There are few things I enjoy more in football than the “road test.”
I first picked up the term about a decade ago, when the producers of a TV show kept flashing a “road test” graphic in bright red letters while recapping a spate of college football games. The term made me chuckle then as it’s perfect for illustrating the difficulty of going into another team’s house and winning a game.
So when I saw the Los Angeles Rams’ first game after an embarrassing home loss to the New York Jets last Sunday was against the NFC West-rival Seahawks in Seattle, I immediately dubbed it a “road test,” one that would go a long way toward telling us whether L.A.’s 26-year-old quarterback, Jared Goff, is capable of leading this team back to the Super Bowl.
If you want to know whether a quarterback has the goods, one of the best ways to judge him is against other elite QBs in “gotta have it” games. And with NFC West supremacy and a possible playoff berth on the line, that’s exactly what the Rams’ 20-9 loss to the Seahawks on Sunday was.
Goff had another rough outing, completing only 55.8 percent of his passes for 234 yards, a ghastly interception and accumulating several turnover-worthy plays. This is most unfortunate for the Rams considering they handed a $134 million extension to their QB after his breakout 2018 campaign.
Some of his performance must be attributed to the fact he was playing hurt; he reportedly broke the thumb on his throwing hand in the third quarter.
Yet, the questions about Goff’s long-term upside in Los Angeles existed, even before this game. In the 14 games this year prior to the broken thumb, Goff proved to be a decent starting quarterback who needs a strong defense, a strong running game and a strong head coach to win big.
Problem is, that’s pretty much the textbook definition of a game manager — precisely the kind of quarterback that’s getting harder and harder to win a Super Bowl with.
The NFL is more pass-centered, more offense-oriented than ever before. The rules completely tilt in the offense’s favor, making a great quarterback even harder to stop, especially when the stakes rise in January.
That means that if you want your team to beat a Patrick Mahomes or an Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs, you probably need your quarterback to be one of those dudes, too. A playmaker, someone who can create with his arm and his legs, both inside and outside of the pocket. Backyard football. That’s where this league is headed.
Should the Rams draft a quarterback?
And when I watch Rams coach Sean McVay’s offense — with its quarterback-friendly emphasis on the run game and the play-action — I can’t help but wonder what it would look like with a player like BYU’s Zach Wilson or a North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, creative improvisers with the athleticism to threaten the defense with their legs and make plays when things break down
The Rams don’t have their first-round pick in the 2021 NFL draft due to the Jalen Ramsey trade — and both prospects are widely projected to go in the top 10 — but you get the point.
Here’s what Goff put up in his impressive 2018 campaign that led to a Super Bowl berth: 32 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a 64.9 completion percentage. Since then, his 42 TDs and 28 INTs over the past two seasons simply isn’t good enough. Not in today’s NFL, not for a fifth-year quarterback in his fourth year under McVay.
Now, I’m not saying a change at quarterback should happen in 2021. Goff’s salary-cap number in 2021 is a sizable $34.6 million, and according to Over The Cap, his release would result in a dead-cap hit of approximately $49 million.
What’s more, due to the guaranteed money owed to Goff ($27.5 million), even designating him a post-June 1 cut — which would create $325,000 in cap space and result in a dead-cap charge of $34 million — would be a risky endeavor for the cash-strapped Rams, who will already need cap gymnastics to maneuver around a lower cap next season due to COVID-19.
With those realities, the Rams are better off bringing Goff back in a “you better prove it this year or else, we really mean it this time!” season. However, general manager Les Snead should use a second- or third-round pick on a young quarterback, someone who could be developed behind Goff and put heat on him, too.
This could be a good thing for Goff. In Kansas City, I watched Alex Smith, a man with no shortage of pride, respond to the team’s selection of Mahomes in 2017 with a career season that kept Mahomes, this generation’s most gifted quarterback, on the bench for his rookie season.
The point: If Goff has the pride and mettle to be the quarterback the Rams paid him to be, such a move might be the thing to bring it out of him in 2021. In that best-case scenario, they’d still have a cheap, McVay-approved, hand-picked backup for four seasons.
And in the worst-case scenario, they’d already have an in-house quarterback they can hand the reins of the offense to if they move on from Goff in 2022, when the Rams’ cap situation significantly improves and they can clear at least $17.2 million in cap space by cutting or trading him.
Even if the thumb injury prevents Goff from playing in the Rams’ Week 17 game against the Arizona Cardinals — a “win and you’re in” contest for both teams — it’s fair to wonder if a day of reckoning for Goff will eventually come.
His body of work this season, even if you exclude his injury-impacted performance in the Rams’ failed “road test” on Sunday, suggests the Rams would be smart to at least begin the process of hedging their bets.
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