Jared Goff still may turn out to be a bridge quarterback for the Detroit Lions, but for now that bridge has no obvious end in sight.
Goff led the Lions to wins in his final two starts, Sunday against the Green Bay Packers and Dec. 19 against the Arizona Cardinals, playing well enough in the second half of the season to earn a vote of confidence from Lions coach Dan Campbell in his end-of-season news conference Monday.
“He played some of his best football the last four or five games of the season,” Campbell said. “And I thought that was important. And I said it last night, just the fact that he hung in there and he was resilient and he’s tough. Hell, he’s coming off of his bone bruise and wanted to play, was dying to play. Hell, he wanted to try to play the week before but he just wasn’t quite ready. And we’re not playing for the playoffs or anything. He wanted to compete, he wanted to be in there. He wanted to take ownership of this team one more time.
“I think this speaks volumes, and I know this, he can throw the football. And I like where he’s going. I really do. I like where he’s going. He’s certainly trending the right way and, shoot man, he’s one of the biggest reasons why we did get three wins.”
Campbell stopped short of saying Goff was a franchise-type quarterback the Lions will build around, but as the organization heads into an important offseason flush with draft capital, Goff might be their best option at the most important position on the field.
The Lions have the No. 2 pick in April’s NFL draft, but unlike past seasons, there is no consensus top quarterback prospect available.
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They are unlikely to enter the veteran quarterback market this offseason, where players like Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans, Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks and perhaps even Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers could be on the trading block.
Goff’s contract is structured in a way that makes it highly likely he will be on the Lions roster next fall. According to OverTheCap.com, the Lions would take a $30.5 million cap hit if they move on from Goff this spring (assuming no team wants to take on his guaranteed $15 million roster bonus due in March).
“Look, I can’t get into all that,” Campbell said. “I just know this: I’m excited that we got him and I can’t wait for this year to come up, after this offseason. … But I like where we’re going, I like where we’re heading next year.”
Despite their 3-13-1 record, Campbell and the Lions have reason for optimism after Goff played his best football in the second half of the season.
After struggling the first eight games of the year, when he had eight touchdown passes, six interceptions an 85.4 passer rating, Goff threw 11 TDs with two interceptions and posted a 101.8 rating in his final six starts.
That hot stretch coincided with a change in offensive play callers — Campbell took over for newly-dismissed offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn at midseason — the addition of receiver Josh Reynolds off waivers and the return of left tackle Taylor Decker from a fractured finger, but it also came as top targets T.J. Hockenson and D’Andre Swift battled injury.
Goff said things “really clicked” beginning in the Lions’ Thanksgiving loss to the Chicago Bears, and he led the Lions to victories in three of his final four games (while missing two others with injury).
“I thought we kind of took off there offensively,” Goff said. “Some of the improvements you guys wouldn’t be able to see. They happened in practice and weren’t ultimately seen in the game, but a lot of it was. Just seeing how we practiced every day and how much better we got over those however many weeks it was, six or seven weeks, was really cool to see and gives us a real reason to have some optimism heading into the offseason.”
Beyond his strong finish on the field, Goff impressed Campbell this season in several other areas the Lions coach has deemed instrumental to quarterback play.
He played through an oblique injury he suffered in pregame warmups against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and fought to return early from his late-season knee injury.
He showed leadership traits that weren’t always apparent during his five seasons with the Los Angeles Rams, when he often played in the shadows of star players like Todd Gurley and Aaron Donald, and even coach Sean McVay.
“He was, I guess covered up so much about McVay and the offense and how overpowered it was (with the Rams),” said Lions defensive lineman Michael Brockers, Goff’s former teammate in L.A. “This year you seen his leadership. His growth as a quarterback, as a leader. Leading the huddle, getting guys together. Showing the guys behind him, going through the game plan with them. His leadership has picked up tremendously just throughout this year.”
And Goff navigated a trying 12 months personally in which he was publicly shamed for the Rams’ offensive failings, traded unceremoniously to a Lions team in the early stages of a rebuild and bombarded with media and fan criticism in Detroit about his play, aspersions Campbell said were not always warranted.
“I can’t exactly tell you where I’ve changed, but I think I have much greater appreciation for winning and how hard it is and being a part of a team and just you’re world gets flipped upside down about a year ago and then, ‘Oh, it’s actually not that bad,'” Goff said. “You come out here and you have fun and you enjoy your teammates and just knowing that there is so much out there to be grateful for and to have fun with.”
The Lions still could be in the market for a quarterback this offseason, and Goff said he would “be fine” if the Lions took a quarterback somewhere in the draft.
“It’s their decision, man,” he said. “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.”
The Lions have three of the top 34 picks in the draft, and while this year is light on blue-chip signal callers, several passing prospects project as top-50 picks, including Pitt’s Kenny Pickett, North Carolina’s Sam Howell, Ole Miss’ Matt Corral and Liberty’s Malik Willis.
The Lions are expected to get a chance to work with several of Pickett, Howell, Willis, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, Nevada’s Carson Strong and Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe at the Senior Bowl next month, and at a minimum they need to find a backup for Goff with Tim Boyle and David Blough both headed towards free agency.
Given his contract, the Lions could delay a long-term decision on Goff till after next season. By then, they should have more data to work with to decide if Goff really is their answer at quarterback (and perhaps in need of a contract extension) or if they want to go young at the position.
Asked if thought he did enough to cement himself as the Lions quarterback of the future late this season, Goff said Monday, “It’s not my decision.”
“I’m happy to be here as long as I am and continue to play well and be the best I can be,” he said. “If it is here for the next 10 years, fantastic. But I’m going to keep playing as best as I can and be the best player I can this offseason and then into next year.”