Niyo: Goff buys in and buys the Lions time to ratchet up rebuild

Detroit News

We can debate Jared Goff’s value as a starting quarterback in the NFL. We can argue about the trade that brought him to Detroit and sent Matthew Stafford off to Los Angeles, where he’s about to get another crack at the playoffs with the Rams. We can, and we have, and we probably will for years to come, especially if Stafford goes and writes a Hollywood ending to his career with a Super Bowl win there.

But most of those value judgments will miss the point when it comes to Goff and the Lions and this arranged marriage they both have with a tortured fanbase in this town.

For now, the point is that Goff bought time for everyone. For him and his career, sure, but mostly for the Lions and their latest rebuilding plan, which really was the idea all along.

It’s a plan that was hatched a year ago this week when owner Sheila Ford Hamp introduced Brad Holmes as the team’s new general manager, and then introduced Holmes to his new head coach, Dan Campbell, who, not coincidentally, was introduced to his new quarterback soon after that as Holmes worked out that blockbuster deal with his former boss in L.A.

More: Lions’ Ragnow running again as he shares details of season-ending toe injury

It’s a plan no one should be completely sold on yet, either. A 3-13-1 finish doesn’t exactly scream progress, and no matter how low the bar of expectations was set last spring and summer, it’s clear there’s a long, long way to go to reach respectability.

“Don’t get it twisted, three wins is brutal,” center Frank Ragnow said Monday. “What did Dan say the other day? We’re in the Arctic. This is the Arctic, man.”

But the fact that everyone in Allen Park seems to have bought into the plan does mean something. And for Lions fans eager to come in from the cold, warming up to the idea of Goff as something other than a placeholder here — something more than a bridge to a better tomorrow — is an understandable reaction, even if it’s an overreaction.

Goff almost sounds convinced himself, which says something, too, for a guy who didn’t ask to be here and wasn’t exactly feeling welcomed as the Lions got off to an 0-8 start in the fall. He talked the past couple days about how tough that was, especially after all the winning he’d enjoyed in L.A., “but that’s my job, is to bear the brunt of it sometimes.”

And he says he learned some things about himself in the process. About leadership and grit and even gratitude: “You know, your world gets flipped upside down about a year ago, and then you realize, ‘Oh, it’s actually not that bad.’”

As bad as things looked in late October, when the Lions hit rock bottom before their bye week, Goff and the offense finally started to “click” around Thanksgiving: Over Goff’s final five starts, which produced three wins and a last-second loss to Chicago, he completed 70% of his throws, tossed 11 TDs to just two INTs, and posted a QB rating of 107.1 – third-highest in the NFL.

That followed Campbell’s decision to take over play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn, who was officially let go Monday. And while the Lions’ head coach isn’t ready yet to say how he’ll handle a possible search for Lynn’s replacement, don’t be surprised if what we saw the last two months is what we’ll get next season. Ben Johnson’s enhanced role as the Lions’ passing game coordinator played to rave reviews in the second half of the season, with Goff leading the cheers. “The sky’s the limit for him,” Goff said Monday.

For Goff, the fact that he gets a voice in all this is part of what has him sounding so enthused. It’s a far cry from what he had in Los Angeles, where Rams coach Sean McVay decided Goff wasn’t the quarterback he needed his last two seasons there and acted accordingly. So if Goff’s voice was “covered up” by McVay, as veteran defensive tackle Michael Brockers — another former Rams player traded to Detroit last offseason — described it Monday, it definitely has been amplified here in recent months.

“I was able to have a lot more control or say — ‘ownership’ is maybe the word — and that feeling of it being mine,” Goff said. “Dan and the rest of the staff have been great with that, and making me feel that way, and it’s been really good. I feel I’ve grown how I should grow finishing Year 6 now.”

Sunday’s finish certainly didn’t hurt, either as everyone watched Goff play through the pain of a bone bruise in his knee and beat the Packers in the finale at Ford Field. (“You could say was a meaningless game,” Brockers said, “and to go out there and put your body on the line for us, that goes a long way for us and for the coaches as well.”

Where they take it from here, time will tell. But Goff points to a pair of divisional wins —that’s as many as the Lions won in Matt Patricia’s entire tenure, by the way — and a rout of NFC-leading Arizona as “reason for optimism that we know how to do it now. We know how to win, and still have a lot of room to improve.”

Likewise, Campbell can look at his quarterback’s late-season revival and see a way forward.

“He played some of his best football in the last four or five games of the season,” Campbell said, who went on to praise Goff for his resilience and toughness down the stretch. “I like where he’s going, I really do.”

Just don’t ask him to keep going there, though. Campbell has said in the past he thinks Goff can be a long-term answer for the Lions, but Monday he wasn’t interested in tying any knots.

“Look, I can’t get into all of that, I really can’t,” he said. “I just know this: I’m excited that we’ve got him.”

As he should be, because if you go back to something Campbell said shortly after he was hired, you’ll see how Goff fits, at least in the here and now.

“Let’s build the nucleus and the foundation of this team first and get some roots in the ground,” Campbell said last winter, when asked about a sense of urgency he felt to find a franchise quarterback in that draft. “And once you get the roots in the ground and let it grow a little bit, we’ll find the right guy at the helm. … To me, your odds are better if you do that first and then find the right guy to get under center than vice versa.”

Remember that as you watch the Bears hit the reset button, and start their search for a new GM and coach less than eight months after the last two bet big on Justin Fields, who just finished a historically-bad rookie season in Chicago. Or in New York, where the GM who fell in love with Daniel Jones three years ago is gone and the head coach who inherited the Giants’ QB is hanging by a thread. Or even in Miami, where the GM who drafted Tua Tagovailoa over Justin Herbert is sticking around but looking for a new coach who can make people forget a mistake the Lions also made.

Goff’s restructured contract all but guaranteed he’d be around for 2022, but beyond that anything is possible, including the Lions deciding to use some of that draft capital they’ve stockpiled to select a quarterback this year — in a relatively weak class — or next.

“It’d be fine,” Goff said Monday. “It’s their decision, man. It’s up to them, and whatever they want to do. Ultimately, I’m still under contract and still going to be here playing, and feel pretty good about my standing with them and where I’m at.”

And as things stand, that’s all that really matters. Not the long-term future, but the short-term flexibility Goff’s presence gives the Lions.

“I’m happy to be here as long as I am, and continue to play well and be the best I can be,” he added. “If it is here for the next 10 years, fantastic.”

And if not, well, they’ve all got time to figure out just what that means.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @JohnNiyo

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