Jared Goff was benched. There is no other way to write it. There was no other way to see it.
The Rams’ Super Bowl quarterback was benched in the playoffs for a guy who had played in one NFL game. The Rams’ $134-million quarterback with a surgically repaired right thumb was healthy enough to be activated, yet was benched for a guy who had yet to throw an NFL touchdown pass.
Going with John Wolford on Saturday was the smart call, the right call, but it was a bold call that could rattle the franchise, and when their NFC wild-card playoff battle began in chilly Seattle, the Rams were beset by a cold question.
Where does Jared Goff go from here? Do you try to trade him? Do you lose his trust? How can you deal with a team leader who has been ordered to take a seat during the biggest moment of the season?
Where does Jared Goff go from here?
Turns out, barely 10 minutes after kickoff, he takes off his mask and pulls out his headphones and goes into the game.
He goes shakily. He goes sloppily. But, goodness, he goes, and goes, replacing the injured Wolford with a careful and crafty version of himself, managing the Rams to a 30-20 victory and a trip to next week’s NFC semifinals, also known as the divisional round.
He goes from sheepishly stalking a dark corner of the sidelines to running across the field pumping both fists and screaming, that’s where he goes.
“It feels good,” he said afterward, the quiet satisfaction filling his voice. “It feels really good.”
It feels really weird, praising a quarterback who was nine for 19 for 155 yards and one touchdown. But it feels really appropriate, considering Goff finally did the one thing he must do — make no mistakes and let your top-ranked defense do the rest.
It was one of his scariest hours, breaths held with every wobbly pass, constant worry that the player with the most turnovers in the NFL since 2019 would lose control against a flying Seahawks defense.
Yet, oddly, it was one of his finest hours, as he fought through the thumb and the doubt to make three big plays that led to 17 points, including a 15-yard touchdown toss late in the fourth quarter to a wide-open Robert Woods to clinch it.
“We felt like John [Wolford] was really getting ready to get into a rhythm, and then Jared stepped in and handled things incredibly well,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “You could see that he just battled … I was really pleased with his effort … a real credit to him.”
Battled in every corner, he did. Goff shrugged off the embarrassment of his first benching since becoming the starter four seasons ago. He winced through the discomfort of having three pins inserted into his broken right thumb during surgery just a dozen days earlier. It wasn’t pretty, but he showed a gritty side of himself that Rams fans have been waiting to see.
Jared Goff, survivor.
“My thumb is fine, I’m not going to use it as an excuse for anything that didn’t go my way today,” he said. “It’s not 100% … but it’s in a good place.”
OK, so, when the game started, how was your mood?
“It was tough, as a competitor of course I wanted to be out there and wanted to play, and felt like I could, felt like I could make a difference,” he said.
McVay claimed his choice was based on Goff’s physical status — “The thought process going into the game was our quarterback had thumb surgery” — but he also admitted making the decision and informing the team at the beginning of the week. This meant he wasn’t waiting for updates on Goff’s thumb rehabilitation. And Goff obviously was healed enough to play, otherwise McVay would have activated Blake Bortles.
Make no mistake, Goff was benched. And for sure, McVay made the right call. The versatile Wolford was the right quarterback. That was obvious as their second possession of the game, when Wolford led the offense 60 yards downfield, completed a couple of passes for 28 total yards, moved them to a first down at the Seahawks’ 20.
Then, football happened.
On a designed run, two yards beyond the line of scrimmage, Wolford was knocked to the ground, then nailed in the head by the flying right shoulder of the Seahawks’ Jamal Adams. It was a cheap shot. It was an illegal shot. It should have been flagged.
Underneath his helmet, Wolford squeezed his eyes in pain. Before halftime, he left the stadium in an ambulance and a neck brace. He later returned to the locker room after suffering what McVay called “a stinger.”
“It’s a shame for John to have gotten hurt … I thought he was seeing the field really well,” McVay said.
Goff immediately looked like the usual frustrating Goff. On his second play, he was sacked, and Rams had to settle for a 40-yard field goal. On Goff’s second series, he had one overthrow and one pass batted down. On his third series, he wildly flung the ball downfield over everybody.
He looked unprepared. He looked injured. He looked shaken. He later smiled. “I was ready to go,” he said, adding a not-so-subtle reminder. “I’ve played in big games before.”
Sure enough, things started happening. Early in the second quarter, Cooper Kupp bailed him out by coming back for an underthrown ball and turning it into a 44-yard completion that led to a go-ahead 39-yard field goal by Matt Gay.
And on his next series, on a third-and-nine deep in Rams territory, a scrambling Goff lobbed a short pass that the amazing Cam Akers turned into a 44-yard gain that eventually led to Akers’ five-yard touchdown run to give the Rams a 20-10 halftime lead they never lost.
Goff later finished it off with a wobbly but perfect pass that Woods carried into the end zone and a date next weekend at either Green Bay or Tampa Bay.
Who the starting quarterback will be…?
“Jared did a great job today, he’s our quarterback,” said McVay, but then quickly added, “a lot of that is going to be predicated on how does Jared’s thumb checks out.”
So it’s Goff. Maybe. Probably. For now.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.