The message was as clear as the transgressions were glaring.
"It's taking care of the football," Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay said last week after a 23-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
"Our quarterback has to take better care of the football,” McVay said, singling out Jared Goff after yet another turnover-filled game: two interceptions and a lost fumble, bringing his turnover total to 10 during a four-game spread in which the Rams went 2-2 and saw their lead in the NFC West slip away.
A coach will often save the sharp criticism of a franchise quarterback for closed-door discussions, but McVay didn’t shy away from putting Goff on blast, because, he said, he knew the fifth-year pro could handle it.
Goff in the last week took the shaming in stride. “I'm a big boy, I can handle it,” he said, and he promised to hold himself accountable while preparing for this week’s pivotal meeting with the Arizona Cardinals.
Then, on Sunday, displaying that he understood exactly what his coach wanted and what his team needed of him, Goff turned in one of his finest performances while helping lead the Rams to a 38-28 victory over the hosting Cardinals. And with the Seattle Sahawks getting upset at home against the New York Giants the same day, the Rams moved back into first place in the division.
Goff's stat line included 37 completions on 47 attempts, 351 passing yards, a passing touchdown, a rushing touchdown and, most importantly, zero turnovers.
“I responded exactly how I expected to,” Goff said after the win in the desert. “I’ve been through a lot of bad things in my football career before, and I’ve consistently responded, and this was no different: just another one that I had to put my head down and keep working.”
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Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay greets quarterback Jared Goff (16) after an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, in Glendale, Ariz. (Photo: Ross D. Franklin, AP)
Goff's largely mistake-free performance positioned the Rams to deliver their tried-and-true recipe for success: balance on offense, effectiveness on third downs, a stingy defensive effort and a hefty time of possession advantage. Los Angeles’ 38 points represented a season high. And although the defense yielded three Kyler Murray touchdown passes, the unit made the MVP candidate look rather pedestrian otherwise (173 passing yards, 15 rushing yards).
The slim division lead means nothing to McVay and his players with four games still left and a quick turnaround that calls for a date with New England on Thursday.
But the most important development of Sunday’s game (aside from the victory) was Goff’s performance.
McVay said after the game he had no concerns about Goff’s ability to break out of the funk that plagued him for four games and cost the Rams a victory against the severely shorthanded 49ers last week. But the pressure was indeed on the quarterback.
In a tight NFC West race and with time running out on the regular season, this is where the Rams need him at his best.
But, it’s important for Goff to realize that his best doesn’t have to consist of miracle-working and highlight plays. McVay and general manager Les Snead have constructed this team in such a way that Goff doesn’t have to do a lot of heavy lifting. He just has to execute and avoid cardinal sins.
The Rams are built to run the football, set up the play-action passing attack, get after teams on defense and play the field-position and time-of-possession game. They proved the recipe works. They made it to the Super Bowl two seasons ago before falling short against the New England Patriots.
But the book on the Rams is that the best way to derail them is to get after Goff and force him off script. Once he gets flustered or feels the need to do extra, he gets into trouble.
But as was the case in the days leading up to Sunday’s game, and in that performance against the Cardinals, McVay and the Rams simply needed Goff to remain disciplined. He did a much better job of taking what the defense gave him, put his teammates in position to succeed and again took care of the football. When the Rams can remain in manageable down and distances, their offense is that much better given the unpredictability of being able to run or pass out of the same formations. From there, the big-play opportunities naturally will present themselves. It's how this offense — designed years ago by Mike Shanahan, passed down to Kyle Shanahan and onto McVay — works.
If Goff can deliver performances like he did on Sunday down the stretch of the season, Los Angeles' chances of a deep playoff run greatly increase, because this team is actually better than the 2018 Rams.
The rushing attack is more varied and not as dependent on one player as the Rams were with Todd Gurley as their workhorse. The receiving corps is more reliable now as well. The defense is more stout, holding teams to a league-best 4.7 yards per play entering Week 13, compared to the 5.9 (25th) allowed during that run to the Super Bowl. The unit is also holding teams to fewer points (19.5 entering Sunday) now than in 2018 (24.0).
The Rams have everything they need to win it all. They just need Goff to maintain his poise and disciplined decision making and avoid blowing it under pressure.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.
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