Absorbing blind-side hits is part of the job description when you play quarterback, however the impact can be felt more deeply when it comes from your head coach.
Rather than take a circuitous route, Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay was direct in addressing the obvious: “Our quarterback has to take better care of the football.”
The words might not read like an anvil against glass, but they were perceived as such. It was the bluntest public assessment McVay had provided on his QB in their three-plus seasons together. This prompted outsiders to wonder how the lanky, long-armed leader would respond, a question that ultimately proved to be wasted anxiety as Goff had his first turnover-free game in five weeks Sunday, guiding the Rams to a 38-28 victory over the Cardinals in Glendale, Arizona.
Goff was virtually flawless, throwing for 351 yards and a touchdown and sneaking across from the 1 for another score.
His performance amplified both the silence of his critics and the volume of his supporters, most notably McVay, who said: "The one thing I wasn't worried about was him being overwhelmed by having a tough outing and being able to respond."
Fact is, it wasn't just one tough outing. Goff had committed 10 turnovers in his previous four games -- six interceptions and four lost fumbles -- but the giveaways were softened by victories over Seattle and Tampa Bay. The Rams could not overcome such sloppiness and poor decision-making against San Francisco, a reality that appeared to test McVay's patience after that 23-20 loss to San Francisco.
His postgame comment that night might appear to be slightly above innocuous, and just below obvious, but it was significant because he said it about his quarterback.
No position is more scrutinized.
Dissertations can be written on the treatment of those who line up at that spot.
The rules of the game are designed to protect QBs physically, and oftentimes coaches will go out of their way to limit any psychological harm that could spawn from public criticism.
Hence, outsiders wondered how Goff would react after being called out. Just as a child often seeks affirmation from his or her parents, quarterbacks tend to want to please their play-callers. The relationship can be simultaneously simple and complicated, particularly if the outside noise isn't blocked out, including questions about the earliest the Rams could get out from under his massive extension, signed last year, which included a record $110 million in guarantees.
Goff appeared unconcerned about anything but the victory Sunday night when addressing the media.
"I responded exactly how I expected to," the former No. 1 overall pick said. "I've been through a lot of bad things in my football career before and I've consistently responded. This was no different. I just had to put my head down and keep working."
His best game in weeks could not have come at a better time. The Rams are tied with the Seahawks at 8-4 atop the division, but currently hold the tiebreaker based on their head-to-head victory three weeks ago. With the Patriots on tap this coming Thursday night in Los Angeles, it would have been even more challenging entering that game with back-to-back losses. New England has won two in a row and four of five. It has held three of its last four opponents to 17 or fewer points, with a 45-0 shutout of the Chargers on Sunday.
So perhaps it will be strength on strength Thursday, as the Rams' offense just looked as efficient as at any point this season. The team's 38 points were a season-high, though one touchdown was scored by cornerback Troy Hill on a 35-yard interception return. Goff's 104.9 rating marked the first time in his last five outings he surpassed 100, and his ability to consistently put the offense in positive situations with run or pass checks was instrumental in the outcome.
Arguably no play was bigger than his 22-yard completion to tight end Gerald Everett early in the fourth quarter. Arizona had just converted a fumble recovery on a Los Angeles punt return into a 4-yard touchdown run by Kenyan Drake to make it 24-21. The Cardinals appeared to have momentum. After scoring just seven points through the first 41 minutes, they had tallied 14 in just under six minutes.
The Rams lost 4 yards on first down, got 3 back on second, then were faced with third-and-11. Los Angeles ran a high-low concept to the right, giving Goff options based on the coverage. He correctly took the underneath route and found Everett for the first down. Four plays later, Darrell Henderson burst through a crease up the middle and went 38 yards for the touchdown.
End of threat. End of game, for all intents and purposes.
"That was huge; that was a big play right there," McVay said of the first down. "I thought Jared did a great job all day, getting us in and out of some of the right things that we wanted to (run). We knew they were a really aggressive defense where there was a lot of pressures. You could really have some bad plays if you're not careful."
Goff was not perfect. The early play calls seemed conservative for the inherently aggressive McVay. Perhaps he wanted to get his quarterback in a rhythm, or perhaps Goff simply did not want to force things. But, for instance, there was a play late in the first quarter where he had Cooper Kupp breaking free on the front side of the rollout. Instead of waiting a fraction of second longer, he threw short. He wasn't wrong for making the safe throw, but it was notable that he passed up a chance for the big play, which was precisely where he was looking.
Late in the second quarter, with a chance to take the lead, Goff and the Rams attempted to quick snap on fourth-and-goal from the 1. The play never had a chance. With Los Angeles appearing hurried, Arizona defenders pushed through the line to stop Cam Akers for a 1-yard loss. Should Goff have gotten out of the play or called timeout to settle his unit? Perhaps, but there's no doubt that the former Cal star is going to have to play with efficiency as much as purpose for the Rams to have any chance of being a serious contender in the postseason. Because as much as we talk about McVay and his creative play designs, this year's Rams lean heavily on a defense that is good enough to take them far in the playoffs.
Before Sunday, no team had scored more than seven points on L.A. in the fourth quarter and, overall, the Rams were allowing just under six points a game in the second half. The unit was dominant in the first half against the Cardinals, holding wideout DeAndre Hopkins without a catch and limiting Kyler Murray to 3-of-12 passing for 73 yards, 59 of which came on one play. The Cardinals stars did find moments of success in the second half -- overall, Murray threw for 173 yards and three scores, with one interception, and Hopkins finished with eight receptions for 52 yards and a score -- but Arizona could never mount a sustained challenge because Goff would not allow it.
He finished 37-of-47 passing and was sacked just once. He also got help from the running game, which churned out 119 yards and three touchdowns (each by a different player) on 31 carries. Goff played with confidence and poise and showed no hangover from the previous week -- or his coach's comment.
"The week of practice was great," Goff said. "I always approach the week … I don't change anything based on the previous week's performance. I keep working and getting better. My practice habits remain the same, and they usually take me where I want to go."
In this case, that was back atop the NFC West.