How the Rams can save Jared Goff from himself

Dec 1, 2019; Glendale, AZ, USA; Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay with quarterback Jared Goff (16) against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Rams entered 2019 with an electrifying offense and a great chance to return to the Super Bowl. Instead, the team stumbled to a 9-7 record with an offense that seemingly came undone thanks to Jared Goff.

A team that put all its eggs — both future draft picks and cap space — in one basket to contend for a Super Bowl fell short of the playoffs. If Sean McVay is going to turn the Rams around, a lot of changes must be made to save Goff’s weaknesses from bringing this team down once more.

The skinny: Coming off a Pro Bowl season in ’18, Goff’s production declined dramatically in 2019. While he finished with 4,600 passing yards, he threw 10 fewer touchdowns, four more interceptions and his quarterback rating dropped 14 points.

Unsurprisingly, the Rams’ offense collapsed as well. After ranking second in total yards and points the previous season, Los Angeles finished 11th in points during the 2019 season. Furthermore, they sunk from fifth in third-down conversion rate (45%) to 15th (39.9%).

The Rams have one of the NFL’s best coaches and an exciting group of pass-catchers. If they want to save Goff, and ultimately their 2020 season, they need to recognize their own issues.

Todd Gurley’s rapid decline: When the Rams’ offense was an unstoppable force that drove in 2018, Gurley was the engine that made everything work. The proverbial engine sputtered in 2019 and this offense sputtered.

  • Coming off an All-Pro season in 2017, the Rams rewarded Gurley with a record-breaking contract extension with $45 million guaranteed. Gurley rewarded them in 2018 with 21 total touchdowns and 1,831 scrimmage yards on 315 carries.
  • During that 2018 season, Gurley averaged 4.9 yards per carry. The Rams finished third in scoring rate (48.6%), net yards per drive (36.7), per Pro Football Reference.
  • Gurley’s success on the ground and the shorter down-and-distances was crucial. McVay’s offense led the NFL in play-action passes. It was also one of the most efficient at it in 2018, per Football Outsiders.

The following offseason, Los Angeles watched as Rodger Saffold left for the Titans. It lost one of its best offensive linemen, on a reasonable contract, and that was a major blow. Letting center John Sullivan walk, who knew McVay’s offense like the back of his hand, also hurt.

  • Initial skepticism about Gurley’s lack of involvement during the 2018 playoff run turned to concern when it was revealed that he had an “arthritic component” to his knee.
  • After receiving 979 touches over three years, the Rams committed to giving Gurley a lighter workload in 2019.
  • Gurley, who averaged 2.5 yards before contact and 2.4 yards after contact, wasn’t as explosive and had fewer running lanes. Unsurprisingly, he averaged just 2.2 yards before contact and 1.7 yards after contact this past year, per PFR.
  • As captured by Football Outsiders, Gurley was far less successful on his carries in 2019 compared to the previous season. After ranking fourth in success rate (57%) in ’18, his decline resulted in him finishing 26th in success rate (48%) this past season.
  • All of this information captures Gurley’s disappointing year. A decline in explosiveness and a porous offensive line. It all manifested in Gurley averaging 3.8 yards per carry and falling short of the 1,000-yard mark.

The Rams can’t go back in time to redo Gurley’s contract. Cutting him is likely out of the question with $25 million in dead money against the cap. Realistically, Los Angeles can’t move on from him without a substantial financial hit until 2022. Unless a trade materializes, they are likely stuck with him.

Gurley remains a talented back. He can be an effective player as the leader of a committee. A 1-2 punch of Gurley and Darrell Henderson could bring some punch back to this offense. It would certainly help Goff and the passing game, but a bigger issue remains.

Under pressure: Jared Goff does not handle pressure well. It’s a problem that can be hidden when a team has a great offensive line. The Rams had the opposite of that in 2019.

  • While the Rams allowed the fewest sacks (22) this year, the number is deceptive. The offensive line also allowed 52 quarterback hurries and it faced the third-most blitzes (219).
  • Goff’s average time to throw (2.95) in 2018 dropped to 2.8 this past season. As detailed by Football Outsiders’ Derrik Klassen, this had disastrous results on Goff’s greatest weaknesses and everything came unraveled. When Goff wasn’t able to process and handle the pressure, McVay’s calls broke down.
  • Goff’s dropbacks of 2.5-plus seconds, indicating his time to throw deep, dipped from 66% to 54% this past year, per Pro Football Focus.

Clearly, the offensive line was a problem for the Rams. It started when Sullivan and Saffold walked out the door, but things only got worse during the season.

  • Right tackle Rob Havenstein, who excelled in ’18, came apart in ’19. He became a turnstile in pass protection as edge rushers coasted by him. He also committed eight penalties in nine games after having three in 16 games the season before.
  • Things got even worse on the right side when Havenstein suffered a season-ending injury and rookie Bobby Evans took his place.
  • Los Angeles traded a 2021 fifth-round pick to the Cleveland Browns for guard Austin Corbett. The former No. 33 pick was a bust in Cleveland and while he showed some improvement with the Rams, he is replaceable.

We know where this team’s issues are heading into the offseason. It’s extremely improbable that Goff suddenly makes tremendous improvements against pressure. So, the Rams must protect their highly-paid “franchise” quarterback from himself.

Make the best of it: It turns out that vastly overpaying your running back and quarterback has consequences. Coincidentally, so does sacrificing multiple first-round draft picks in the Jalen Ramsey trade.

The front office also currently has just $15 million in cap space to work with. Ultimately, general manager Les Snead must make the best of it. Here’s how he can do it.

  • Eric Weddle’s retirementThe Rams freed up $4.75 million in cap space following Weddle’s retirement after 13 seasons.
  • Cut Malcolm Brown – While the move only creates $1.1 million in cap space, it’s worth it to move on from the No. 3 running back.
  • Trade Gerald Everett – Tyler Higbee has emerged as the team’s No. 1 tight end. The Rams could create $1.2 million more in cap space and pick up a fourth-round pick.
  • Re-sign Andrew Whitworth: – While he’s no longer an All-Pro tackle, Whitworth provides trusted security for Jared Goff. A one-year, $9 million deal can work for both sides. Meanwhile, the Rams can look to draft their long-term left tackle.
  • Sign OG/C Graham Glasgow – Los Angeles must find a way to bring in more talent along the offensive line this season. While Glasgow isn’t great, he’s a reliable right guard and can even step in at center.

These aren’t the type of moves that lead to flashy press conferences or will be talked about on SportsCenter, but they are the moves this team needs. The Rams need to find ways to create a little more spending flexibility, which is accomplished by the two offseason cuts and the trade. Re-signing Whitworth erases any concerns at left tackle for 2020 and Glasnow is an even more long-term solution at right guard.

After making these moves, Los Angeles can move into the 2020 NFL Draft with more peace of mind. While the offensive line will remain a priority, the front office can also consider other needs with some of their selections.

  • 2.52 – Tyler Biadasz, C – The Rams need to find someone who can be their new John Sullivan. Biadasz has a sharp mind with the size, tenacity and strength to anchor the center position for a decade. While he must improve in the finer details of the game, offensive line coach Aaron Kromer is the perfect guy to help him.
  • 3.84 – Trey Adams, OT – Once considered a first-round pick, numerous injuries have pushed Adams down draft boards. The size, athleticism and strength is all there for him to become a pillar on the left side, but he comes with major risk. It’s a gamble worth taking for the Rams with their third-round pick.
  • 4.116 – Jordan Elliott, iDL – The Rams need help at pressuring opposing quarterbacks, too. Elliott flew under the radar at Missouri but offers impressive burst as a 315-pound defensive tackle. He can contribute immediately and might turn out to be a steal.
  • 4.126 (trade) – Justin Strnad, LB – In exchange for Everett, the Rams could potentially land their replacement for Cory Littleton. Strnad brings the range to move sideline-to-sideline and drew praise for his coverage ability in college. He was a captain for Wake Forest’s defense and would be an excellent addition to the Rams’ defense.

The Rams come out of the draft with an immediate starter at center and an heir to Whitworth at left tackle. The veteran can mentor Adams, while the rookie gets healthy and develops with the help of NFL coaches. Los Angeles also adds exciting talent on the defensive side, too.

The bottom line: There is clearly enough talent in place on defense and at the offensive skill positions for the Rams to contend in 2020. Ultimately, it all comes down to what the coaching staff and front office can do to help Jared Goff.

Hiring Kevin O’Connell as offensive coordinator is a nice move to add another smart mind to the coaching staff. Even more important, is McVay watching what went wrong during the 2019 season with his scheme and finding new ways to adapt it to improve in 2020.

If Gurley and Henderson can step up next season and deliver on their potential as an exciting backfield duo, that will help this offense immensely. Shorter down-and-distances will open up this offense more and opposing defenses will face more challenges when faced with the run-pass option.

It comes down more to the offensive line. This group desperately needs upgrades and players like Havenstein to rebound to their former glory. Goff’s level play depends on his protection holding up throughout 2020 rather than routinely exposing the worst aspects of his game.

The Rams must protect Jared Goff from himself by protecting him in the pocket, establishing a strong running game and scheming receivers open. If they can accomplish that, Goff can play at a high level and help collectively push this team to the playoffs. Otherwise, the Rams are headed for another season of disappointment with no cap space, draft picks or long-term hopes of contending.