Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel.
Once the Rams made the trade on April 13 (it was announced the following morning), Jackson and the Browns -- who had no intention of selecting Wentz, and correctly surmised that Goff was the Rams' target -- began shopping the second overall pick, ultimately trading down with the Eagles, who were also sure the Rams would draft Goff but would nonetheless have been thrilled with either quarterback.
The Rams chose to bask in the afterglow of their big trade and sustain the drama to the best of their ability -- even as Fisher, over the next two weeks, gave Goff enough clues to confirm that he'd be headed to L.A.
Last Monday, as Goff and his father, Jerry, had a leisurely brunch at a restaurant in downtown Novato, the Bay Area town where Jared was raised, the quarterback nodded knowingly when asked about his level of confidence that he'd be the No. 1 pick.
"When I was down there last week, there were a lot of little things that let me know," Goff said, smiling. "At one point someone handed me a phone, and a guy said, 'Hey, what number do you want to wear?' I kind of hesitated and said, 'Um ... 16?' And he was like, 'OK, 16 it is.' I feel like they probably wouldn't be doing that if they weren't drafting me."
Goff is no fool; his intelligence, both on and off the field -- and as a student at one of the nation's highest-rated universities -- has been evident throughout his three-year rise from ho-hum recruit ("We had a little ceremony over at the high school; one reporter from the Marin Independent Journal was there," Jerry Goff recalls) to presumptive franchise savior. Yet he doesn't know everything, as illustrated by an anecdote he related at brunch, one that speaks more to his quiet but steely edge, which belies his placid demeanor.
"At one of my interviews during the combine, (Saints coach) Sean Payton asked me if I could name a famous NFL linebacker who wore (No.) 56," Goff said. "I kind of blanked and couldn't come up with one. He stared at me and finally said, 'Lawrence Taylor,' like it was obvious. I said, 'Yeah, well, when Lawrence Taylor was playing, I wasn't even born yet.' He just stared back at me, all serious."
Goff's interactions with Fisher were far more organic, culminating in an hour-long conversation early last week as the two sat at a picnic table overlooking the team's temporary practice fields in Oxnard. Fisher spent a good amount of time discussing his past relationships with starting quarterbacks, sharing the good, bad and the ugly.
He became emotional when discussing the late Steve McNair, whose selection as the third overall pick by the Houston Oilers in 1995 marked the only other time Fisher, then entering his first full season as the franchise's head coach, was in a position to have first dibs on all draft-eligible quarterbacks. (Eleven years later, after becoming the Tennessee Titans, they would again take the draft's first quarterback off the board with the third overall selection: Vince Young. However, that was a pick foisted upon Fisher and general manager Floyd Reese by owner Bud Adams; Fisher regarded Jay Cutler as the top passer in that draft.)
"The head coach/quarterback relationship is different than all others, and Mac and I had a special connection," Fisher recalled Wednesday night as he dined at a bar table at Fleming's while watching the Nashville Predators battle the Anaheim Ducks in Game 7 on a small television screen. "We went through a lot together, but it wasn't just about football. We both love the outdoors -- hunting, fishing, all of that ... Jared loves the outdoors, too, by the way. And we've got the whole country music thing."
Fisher, having spent a decade-and-a-half as a Nashville-based luminary, is friendly with many notable country artists. The coach was excited to learn that, one year ago, Goff spent a weekend attending Stagecoach, a country music festival in the Southern California desert, rocking an American flag bandana and playing air guitar with his college buddies.
Goff would have loved to join his friends for an encore in 2016, but this year's festival fell at an inconvenient time: This weekend.
"Don't think I'll be able to pull it off," Goff said, laughing, as he finished his bagel, egg and bacon sandwich last Monday in Novato. "I do hope to be in SoCal, though."
A rabid Golden State Warriors fan, Goff will always have part of his heart in Northern California. His parents, Jerry and Nancy, attended Cal in the mid-'80s -- Jerry, a baseball star who had a short career in the majors, spent one season as the football team's punter -- and if it seems as if he were bred to be a Golden Bear, well, that might not be too far from the truth.
"When we were waiting for the call to come in last night (in Chicago), I was flashing back to all of these childhood memories," said Goff's older sister, Lauren, a UCLA grad student and L.A. resident who also spent her undergraduate years at the Westwood campus. "I remember when I was about 10 and Jared was maybe 8, I'd be sitting there watching TV, and he'd be lying flat on the floor throwing a tennis ball at the ceiling -- trying to get it as high as he could without actually hitting the ceiling. It was so annoying. It drove me crazy. But it all makes sense now. He's worked so hard, and he's such a great person, and this is incredible."
While Lauren and Nancy shed some tears in Chicago after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced the Rams' selection, the scene in Berkeley -- where Goff's former Cal teammates gathered to watch the proceedings on TV -- was flat-out bedlam. Goff was the sixth Cal quarterback to be selected in the first round since 1960, more than any other school, and the first Golden Bears player to go No. 1 overall since the Falcons drafted Steve Bartkowski in 1975; it's hard to imagine that any of the others taken in Round 1, including current Packers star Aaron Rodgers, provoked this kind of response from their teammates.
"What a scene," Fisher said upon seeing the footage. "I mean, it's one thing to be liked, but it's clear that Jared is loved."
As he strolled through the lounge area adjacent to the war room late Thursday night, Snead smiled and said, "Well, I guess this answers the 'Draft Day' question," referring to the film depicting a fictional Browns general manager. "I'm pretty sure these guys would come to his 21st birthday party."
To Cal coach Sonny Dykes, who attended the draft in Chicago, his players' raucous reaction -- one even jumped on a table in celebration -- all made perfect sense.
"He's the least entitled great player I've ever seen," Dykes said of Goff. "He wants to be treated the same as everyone else. He's respected by all players: black, white, good player, bad player, offense, defense. And he doesn't feel the need to dominate the room -- he can be one of the guys. I'm so happy for the way it worked out for him. He deserves every bit of this."
When Goff's flight from Chicago landed at LAX on Friday morning, he smiled and thought, It's good to be home. Fisher knows the feeling; the L.A. native and former USC star was once a hotshot defensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams (who played in Anaheim, about an hour's drive south under optimal freeway conditions) in 1991 and, as fate would have it, has finally circled back to his roots.
Fisher's parents, Roger and Janette, live in Thousand Oaks, very close to the temporary practice facility at Cal Lutheran that the Rams will occupy beginning in late August. (Kroenke is planning to purchase land in the immediate vicinity where he can build a permanent training base for the team.) The coach beamed as his parents arrived at draft headquarters about an hour before the start of Thursday's first round and received a grand tour.
At one point, conversation turned to one of Fisher's favorite breakfast spots: The Pantry, a famed downtown eatery only a couple of blocks away.
"I need to go before the weekend is over," he told his parents. "We used to go there on Sundays at USC after we played on Saturday. We'd show up hungover and eat like horses and then go back to campus and work out. It was a wholesome existence."
If you're getting the sense that Fisher is firmly in his comfort zone -- well, you would be correct. Having failed to make the playoffs in any of his four seasons with the Rams, Fisher knows he must do better in 2016 to ensure his continued employment. Yet he's quietly confident that, despite having to compete in the rugged NFC West, his team is poised for such a breakthrough. He and Snead have steadily upgraded the Rams' roster over the previous four drafts, getting impact players in defensive tackle Aaron Donald (the 2014 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year) and running back Todd Gurley (the league's reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year) and, one year ago, selecting a slew of promising offensive linemen.
"Now, what we need is the missing piece -- a quarterback," Fisher said Wednesday night at Fleming's. "And we're gonna go get one."
As he finished his sentence, Fisher was interrupted by a young man in his 20s who approached the table.
"Coach Fisher?" he said. "I live in North Dakota, and I'm a huge North Dakota State fan. I've been to all five of their national championship games, and I loveCarson Wentz. I just want to let you know that I hope you're gonna draft him, and if you do, I'll be a Ram fan for life."
Fisher nodded and gave a stoic grin. Then, in an ode to the FCS school where his son, Brandon, was a standout linebacker from 2005 to '09, the coach said to the young man, "Let me ask you a question. How come you guys could never beat Montana?"
Having sufficiently busted his guest's chops, Fisher proceeded to end the conversation on a friendly note. After the North Dakotan went back to his table, Fisher said softly, "He's going to be disappointed tomorrow."
He took a sip of his wine, a Northern California Malbec, and smiled.
"I love Carson Wentz," Fisher said, "but Jared Goff is gonna be my quarterback. The way he gets the ball out -- how he knows where to go with it and gets it to the receiver perfectly, in stride, in the tightest of windows -- it's a sight to behold. You look at the way the Patriots play, with Tom (Brady) just zipping the ball to (Julian) Edelman and (Danny) Amendola before you can even think about touching him, and that's where football is today. And trust me, Todd Gurley will be the best friend a young quarterback can have."
Gesturing through the window to a stoplight on the corner of Olympic Boulevard and Figueroa Street -- suspended high above, across the street, a good 50 yards away -- the coach continued, "See that red light up there? If you gave most quarterbacks six footballs and said, 'Throw it at the red light,' they'd put it in the vicinity of the light, maybe a few feet away. Jared would hit the light. Hell, he'd probably break the light."
His eyes sparkling with excitement, Fisher reached for his wine glass and took another sip. It was almost time to draft, and he'd been in control of this one for nearly a fortnight -- and the veteran coach was savoring every drop of it, even the horribly invasive au jus shower.