THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Los Angeles waited two decades for its NFL team to return. So forgive Rams fans if they’re impatient regarding their anointed franchise quarterback, Jared Goff. Seven months after L.A. shipped a slew of high draft picks, including its No. 1 in 2017, to Tennessee for the right to select the Cal quarterback first overall, Goff has yet to play a down in the NFL. While five other rookie quarterbacks have started games this season, the No. 1 pick sits behind Case Keenum, who has the league’s fifth-lowest passer rating and threw four picks in his most recent game, the 17-10 loss to the Giants in London that dropped the Rams to 3-4.
Coach Jeff Fisher maintains that Goff will start “when he’s ready,” but calls for a quarterback change have swelled to the point that, in an interview at practice on Wednesday, Fisher felt obligated to say: “Jared Goff is still our quarterback of the future. He’s still our franchise quarterback, still in our long-term plans. It was a great trade.”
As to whether he’s in the Rams’ short-term plans, and if so when he might play, Fisher declined to offer any timetable: “The worst thing we can do to Jared is say, ‘Hey, here is when it’s going to happen.’” The logical question, especially given the early success of Carson Wentz in Philadelphia and Dak Prescott in Dallas, is: Why isn’t Goff playing? What exactly are coaches working on, and why has the process dragged on for the better part of a year?
“I get it, that’s the big concern right now,” quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke told The MMQB. “Here’s the No. 1 pick, other guys have played, it’s human nature to question, why hasn’t this guy? The simplest answer is it’s a process. We’re not working on one particular thing. We’re really working on a number of variables. Could he be playing right now? Is he capable of playing in the National Football League right now? My answer would be yes. But if we’re being truly honest with ourselves, and we knew when we went through the process of drafting him, we knew it was going to take some time, and we were OK with that.”
The Rams, privately and publicly, will remind outsiders that the Eagles initially planned to reshirt Wentz, and that Prescott is only starting because of Tony Romo’s injury. But the success of those rookies—specifically of Prescott who, like Goff at Cal, played in a spread offense at Mississippi State—legitimizes the question: If the Rams believe Goff is capable of playing in the NFL, why wait?
Cultivating quarterback talent is a delicate and inexact art. A franchise’s fear is currently playing out in Jacksonville: The Jaguars wanted to sit Blake Bortles as a rookie in 2014, reversed course midseason, thrust the quarterback into action and may have stunted his long-term development. Two years later Bortles’ mechanics seem out of whack. This week the Jags QB summoned a private quarterback coach to Florida for recalibration. Such anecdotes seem to shape the Rams’ plan for Goff: mold the young quarterback into a polished product, then plug him in.
“If Jared Goff is playing quarterback, we’re not going to change our offense,” Weinke says. “We have a library [of plays] where we are always able to cater to the quarterback. I mean, that’s just being smart. We do that for Case Keenum, and obviously for Goff we’ll do that as well, where we call things he’s comfortable with and likes. I think we’re being smart right now in not rushing him into a position—not that he’s going to fail, we’re not saying that—but we want to put him in a position to be successful.”
Goff’s development may be taking slightly longer because the spread offense he played in at Cal drew on Mike Leach’s up-tempo, pass-happy Air Raid philosophy. While highly favorable to the stat line, Air Raid offenses don’t ask nearly as much of a quarterback in terms of his reads as do NFL pro-style attacks. Consider former Air Raid quarterbacks whose college productivity didn’t carry over (or hasn’t yet) to the NFL: Tim Couch, Nick Foles, Kevin Kolb, Johnny Manziel, Geno Smith, Brandon Weeden. In fact, Keenum may be the most successful former Air Raid quarterback in the league right now. In an interview last month for my college column about the Air Raid conundrum, Weeden—a 2012 first-round pick of the Browns who started 15 games as a rookie—brought up Goff’s situation unprompted: “I look at what the Rams are doing and I think it’s awesome,” Weeden said. “By having Case Keenum on the roster, Goff can have a year, a half a year, and redshirt to learn the NFL game. That’s huge. My rookie year, I had no idea what I was doing a lot of the time. I knew coverages, but they are just so much more complex, dissecting everything—it was impossible. I wish I had been in a situation like Goff’s where I wasn’t forced to be thrown into the fire.”