For all the criticism he has taken as Detroit Lions quarterback, Jared Goff did have a successful run with the Los Angeles Rams.
The first overall pick of the 2016 NFL draft, Goff made two Pro Bowls in his five seasons in L.A., helping the Rams reach the Super Bowl in 2018, and posted back-to-back 4,600-yard passing seasons when it looked, briefly, like he might be a top-10 quarterback.
Goff has had good seasons — plural — by anyone’s definition of the term, so it was interesting to hear new Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson lay out an ambitious goal for Goff this week.
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“One of my top priorities, personally, is to help him have the best season of his career,” Johnson said Thursday, before the Lions’ fifth Organized Team Activity practice of the spring. “One thing that we’ve done is included him a lot in what we’re trying to do schematically, and so we spent some time this offseason watching more of the stuff of what he did a few years ago in L.A. and how we can incorporate some of that, while also challenging him to take the next step in some areas of improvement for him as a player as well.”
The Lions tailoring their offense to Goff’s strengths is nothing new. Anthony Lynn tried the same approach last season and lasted eight games as playcaller before it became clear their union would not work.
Lynn never quite bought into Goff as the solution at quarterback, and Goff never played well enough to change Lynn’s mind.
Perhaps Johnson has similar doubts; many in the NFL do. But in nine games as the team’s pass game coordinator last season and four months as offensive coordinator this spring, he has yet to reveal any misgivings in a noticeable way.
Goff was at his best in L.A. surrounded by top-shelf talent at the skill positions and operating in a play-action-heavy offense. Todd Gurley was the best running back in football early in Goff’s career, and the Rams ran significantly more play-action than any team in the NFL in 2018, according to Football Outsiders, and were more efficient than most doing it.
Goff’s play sputtered over the next two seasons as Gurley’s career was decimated by injuries, though the Rams remained play-action dependent.
The best play-action teams are not always great running teams, so Goff’s struggles were not simply a function of Gurley’s demise. But the Lions, who attempted 108 play-action passes last season according to Pro Football Reference, seventh-fewest in the NFL, believe relying more on play-action this fall can help reignite Goff’s career.
“My background, I’ve been around a lot of different coordinators and so conceptually, there’s a number of things that come to mind when I see defense and how we want to attack it,” Johnson said. “But at the end of the day, we want to do what our quarterback does well. And so, I think when you look back at his time in L.A., he was really successful with certain schemes, with certain concepts, and we’re just going to look to incorporate some of those a little bit more.
“I know play-action’s something he’s really good at. We’re going to look at doing that. And it’s really a strength of our offense as well. We’re going to be a really good running team, so that’s going to show up on Sundays is the play-action and movement game.”
The Lions showed more creativity on offense in their final nine games last season, when Johnson took on a more prominent role in the planning.
And they have better — and more — weapons now than they had at any point last season with the additions of DJ Chark and Jameson Williams, the growth of Amon-Ra St. Brown and the return to health of T.J. Hockenson and D’Andre Swift.
Lions coach Dan Campbell said his offense won’t change much philosophically this year. He has always believed in running the football and hitting big plays through the play-action game. Both will be essential for the Lions.
What has changed is the terminology of Johnson’s offense and the Lions’ ability to control the game with tempo, and as Johnson said, Goff needs to make strides, too. He was reluctant to throw the ball into tight windows last season, turnover-prone early in the year and can be more accurate with his ball placement.
If Goff can improve there, Johnson is confident he and the Lions will have a big year.
“I think he’s taken a lot of pride and been able to speak his opinion, give his say on what he likes, what he doesn’t like, what makes sense to him,” Johnson said. “But at the same time, he’s willing to be coached. He wants to be coached hard. And so that to me is the most encouraging thing about his development. He’s still growing as a player. He’s not close-minded. He’s had a lot of success. He’s gone to a Super Bowl, but at the same time he wants to continue to push the envelope open and continue to get better.”