The bridge quarterback is making a bid to become a permanent structure, and as the Detroit Lions get ready for an important offseason with some momentum at their back, they have a big decision to make on their and Jared Goff’s future.
Goff has played his best football of the season in recent weeks, leading the Lions to wins in two of their past three games and creating hope that he may be here to stay as the organization enters the next phase of its rebuild.
“For me, for him, I always felt like it’s hard to evaluate him until I feel like everything’s right, to an extent, and you can do a fair evaluation of where he is,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said Friday. “And so I feel like that’s come about over the last, really call it four weeks — three or four weeks. So now it’s starting to come a little bit more into focus.
“I feel like there’s a much clearer picture, and for different circumstances. For different reasons, a number of different reasons. And so I like where he’s trending right now. I like where he’s trending.”
Goff’s improved play the past four weeks has coincided with a number of changes to the Lions’ offense.
Taylor Decker returned after an eight-game absence to solidify the offensive line. Josh Reynolds joined the receiving corps off waivers. Campbell took over play-calling from offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn. And tight ends coach Ben Johnson, a former quarterback, became more heavily involved in the passing game.
Goff, who is not expected to play Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons because of COVID-19, played through a strained oblique in the Lions’ Nov. 14 tie with the Pittsburgh Steelers, then sat out a loss the following week to the Cleveland Browns.
Since returning from injury, he has looked like a different quarterback, challenging defenses downfield, cutting down on turnovers and running an efficient offense.
In the past four games, Goff has thrown nine touchdowns and two interceptions while completing 69.5% of his passes and averaging 224.5 passing yards per game. His passer rating of 105.7 since Nov. 25 is among the best in the NFL.
In his first nine games, Goff threw eight touchdowns with six interceptions, completed 66.1% of his passes, averaged 234.3 yards per game and had a middling passer rating of 84.03.
“The Goff I know is what we saw in Minnesota and last week at Arizona, and that’s the player that I see,” Campbell said. “And I think there’s a number of reasons why that player, that possibly wasn’t there early in the year, it’s not just him. I think there’s a number of reasons that is all-encompassing, including us as a staff. So that’s why I’m saying, like, I like where he’s trending right now, and I think we’re starting to figure things out pretty good.”
The Lions might have opted to keep Goff as their quarterback for 2022 even without his recent hot streak. This year’s draft is considered light on potential franchise quarterbacks, and Goff’s contract is structured such that he almost certainly will be a Lion next fall.
But the Lions have never fully declared their long-term intentions at quarterback since trading Matthew Stafford, though they are approaching that fork in the road.
Goff is 27 years old, still in the prime of his career, and will have three years left on his contract after this season. He struggled the first half of this year, much like he did in recent seasons with the Los Angeles Rams, and Campbell’s admission that everything needed to be right to fairly evaluate Goff is an acknowledgement in some ways of Goff’s shortcomings as a player.
The Lions have an abundance of draft capital the next two years, with extra first-round picks in the 2022 and 2023 drafts, and could be picking high enough this year to have their choice of young signal-callers.
Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes had a free pass this season in Year 1 of their rebuild, but that pass comes with an expiration date. Rookie quarterbacks aren’t expected to win in the NFL, but veterans are. And if they don’t, they aren’t the only ones who usually pay with their jobs.
If the Lions decide to build around Goff at quarterback, the futures of Campbell and Holmes will at some point be tied to their signal-caller.
If they go a different direction, their clocks could start anew.
Four good games may not be enough to base a decision on — at any position — but they could nudge the Lions one way. And when it comes time to chart the course for the offseason, Campbell said he will place a high value on how players perform down the stretch.
“What you see late in the year is pretty telling to me,” Campbell said. “I think there’s more value in what you see late in the year than what you see early in the year. Now, there’s a couple of different cases. Is a guy, did he have an injury? But I think… what you want to see is the growth from the early part of the year to the late part of the year and what does that look like? And so I don’t — I feel like this is a good thing.”
Goff is not the only high-profile Lion whose late-season performance will help shape the team’s plans this offseason. Here are four other players whose recent play could have a long-lasting impact:
OT Taylor Decker
Decker’s early-season injury led to speculation the Lions would be better off trading him and moving Penei Sewell to left tackle, but it’s no coincidence the Lions’ recent surge has come with Decker in the lineup and playing well.
With Decker and Sewell anchoring the tackle positions, the Lions have a chance to have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Any talk of trading Decker has dissipated, for good reason, and the Lions have a chance to move forward in 2022 with their entire offensive line intact. That should be a tremendous comfort to the organization.
“Those two bookends, man, they can be very special in this league and you don’t get a chance to have two bookends like that in this league,” Lions offensive line coach Hank Fraley said. “And really in that room, we can be pretty special, it’s just try to stay healthy and stay hungry. Don’t be complacent and satisfied. As soon as we become complacent and satisfied, we’re going to get run over.”
OLB/DE Charles Harris
Harris has played well enough this season to earn a big payday as a free agent, and the smart money is on the Lions giving it to him.
In 14 games this season, Harris has a career-high 7½ sacks. He has blossomed in Aaron Glenn’s defense and under Kelvin Sheppard’s tutelage, with Sheppard saying other coaches are calling asking, “What have you done with him?”
Good pass rushers are tough to find in the NFL, and even with the Lions potentially in position to add to the position high in next year’s draft, it makes sense to keep Harris on a multiyear deal.
“A lot of people get wrapped up in the sacks, and I take my hat off to him,” Sheppard said. “The sacks are beautiful. I love them as an OLB coach. But you watch his stuff in the run game and pass coverage. The past couple weeks it is outstanding. I mean, he’s dropping in coverage, seeing routes, seeing the routes develop. That takes a lot of work. That’s not something you can just wake up and go do what he’s doing. … I tell people, go watch the tape. and watch what this guy is really doing in the run and pass coverage-wise in the game. It’s freaking impressive.”
WR Josh Reynolds
Reynolds has said he wants to stay in Detroit, and there is no doubt he has played a role in the Lions’ offensive turnaround. He and Goff have good chemistry together, and his big frame is something defenses are forced to respect on the outside.
Campbell talked this week about how players sometimes “need a fresh start before you really realize who they are,” and maybe that’s happening with Reynolds, who had one season of 30-plus catches with the Rams and was a bit player with the Tennessee Titans before his release.
“I do know that sometimes you talk about a guy who you liked a lot and, man, he’s got all of these qualities about him to really be a leader, really help your team in other areas other than production. And man, it’s not until the guy who is the perceived leader in the room leaves before you really see the full potential of that player come out,” Campbell said. “And I think just production as a player is the same, you never know. And for Reynolds to be able to come here — and he wasn’t necessarily the guy out there. I’m just talking about L.A. in general, forget Tennessee. But Cooper Kupp was the guy and he did all of these things, and (Robert) Woods. And so, he was kind of odd man out somewhat. And for us, he’s a little bit more of a showcase right now, and I think that’s big and you can see his confidence has really rose because of it.”
Reynolds is trending toward being someone the Lions try and re-sign. Along with Amon-Ra St. Brown and Quintez Cephus, he gives the team the base of a good receiving corps. But the Lions still need a difference-maker at the position, someone who can be a featured part of their passing game.
Perhaps Reynolds’ emergence takes the Lions out of the market for a top free agent pass catcher, but it should not impact their plans in the draft.
DB Will Harris
Along with Charles Harris and Amani Oruwariye, Will Harris has been the Lions’ most valuable defensive player since the bye. Harris moved from safety to slot cornerback when A.J. Parker missed three games with an ankle injury, and he’s slated to make his second start at outside cornerback this week.
He’s probably not an outside cornerback long-term, but he’s versatile enough to give the Lions options in their roster-building process. Tracy Walker is a pending free agent and Jeff Okudah and Jerry Jacobs are coming off season-ending knee injuries. Safety seems like a major position of need for the Lions, especially if they believe Harris is best suited for nickel duties moving forward.
“We kind of got forced into it, somewhat, but for Will Harris to go play cornerback, we’d have never known that had we not had the slew of COVID and injuries and everything that transpired,” Campbell said. “It’s like, ‘OK, well, you’re figuring some stuff out, you’re finding things out you wouldn’t ordinarily find out.’
“But no, look, you do take the totality of the season by the player, but I think you need to see vast improvement at the end of the year than at the beginning of the year.”