Allen Park — More than seven months after the Detroit Lions agreed to trade longtime franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams for a trio of draft picks and Jared Goff, we still don’t know much about what the future holds for the team’s quarterback position.
As the Lions head into a season-opening matchup against the San Francisco 49ers, it remains unclear whether Goff is the franchise’s future under center or a bridge to whoever emerges as the best option in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft.
If we take the organization’s words and actions at face value, initial support for Goff has been unconditional. After the Rams unceremoniously dumped him in the offseason exchange — a year he signed a four-year contract extension, requiring them to eat a previously unheard of $24.7 million in dead money cap space in the process — the Lions have done everything they can to lift Goff up during the transition.
At Goff’s introductory news conference in March, general manager Brad Holmes, who had scouted Goff while serving as the Rams college scouting director and encouraged the franchise to trade up for the No. 1 pick to select him in 2016, made it clear the quarterback was a featured piece in the Stafford deal as much as the two first-round draft picks.
“I know a lot of people talk about the picks, but a lot of it was Jared,” Holmes said. “I’ve never had any doubts that he can be, and again his resume speaks for itself. We all know what he’s accomplished and done.”
Holmes should know. During their shared time in Los Angeles, Goff shook off a rookie season where he went winless in seven starts to earn back-to-back Pro Bowl selections while leading the Rams to Super Bowl LIII in 2019.
And while there’s a popular saying in professional football that the quarterback gets too much credit when a team is winning and too much blame when they’re losing, the Lions have been fixated on Goff’s 42-27 career record as a starter, which is admittedly even more impressive when you factor out the 0-7 mark he posted that first season.
“He’s tough, he’s durable, and most importantly, he’s a winner,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said at that introductory press conference. “He has won in this league, he knows how to win, and I’ve told him this, and I’m going to continue to tell him: All we need from him is to come in and play quarterback. You just play quarterback. You don’t have to be a savior here, you just be the quarterback. His job is to make the right decisions, put the ball in the receivers’ (hands), give them a chance to make a play.”
But the question remains, if all Goff does is win games, why were the Rams so eager to push him out the door, for a quarterback who is six years older, has a concerning recent injury history and, to be frank, didn’t win anything of note during his 12 seasons with the Lions?
Maybe, just maybe, the Lions are giving Goff too much credit for the Rams’ success. And since his last Pro Bowl season, the year he also played in the Super Bowl, there have been some alarming statistical trends with his performance.
In 2018, Goff had a career-high 101.0 passer rating, but the past two seasons he’s been at 88.1. A large part of that has been turnovers. After keeping them in check through the early stages of his career, he’s thrown 29 interceptions the past 31 games.
Additionally, whether it can be directly attributed to his performance or his play-calling, he’s becoming an increasingly conservative passer. During that 2018 season, Goff’s average pass length was 8.67 yards. By last season, it had decreased 25%, ranking 32nd among 35 qualifying quarterbacks. Only San Francisco backup Nick Mullens, New Orleans’ Drew Brees, who retired at the end of the season. and Washington’s Alex Smith, who also retired, were worse.
The combination of a quarterback taking less risks, but making more mistakes should concern anyone. But the Lions have been dismissive about those concerning trends. Multiple members of the team’s coaching staff have praised Goff for having better-than-expected arm strength, while quarterback coach Mark Brunell downplayed the recent history of interceptions.
“Listen, turnovers are going to continue to happen,” Brunell said earlier this offseason. “Obviously as a quarterback you don’t want that to happen. It is part of the game. Yes, I’ve seen the tape. The tape the last, goodness, every game for the last three years. Mistakes happen.
“Really unless you’re in that building, you really don’t know the why or the how. Is it a wrong route? Was it a bad decision? There are factors going into that, but listen, we’re about going forward. Regardless of what has happened with Jared Goff the last couple years, that’s not our business. We’re about him becoming the best player that he can become and he is going to be surrounded by some very good players.”
Still, it’s worth noting the concerns Goff came to Detroit with have persisted through his first training camp with the Lions. Obviously, plenty of ink has been spilled about the lack of deep passing on the practice field in favor of checkdown after checkdown, and there have been a fair share of forced throws or bad reads as defenders sit on those short routes that have resulted in increased turnovers.
That said, everyone, including Goff, is still in an acclimation period. It’s not just him that’s new to town, it’s the coaches, the schemes and all the receivers not named Quintez Cephus. Additionally, injuries to wide receiver Tyrell Williams, tight end T.J. Hockenson and running back D’Andre Swift have robbed Goff of varying amounts of practice time with what are supposed to be his top weapons.
It’s definitely too early to judge because there’s so much we still don’t know.
What we do know is the Lions passed on an opportunity to draft a quarterback this year, skipping over Justin Fields and Mac Jones in favor of offensive tackle Penei Sewell.
Fields, the dual-threat out of Ohio State, looked sharp during his first preseason with the Chicago Bears, throwing for a pair of touchdowns without an interception and rushing for 91 yards and another score on 11 carries. Jones, meanwhile, will start for New England after unseating former MVP Cam Newton for that job.
Goff acknowledged after the draft that Lions leadership assured him he was going to be their guy in 2021.
“I think it’s a nice vote of confidence obviously for me,” Goff said. “I think what’s not lost on me is their first move as a staff, with Dan and Brad, involved me. It’s exciting and it makes you feel good.”
What the Lions did do this offseason is restructure Goff’s contract, converting $20 million of this 2021 salary to a bonus, which, for cap purposes, is spread evenly across the remaining four years of the deal. That pushes $15 million in dead cap money into the future, sharply increasing the likelihood he’s part of the plan next season, as well.
How he performs this year will determine if that’s as the unquestioned starter or as a placeholder and mentor for a rookie, similar to what is happening with the 49ers, the Lions’ Week 1 opponent. Remember, they traded up to draft Trey Lance with the No. 3 pick and it’s only a matter of time before he overtakes Jimmy Garoppolo for the starting job, just like Jones managed to do versus Cam Newton in New England.
As for Goff, without an immediate challenger other than the one in the mirror, he’s done all the right things to ingratiate himself to the roster. He orchestrated workouts with his receivers in the offseason, attempted to embrace his new community through charitable endeavors and has bonded with several teammates off-the-field, including Hockenson, the team’s Pro Bowl tight end.
From the day Goff arrived in town, he acknowledged a chip on his shoulder from the way his Los Angeles exit went down, and the way he’s previously responded to low points in his career is one of the things Holmes loves about his quarterback.
“He went to a — let’s just say a bad Cal team,” Holmes told The Detroit News in June. “I think they only won one game that first year. He had a chip on his shoulder and got them up to a bowl victory as he exited.
“His ’16 season (rookie year), let’s just call it a bad situation he was put in. They labeled him a bust, so, you know, chip on his shoulder going into ’17. Then, obviously, you know how things went down (this offseason), so I think he’s got another chip on his shoulder, where hopefully not only the change of scenery, but I think we’re getting Jared right at the right time.”
Without question, internal expectations are higher than those outside the building. Few are betting on the rebuilding Lions making any noise this season. Goff claims he doesn’t hear any of that talk, but it’s hard to remain insulated enough to avoid it completely.
Not that it matters, his goals remain the same, regardless of whether they seem unrealistic to anyone else.
“I don’t read any of your guys’ stuff,” Goff said. “I mean, I know what (outside expectations) would be, yeah, of course. It’s a new regime, a new staff, they weren’t very good last year. It’s a whole new thing and I understand it. But just like every other team in this league, there’s expectations and, I don’t know what the stat is, but every year there are new teams in the playoffs. Every year there are teams that were in the playoffs last year that aren’t. Why not us?”
If it’s going to be the Lions, Goff exceeding expectations would be the logical starting point. It would also clarify whether he’s the franchise’s future or a bridge to it.