Niyo: If Goff’s a ‘perfect fit,’ maybe Lions have flipped script

Detroit News

Allen Park — Jared Goff took a victory lap Sunday night at Lambeau Field. Or half of one, at least, following the Lions’ season-ending triumph in Green Bay.

Once the postgame handshakes and interviews were done on the field after Detroit’s 20-16 win, Goff took off down the sideline behind the visitors’ bench, where hundreds of fans — almost all of them wearing Lions jerseys — were still basking in the moment.

Goff and his teammates had just defied expectations one more time, capping a remarkable turnaround season for the Lions by denying Aaron Rodgers and the Packers their postseason destiny. And as Goff made his way along the railing, high-fiving as many of the screaming fans as he could, the emotions he felt surely stood in stark contrast to those he’d experienced a couple years ago in that same stadium.

If you’ll recall, it was immediately after the Los Angeles Rams’ 32-18 playoff loss at Lambeau in January 2021, that his head coach, Sean McVay, first signaled the former No. 1 overall pick’s days were numbered with the Rams. Goff had played well despite a surgically-repaired thumb on his throwing hand that afternoon, but when McVay was asked after the game if he was still his quarterback, the coach replied, “Yeah, he’s the quarterback right now.”

Sure enough, two weeks later, he wasn’t, traded away to the Lions in a blockbuster deal for Matthew Stafford and three high draft picks. And even though the writing had been on the wall for a while as McVay lost confidence in Goff, it was a system shock for the California native who’d led the Rams to a Super Bowl two seasons prior. After five years in L.A., where he’d put down roots and established a career, Goff was getting shipped off to Detroit, where a floundering franchise was about to begin another full-scale rebuild.

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Yet there he was Monday, standing in front of his locker in Allen Park, talking about how much this feels like home now.

“You know, sometimes stuff happens to you and you think it’s bad at the time,” Goff said, “and it’s the best thing for you, … This has become a special place to me. It’s allowed me to grow a lot and become a better player and a better person, teammate, leader, all that stuff. And I’m very thankful for it.”

And whereas a year ago it felt like Goff had merely bought everyone some time with strong finish to his first season with the Lions, now it feels like something a bit more meaningful. Something more permanent, perhaps.

‘Perfect fit for what we do’

In fact, if you ask Dan Campbell the same question McVay was asked a couple years ago, this is the answer you’ll get today: “He’s just really a perfect fit for what we do.”

It showed, obviously, as Goff and the Lions dug themselves out of that hole they’d built in a 1-6 start to this season. Detroit won eight of its last 10 games from there, and Goff played arguably the best football of his career, completing 66 percent of his pass attempts while tossing 17 touchdowns against only one interception. After Campbell challenged his quarterback to take better care of the football at midseason, Goff took it to an extreme: He didn’t throw an interception over the Lions’ final nine games, finishing the season with 324 consecutive pass attempts without a pick — the fifth-longest streak in NFL history. He’ll have a chance to break Rodgers’ all-time record (404) early next season.

“That’s really hard to do,” said Amon-Ra St. Brown, Goff’s favorite target who finished his second NFL season with 106 catches for 1,161 yards and six touchdowns. “The fact that he has shown that he can do that, I think, is a testament to the hard work that he puts in, the care that he takes, and the approach that he takes to the game And that really wins you football games.”

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That was true throughout this second-half surge the Lions made, putting the rest of the league on notice heading into 2023. And it certainly was true Sunday night in Green Bay, where the Lions turned in another turnover-free performance to beat the Packers and Rodgers, the two-time reigning MVP whose late fourth-quarter interception proved decisive.

But only after Goff and the Lions’ offense were able to execute their 4-minute offense to close things out. And while it was an unexpected hook-and-ladder play on second-and-long just before the 2-minute warning that got everyone’s attention, it was the play offensive coordinator Ben Johnson dialed up on fourth-and-1 that sealed things. Empty backfield. Quick snap. Quick throw. Ballgame.

“The game on the line, you want it in your hands,” Goff said after his 9-yard completion to DJ Chark clinched the win with 1:12 to play. “We’ve come a long way in two years and I think this was a nice culmination of that. We got the win, and it feels good, but yeah, finishing it that way, I loved the call. Knew it was going to be the call. It was a great play.”

It was hardly the only one he made in the second half Sunday night, when he went 10-of-13 for 109 yards and made probably his best throw all season: a 43-yard completion to Kalif Raymond that set up the Lions’ go-ahead touchdown midway through the third quarter.

‘He made some big throws, man’

“In the critical moments in that game, in the second half when we really needed it,” Campbell said, “he made some big throws, man.”

Those are the kind of throws that can change more than a coach’s opinion, too. An entire fan base has warmed up to Goff over the past couple months, in particular. Don’t think he hasn’t noticed, either.

“It feels great,” he acknowledged with a smile Monday. “I’ve been on the flip side of that. And to be in a place where you are appreciated, you feel good. … The people here, it’s just a special place. And I’m proud to be a part of it.”

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For how long, though? That has been the lingering question ever since the trade. One winning season won’t end that debate, nor should it. But now that we’re a year removed from that split-screen reality show with Stafford and the Rams beginning their march to a Super Bowl title, there’s a growing sentiment in Detroit that not only has the trade worked out just fine — the Lions’ will pick sixth overall in this year’s draft with the Rams’ selection — but so might Goff as a long-term starter here.

He’s only 28, and halfway through a four-year, $134 million extension he signed with the Rams before they dumped him. And with the Lions fully expecting to contend for the NFC North title next season, maybe Goff is something more than just a bridge to the future for this franchise. Maybe the Lions can hold off on trying to find their franchise quarterback in the draft.

“He fits us, he really does,” Campbell said of Goff, whose 2022 passer rating (99.3) ranked seventh in the NFL, just ahead of Buffalo’s Josh Allen. “We’re about running the football, play-action pass … and when you do those things, you need a quarterback that can get you in the right play and is very good with his accuracy and his decision-making. And he fits the bill on all of that.”

And when asked again if he thinks Goff is his quarterback going forward, Campbell didn’t hesitate.

“Yeah, I do,” he replied, and he didn’t feel the need to add a qualifier.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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