ATLANTA -- His eyes were glazed, awash in a cruel confluence of confusion, misery and self-flagellation. His steps were swift and his chin was tucked. Jared Goff had just flamed out on the biggest night of his life -- and done his best to explain it to the reporters who surrounded him on the postgame interview podium -- and now the Los Angeles Rams' team bus was waiting for the 24-year-old quarterback to complete his walk through the bowels of Mercedes-Benz Stadium and disappear into the Georgia night.
Goff wanted it all to be over, but he also wanted to come clean. "Come on in," he said late Sunday night as he approached me outside the Rams' locker room, which had already been closed to the media. "I'll tell you everything I can."
On the other side of the stadium, living legends Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were celebrating their sixth Super Bowl victory in 18 seasons, an insanely successful run that has vaulted the New England Patriots to the pinnacle of the professional sports world. The Pats' 13-3 victory over the Rams pierced Goff on a deeply emotional level, because one of the NFL's highest-powered offenses had gone flaccid when it mattered most. In his postgame press conference, Goff's head coach, 33-year-old wunderkind Sean McVay, had accepted all responsibility for L.A.'s horrid night in the ATL.
Now Goff -- a quarterback known for keeping his cool under the most stressful of circumstances -- was intent on taking the heat.
"What really stings for me, especially as a quarterback, is that our defense played so well -- and I wasn't able to deliver," Goff said softly as we stood outside the cleaned-out coaches' lounge in the Rams' locker room. "It was me. It was our offense. And we -- well, I -- couldn't do my part.
"It wasn't a game we needed 30 points to win. We needed two touchdowns, and I couldn't get it done. That's on me. I'm the guy who has to drive this offense."
For the next five minutes or so, Goff continued detailing his own deficiencies, while making a point of crediting the strategic acumen of Belichick -- one of the game's most glorified defensive geniuses -- and the Pats' de facto defensive coordinator, Brian Flores, who's expected to be named the next coach of the Miami Dolphins as soon as Monday.
Certainly, Goff was trying to be a leader, accepting responsibility for his failings and refusing to point the finger at others. Yet his statements did not appear to be calculated or contrived. He was hurting; he was bleeding all over the place. And he was offering a journalist who knows him well a glimpse into the beginning of a long, regretful process that he hopes will prod him to greater heights.
Was he being hyper-critical of his own performance? On paper, a case could be made. The third-year quarterback's numbers weren't terrible -- he completed 19 of 38 passes for 229 yards, facing constant pressure (four sacks) and yet avoiding a ruinous mistake until just over four minutes remained in a game the Rams trailed by seven, when he took an ill-advised shot to the end zone that ended in disaster and effectively killed L.A.'s last, best chance to hoist the Lombardi.
Whoever you want to put it on, the Rams' overall offensive ineptitude was truly staggering. Consider that a team which averaged 32.9 points per game (second in the NFL) during the regular season, and 28 in previous postseason triumphs over the Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints, managed a mere field goal against a Pats defense that had given up 31 points in the second half of its AFC title game triumph over the Kansas City Chiefs.
On Super Sunday, L.A. punted on its first eight drives, and nine of its first 10, while producing only 14 first downs and 260 total yards. An innovative attack that often looked unstoppable was suddenly more exposed than Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine's bare chest during the band's halftime performance.
Surely, some of that futility was due to the brainy blueprint crafted by Belichick and Flores, which mimicked an approach the Chicago Bears had used in a 15-6 victory over the Rams in December. The Pats employed an old-school 4-3 defense -- running it out of both base and nickel packages -- which featured the strong-side and weak-side linebackers on the ball. They frustrated the Rams' linemen with games and stunts up front, and varied their coverages while playing more zone defense than in recent games.
All of that conspired to throw the Rams off their game, and McVay willingly assumed the blame, saying at his press conference, "I just never enabled us to get into a rhythm offensively. Credit to them ... they did a great job. It was a great game plan, and no other way to say it but I got outcoached tonight."
Goff, while acknowledging the challenge posed by the Patriots' schematic tweaks, felt that he had failed to rise to the moment, and he didn't mince words.
"I think you see why they are so good, and why they've done it for so long," he said of Belichick and the Pats. "You have so much respect for them, and you really understand why now. It sucks. I didn't do enough. But at the same time, it's 3-3 in the fourth quarter, and we had our chances. We didn't take advantage of those chances, and that's my job."
If you're looking for confirmation of Goff as goat (as opposed to the G.O.A.T. who many believe was quarterbacking the victors), there are three plays in particular that you can point to, beginning with one that occurred with 3:42 left in the third quarter and the Rams trailing 3-0: On first-and-10 from the Pats' 29-yard-line, Goff faked a handoff to halfback C.J. Anderson, dropped back and surveyed the field while wideout Brandin Cooks (eight receptions, 120 yards) broke free in the middle of the end zone. Goff saw him late and released a ball that hung up in the air, allowing cornerback Jason McCourty time to break up the play as Cooks approached the end line.
The Rams would settle for Greg Zuerlein's game-tying, 53-yard field goal, but their next drive stalled, and Brady promptly led the Pats on the game's lone touchdown march to make it 10-3 with seven minutes remaining. After a trio of impressive throws got L.A. to the New England 27, Goff had another chance to tie the game, lofting a tantalizing ball that Cooks -- shadowed by Pro Bowl cornerback Stephon Gilmore -- seemed capable of catching in the front-right corner of the end zone. Safety Duron Harmon, however, closed on Cooks as the ball arrived, and the receiver couldn't haul it in, bringing up second-and-10.
That set up the third and most costly missed opportunity: The Pats went with "zero" coverage -- a man-to-man scheme with no safety over the top -- and blitzed several players, one of whom, Harmon, had a free run at Goff. The "hot" receiver, to whom the quarterback is trained to target in the event of such a blitz, was Cooks, running a route to the right corner similar to the one on the previous play. Goff, retreating and off-balance as Harmon closed in, launched what he hoped would be a game-tying touchdown throw toward Cooks, but it fluttered high and fell into the waiting arms of Gilmore at the New England 4 as Cooks flailed helplessly behind him.
In retrospect, Goff wishes he'd thrown the ball into the stands -- or into the front entrance of the nearby National Center For Civil and Human Rights.
"Obviously, I should have thrown it away," he said. "I knew it was 'zero' -- of course I did -- but I thought I could make a play. I didn't realize Gilmore was staring at me, and I threw too early. I put it in a bad spot. It was dumb. It was stupid. I will learn from it. But it really hurts right now."
For what it's worth, none of the dozen-plus players or coaches I previously spoke to in the Rams' locker room, or in subsequent text-message conversations, had a negative word to say about Goff's performance.
"It was the same Jared we've seen all year," said Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor, who's expected to be named the Cincinnati Bengals' head coach as soon as Monday. "He's a competitor, man, and an incredible leader, and when we were down 10-3 in the fourth quarter, there wasn't one person on our sideline that didn't think we were gonna win that game. Sometimes it just doesn't go your way."
Added Anderson (seven carries, 22 yards), who split time with slumping star halfback Todd Gurley (10 carries, 35 yards) against a Patriots defense that contained them both: "Jared was normal -- cool, calm and collected. We couldn't protect him. We couldn't keep him on his feet at times. We couldn't run the ball. It sucks. They're a good defense, but they didn't show us anything different than what we'd seen on tape. We just got outplayed. That's the truth."
Veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth went one step further, admitting that he and his teammates were a bit undone by the moment, which included a dominant pro-Patriots contingent among the crowd of 70,081. "Guys were a little rattled," he said. "When you're not executing plays you normally execute, there's no other explanation."
The Rams will have many months to ponder these possibilities and attempt to push past the pain and channel it into something redemptive. Each of them had already left the stadium and boarded the team buses as Goff -- the lone passenger keeping their departures on hold -- leaned against the wall near the abandoned coaches' lounge and did his best to begin the bloodletting.
"I'd like to play better in a moment like this," he said, his eyes glistening with distress. "And I will be better because of it. I'll try to learn from it, and process it, and get better moving forward. I understand all that.
"But it's pretty tough to think about right now, because we had a great opportunity, and we didn't capitalize on it. It's my job to lead us. I didn't get it done, and it sucks."
A team official intervened -- it was time to go, and Goff apologized for cutting off the interview. That wasn't necessary, of course. He'd gone out of his way to be honest and accountable. And he'd already said enough -- for when it comes to the emotions that he was feeling, as so many other vanquished quarterbacks have felt before him, words can only go so far.
On this not-so-super Sunday, Goff exited the stadium with moist eyes and a unique burden to bear. For the foreseeable future, this imperfect but mature 24-year-old will delve into a well of self-scrutiny and, he hopes, come out the other side a wiser, more hardened leader. He'll surely have support from many, many people in his midst, but this is not their journey.
That path is for Goff's steps alone.