ATLANTA — A malfunctioning headset forced Jared Goff to cover the earholes of his helmet. A deafening howl cascaded from every seat of the Superdome. The Los Angeles Rams trailed the Saints by two scores early in the NFC Championship, and now, as Goff strained to hear the next play call inside the Rams huddle, the rest of the offense wouldn’t stop talking about the last play.
Teammates had come to know Goff as an unfazed 24-year-old, a slightly goofy embodiment of California cool with a dry, biting sense of humor. As the Rams’ season neared sudden collapse, according to one teammate, Goff looked at the players in the huddle — Pro Bowlers, hardened veterans, generally tough dudes — and pierced the chaos.
“Shut the f--- up!” Goff screamed.
The chatter stopped. Goff called the next play. By the end of the day, the Rams had gone to the Super Bowl, the culmination of Goff’s rapid ascent. Sunday, against the New England Patriots, Goff will become the youngest quarterback to play in a Super Bowl since Tom Brady in 2002. Monday night, Goff sat on a spotlighted stage at media night and made small talk with Brady, chatting about mutual acquaintances back in the Bay Area.
The Super Bowl can awe any first-timer, but those who know him guarantee it will not overwhelm Goff, because nothing does. He never felt doubt during his rookie season, when he lost all seven starts he made and pundits labeled him a bust. He never wavered in the face of attendant expectations from being the first overall pick. And he never blinked when needed to tell his teammates to quit yapping.
“It just kind of refocused everyone in,” right tackle Rob Havenstein said. “It was like, ‘When I’m in the huddle, it’s my huddle. If you miss it, it’s loud. You’re not going to hear it again.’ Nobody thought anything of it. It was okay, [shoot], you’re right. You’re the quarterback. You’re the leader of this team.”
Goff possesses an arm both rocket-strong and precision-accurate, which helped him throw for 4,688 yards and 32 touchdowns this season. “He throws into windows people aren’t supposed to be throwing it in,” tight end Tyler Higbee said. His talent made him the No. 1 pick, but his unruffled attitude launched a complete turnaround, from perceived draft disaster to Super Bowl quarterback in two years. Goff’s unflappable nature is his defining trait.
“I’ve never seen him get rattled,” Rams quarterback coach Zac Taylor said. “The moment is never too big for him. He’s very intelligent. Hard worker. All the things you want in a starting quarterback, Jared is.”
The Rams arrived at the Super Bowl on an infamous blown call, but the mistake only mattered because Goff brought them back from being down 13-0. His headset went out moments before the opening drive. His 40-yard bomb to Brandin Cooks set up the Rams’ first touchdown. Two naked bootlegs in overtime, on which he made bullet throws under pressure, led to the game-winning points. Coach Sean McVay called the performance “a great representation of the mental toughness that he has.”
Where, Goff was asked this week, does that come from?
“I get that question a lot,” Goff said. “I don’t have a good answer for you, because I don’t know.”
‘I never lost confidence’
Tony Franklin, Goff’s offensive coordinator at Cal, worried for his former quarterback after he watched one of Goff’s first NFL practices. Under Coach Jeff Fisher, the Rams practiced without tempo and ran a staid, predictable offense that didn’t take into account Goff’s specific talents.
“I knew the whole deal that first season was going to be whether or not he had a change of coaching,” Franklin said. “In my humble opinion, in that league, there’s been a whole lot of really good quarterbacks that were labeled busts because they had the wrong coach and they had the wrong management.”
The season was miserable. Goff was not on the active roster to start the season, an unusual designation for the first overall pick. The Rams started 4-5, and after Fisher inserted Goff, they lost all seven games. He absorbed vicious hits behind a makeshift offensive line. “It wasn’t the best team for him to be on,” guard Rodger Saffold said. But when Goff called Franklin to catch up, he never badmouthed coaches or blamed teammates. He just wanted to know how he could get better.
“To be honest, I never lost confidence,” Goff said. “There were some tough times early on. I had good perspective on it, though. I knew it was only seven games. I didn’t play attention to what anyone was saying. I kept my head down, kept working, tried to be myself.”
Goff’s resolve owed in part to experience. Overlooked as a high school recruit, Goff still won Cal’s starting quarterback job as an 18-year-old freshman. They had a brutal early schedule, and small problems snowballed until the season finished 1-11.
“We were terrible,” Franklin said. “He probably weighed 170 pounds, and he was getting his brains beat out. He never changed. He always went to the sideline, always talked to the offensive linemen and the receivers, never blamed anybody but himself.”
In high school, Goff had always been a star and his teams had always won. His freshman season at Cal served as a hinge. His father, Jerry Goff, constantly told him he should expect success and not act surprised when it came. At Cal, for the first time, Goff needed to prove he could remain similarly poised in the face of failure.
“That made him who he is today,” said Jerry Goff. “He never experienced anything like that. To feel that sense of what it’s like to be bad is something that you need to know.
“You can walk into a stadium in the fourth quarter, you wouldn’t know if he threw four touchdowns or four picks. It’s just the way he is. He doesn’t beat his chest running down the field, and he doesn’t drop his chin when he doesn’t play well. It’s a little bit about the way we raised him, and a lot about his genetics.”
Jerry Goff played professional baseball. He excelled in the minors, when he played every day as a catcher. His swing stayed sharp and his mind stayed focused on the next game. In the majors, during parts of six seasons with the Expos, Pirates and Astros, he was always on the bench.
Backup catchers have one of the most unforgiving jobs in professional sports. They play once a week, maybe twice, and those opportunities are freighted with extra meaning — the only way to play more is to play well. But sitting corrodes a hitter’s timing. A stale swing means hitless nights that linger in the brain until the next chance, which will likely come against an ace-level pitcher — because that’s when the starter asks for his day off. It is a cycle of failure and frustration.
“Frickin’ brutal, dude,” Jerry said. In the majors, Jerry batted .215 and struck out 29 percent of his plate appearances. He would leave the park livid after a bad game, and his performance would devour him for days, as he waited for his next chance. He overanalyzed. He castigated himself. He could not move on.
“That’s probably why I played six years and not 15,” Jerry said.
Jerry speaks about his career with acute self-awareness, slight regret and no bitterness. Jared was born in 1994, just two years before Jerry’s last game. He never watched his father play, but Jerry’s career shaped Jared’s outlook. Jerry coached his son, constantly telling him to not get high or low, to not let outcomes dictate emotions. Nancy, Goff’s mom and Jerry’s high school sweetheart, had watched disappointment swallow Jerry, and she imparted the same lessons.
“I probably gave him more advice learning from my shortcomings than my successes,” Jerry said. “What not to do. Because I knew that didn’t work.”
‘This is going to be good’
Franklin would sometimes tell Goff about the time he coached Tim Couch, when Couch threw four interceptions in the first half and led a comeback in the second. During Goff’s junior season, he threw four interceptions in the first half against Utah. Entering the locker room, Goff looked at Franklin and said, “Well, just like Couch.” In the second half, Goff led Cal back to within six points, the game-winning drive stalling only after a blown pass interference no-call on fourth down. (The football gods would pay Goff back for that one.)
Two years after Cal won one game, Goff led the Golden Bears to a bowl victory. He has experienced a similar trajectory on a grander scale in Los Angeles, powered by the good fortune of his partnership with McVay.
Franklin happened to be in Southern California recruiting during the first practice McVay ran with the Rams. Afterward, he called his wife and told her, “This is going to be good.”
“McVay was playing modern football and practicing modern football,” Franklin said. “He practiced the way that we did. Everything was high-paced, high-tempo, guys were running full speed, they were scoring on every play. There was a lot of energy. It’s just the new way.”
Goff flourished under McVay, steady improvement last season leading to this year’s breakout. On Sunday, he’ll face Brady in the Super Bowl, only two years after many assumed he would wash out. Goff ignored them, true to his nature, but he heard it.
“People that say that, I don’t care who they are, they’re going to go ahead and put somebody in a fishbowl after seven games, they’re not very bright,” Jerry Goff said. “They’re not very bright at all. I know there’s a lot of them out there. These guys need time, man. When these guys put people in this little bowl because they played X amount of games, it’s silly to me. I think they’re looking pretty ignorant now.”
Those critics understand the way Goff’s offensive teammates felt in the cacophonous huddle in New Orleans. When faced with chaos and adversity, Goff has a way of making everyone shut up.
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