- Covered Rams for two years for Los Angeles Times
- Previously covered the Falcons
- Has covered the NBA and college football and basketball
INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Inside the home locker room at SoFi Stadium, standing underneath a neon-glowing Los Angeles Rams logo, coach Sean McVay called out quarterback Jared Goff in front of players and coaches. It was a postgame scene many had never before witnessed.
McVay glared in Goff’s direction, shouting that he needed to play better and couldn’t continue to turn the ball over. McVay didn’t say the quarterback’s name, but those who were there said they knew to whom McVay was talking.
Minutes later, a heated McVay continued to call out Goff, but this time to reporters, the first time in four seasons as coach he took aim at a player rather than putting the blame on himself after a loss.
“Our quarterback has to take better care of the football,” McVay said about Goff, the player general manager Les Snead traded six picks to move up and draft No. 1 overall in 2016.
That was Week 12 of the 2020 season, and Goff had turned the ball over three times in a 23-20 loss to the NFC West rival San Francisco 49ers. But McVay’s frustration with the franchise quarterback had been brewing for some time.
In the span of two seasons, routine coach and quarterback sideline squabbles turned into one-sided shouting matches, with McVay no longer holding back. Two opposite personalities that once worked harmoniously — McVay’s hyper-focused drive to Goff’s cool-and-calm demeanor — no longer meshed. Goff’s thumb injury allowed McVay to start a different quarterback late last season. That, coupled with Matthew Stafford’s request for a trade from the Detroit Lions, proved to be the end for Goff in L.A.
Two weeks after the 2020 campaign, which ended with a divisional playoff loss at the Green Bay Packers, the Rams traded Goff, two first-round picks and a third-round pick to the Lions in exchange for Stafford.
It was a startling turn of events considering Goff won two NFC West division titles and an NFC championship and helped lead the Rams to Super Bowl LIII. For those accomplishments, he was rewarded with a four-year, $134 million extension, including a record-breaking $110 million guaranteed, only 17 months before the trade.
“Unfortunately, the way it ended is never how you envision it,” Goff said during an introductory news conference last week in Detroit. “But it’s the way it goes.”
“When you look back on the four years that we did have together, there’s a lot of times you can smile on,” McVay said a month after the trade was agreed upon. “I would say there’s a lot of things that when I self-reflect, I certainly wish I was better for him in some instances.”
The trade came together within 24 hours and was a move few could have predicted despite knowing the Rams’ quarterback situation for 2021 would be different than the previous four years. McVay and Snead made that clear in their season-ending news conferences when they provided no guarantees for Goff.
“Yeah, he’s our quarterback, right now,” McVay said after the loss to the Packers.
The following day, McVay would not guarantee Goff’s spot on the roster in 2021. A week later, Snead wouldn’t, either.
“Jared Goff is a Ram right now,” Snead said. “So, what’s the date? January 26.”
The trade was agreed to on Jan. 30 but became official on March 18, a day after the start of the league year.
“There’s a lot of things that go into it, and most importantly, it’s a rare opportunity to acquire a player of Matthew Stafford’s caliber,” McVay said last week, shortly after his new quarterback was introduced in L.A., despite Stafford’s 0-3 career playoff record. “To be able to acquire somebody like him was an opportunity that we wanted to be aggressive about pursuing, and it fortunately worked out.
“But by no means is it a reflection of not respecting and appreciating all the great things that Jared Goff has done.”
However, interviews with more than two dozen sources, including Rams players, coaches and front-office personnel, either on the record or on condition of anonymity, painted the portrait of a relationship between McVay and Goff that fractured in 2019 and slowly decayed throughout the 2020 season.
‘It will be a good marriage’
After seven winless starts as a rookie under former Rams coach Jeff Fisher, Goff played masterfully in his next two years with McVay as coach and a supporting cast that included All-Pro running back Todd Gurley II and All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald. The lanky quarterback passed for 8,492 yards and 60 touchdowns with 19 interceptions in 2017 and 2018 and earned two Pro Bowl selections. Meanwhile, his future successor passed for 8,223 yards and 50 touchdowns and 21 interceptions with Detroit during that span.
With a mega-payday looming for Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the Rams wanted to get ahead of the market reset and re-sign Goff despite the two seasons remaining on his rookie contract.
McVay inherited Goff at quarterback when he took the job in 2017 but felt confident about what he had seen during their two seasons together. He signed off on the decision to give Goff the contract extension.
“Jared Goff, as long as I’m fortunate enough to be in this role, hopefully this guy is stuck with me for a long time,” McVay said a few months after the Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots.
A day after the deal was announced, Goff smiled about his future with McVay.
“He’s joked that I’m stuck with him; I told him, ‘I think I’m OK with that,'” Goff said. “It will be a good marriage … I’m happy to be with him for a long time.”
However, in the two seasons that followed, the Rams’ offense steadily declined — going from third in scoring in 2018 to 12th in 2019 to tied for 22nd in 2020 — along with Goff’s production.
Along with it, the question began percolating inside the Rams’ building: Did we make a mistake?
Cracking the code
What the Patriots and coach Bill Belichick did to the Rams’ offense during the Super Bowl, holding it to 260 total yards, including 60 rushing yards, didn’t just ruin a game plan and the chance to return to L.A. with a title. It upended a scheme, exposed a quarterback and provided the NFL — the ultimate copycat league — a blueprint of how to grind McVay’s offense to a halt.
McVay knew getting back to the Super Bowl would not be easy, but he didn’t expect the offense to take a significant step backward, as the downtick in scoring resulted in the Rams missing the playoffs in 2019.
The offensive line underwent turnover. Sturdy left guard Rodger Saffold departed in free agency, the Rams declined an option on veteran center John Sullivan’s contract and right tackle Rob Havenstein was sidelined midway through the season because of a knee injury. Gurley, the 2017 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, had knee issues, and McVay struggled to consistently incorporate the run in the game plan.
With the infrastructure around him beginning to falter, Goff needed to take control.
McVay grinded at all hours, trying to solve the offensive issues. With no full-time offensive coordinator — a position McVay did not fill after current Packers coach Matt LaFleur departed following the 2017 season — it fell on McVay to right the ship.
It became apparent to some inside the building that Goff had not developed into a quarterback who could thrive without a strong cast.
“The situation around him affected his game. If the O-line wasn’t always firing or if he was missing a wide receiver, things didn’t go well,” a team source said. “If he had a clean pocket and everything was going perfect, he’s a top-five quarterback.”
Shane Waldron — Goff’s fourth quarterbacks coach in four seasons (and now the offensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks) — manned the position room along with assistant Zac Robinson. McVay would drop in.
The Rams’ previous two quarterbacks coaches — LaFleur and Zac Taylor (now the Cincinnati Bengals’ coach) — provided buffers between McVay and Goff.
McVay would be able to get his message, no matter how tough, to Goff through the quarterbacks coach, ensuring no disruption to the relationship.
“Sean is an amped-up guy; Jared was always calm and collected,” a team source said. “I thought they balanced each other out.”
But as the 2019 season progressed without the desired results, McVay began to coach Goff more directly and their dynamic began to slowly unravel.
“Sean got more involved, was tougher on Jared and didn’t realize that he wasn’t building him back up,” a league source said.
Goff complained to others about McVay and vice versa. The two wouldn’t sit down often enough to hammer the issues out, a league source said.
On the sideline, where emotional outbursts are not uncommon, “It gradually became more hostile, with McVay cussing out Goff, and Goff would feel crushed,” a league source said.
Despite those increasingly confrontational interactions, it appeared McVay and Goff successfully navigated a difficult stretch toward the end of the 2019 season. Though they missed the playoffs, the Rams won three out of five games to finish 9-7.
After averaging 20.6 points per game through the first 12 weeks, the offense upped its production to 27.6 points per game over the final five contests.
Goff was named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week after passing for 424 yards and two touchdowns in a Week 13 rout of the Arizona Cardinals. “I’m seeing a guy who’s been playing good football lately,” McVay said.
The following week, Goff passed 293 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions in a lopsided victory over the Seahawks. And despite losing 34-31 to the 49ers in a critical Week 16 game on a blown defensive coverage, Goff passed for 323 yards and two touchdowns with an interception.
McVay and Goff appeared to have their groove back.
Opposite personalities, increasing friction
Ultimately, the merger between the Type A, football-hyper personality of McVay and the laid-back Goff didn’t work.
Spend enough time around McVay and you’ll notice some common refrains. Among them, “Consistency is the truest measure of performance.” Throughout the 2020 season, McVay harped on Goff’s need to improve.
“Consistency is the biggest thing. I know it’s like a broken record, but it is the truth,” McVay said when asked what he wanted to see from Goff through the final quarter of the regular season.
“He was good this season,” a team source said about Goff. “Except when he was awful.”
With no Gurley, who was cut during the offseason, the Rams moved to running back by committee before rookie Cam Akers became the feature back late in the season. The O-line grew more cohesive after an uneven 2019, but after trading wideout Brandin Cooks to the Houston Texans, the offense lacked a deep-threat receiver to stretch a defense.
“At times, definitely we had the pieces,” Snead said when asked if he put enough talent around Goff to succeed. “But as a general manager, you’re going to always remember the losses or maybe the seasons that didn’t go quite as well as envisioned when the season started.”
Goff passed for 3,952 yards and 20 touchdowns, his fewest since his rookie season, with 13 interceptions.
Work ethic wasn’t an issue; Goff put in the hours. It was a matter of understanding, diagnosing and applying what was coached.
Goff struggled to recognize coverage disguises and didn’t consistently identify coverage post snap as the play developed. When a defense ran Cover 0 with no safeties deep, his decision-making process often didn’t happen quickly enough to hit the big play.
“As a quarterback, you can’t lose games,” a team source said. “We just needed him to manage it and do his part.”
The Rams had the NFL’s top-ranked defense in 2020 under first-year coordinator Brandon Staley, who is now the head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers. Led by NFL Defensive Player of the Year Donald and All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey, the Rams allowed a league-low average of 18.5 points per game.
For a second consecutive season — and despite hiring full-time offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell, who also served as quarterbacks coach — the offense was a glaring issue when coupled with a defense otherwise worthy of a Super Bowl run.
“It’s been a struggle of a year because we had a strong defense,” a team source said, “which put more pressure on our offense to play well.”
The lack of offensive productivity ate at McVay, who arrived in L.A. from Washington with an offensive acumen and proved to be an innovator in his first two seasons, constructing a high-scoring juggernaut behind 11 personnel (three receivers, a tight end and running back) and a lot of play-action.
McVay told people around him he felt as though he had to call every play perfectly for Goff. And Goff felt increasingly micromanaged as McVay continuously ramped up the complexity of his offense in an attempt to outscheme the defense, a league source said.
“There’s a handful of times, every single game, that you’re not proud of it, and then there was a lot of times when you did feel like you were getting some looks that you would hope for; sometimes it worked out, and sometimes it didn’t,” McVay said about his playcalling after the season. “I have high expectations and standards for myself and for our offense.”
Goff’s natural throwing talent was not an issue, but his inability to consistently use it became one.
Through seven games and a 5-2 start, Goff — with O’Connell, his fifth quarterbacks coach in five seasons — showed progress in the face of changing voices. It was a similar dynamic to what three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Alex Smith, who had five offensive coordinators in five seasons after being the No. 1 pick of the 49ers in 2005, struggled with early in his NFL career.
But it all crashed down in Week 8.
Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores, who previously was part of the Patriots’ defensive staff that dismantled the Rams’ offense in Super Bowl LIII, dialed up the pressure.
The Dolphins blitzed Goff on 26 dropbacks, the most he faced in a single game in 2020.
Goff averaged 2.6 seconds from the time of the snap to throw the ball, which his fourth-fastest time in 2020, and he passed for 355 yards and a touchdown.
However, too often Goff appeared confused and out of sorts, as he turned the ball over four times — two interceptions and two lost fumbles — and the Rams fell 28-17, losing to rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in his first NFL start.
“Our execution has to be better. I have to coach better, and I have to put our players in better positions, and that’s the bottom line,” McVay said after the loss, adding later, “This is a sick taste in your mouth.”
In the aftermath, McVay remained convinced the game plan should have worked, while Goff thought differently, a team source said.
Throughout the building, tension rose in regard to McVay’s handling of Goff, whom some thought the coach did not hold accountable like others.
“We get our ass chewed out for f—ups,” a team source said. “But the stuff with the quarterback gets swept under the rug.”
Goff rebounded the following two weeks. with a solid performance in a win against the visiting Seahawks and then helping to put on a show on Monday Night Football, passing for 376 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions in a road victory over eventual Super Bowl champion Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But the wheels came off again a week later in a fourth consecutive loss to the Niners, who won despite starting backup quarterback Nick Mullens and playing without several other key starters. Goff sat alone on the sideline after two first-half turnovers. He finished with 198 passing yards and three turnovers — two interceptions and a lost fumble.
A ‘taste’ for a new QB
At some point amid the inconsistent season, sources said McVay contemplated whether the Rams would be able to return to the Super Bowl with Goff at quarterback.
Tension with Goff had grown. On the sideline, McVay would routinely yell at his quarterback, but some noticed there came a point when McVay wouldn’t circle back to apologize. Some chalked it up to the competitive environment, others to McVay’s inability to hide his frustration with Goff.
For Goff, it became increasingly difficult how often his coach took aim at him — whether on the sideline, in meetings or the practice field.
“Sean lost touch with how much he was breaking Jared down, but there’s got to be the build back up,” a league source said. “[McVay] was either unaware or disinterested in protecting Jared’s confidence.”
In the trade aftermath, McVay admitted to communication breakdowns with his quarterback.
“I could have been much better about those real-time communications,” McVay said. “I’m not going to make any excuses about it, but there’s a lot of things, even some of the decision-making in games, are you consistently putting him in the right positions to be a success?”
After routing the visiting Patriots on Thursday Night Football, the Rams suffered another inexplicable loss — this time a 23-20 home defeat in Week 15 to the previously winless New York Jets.
With a division title at stake in Week 16 in Seattle, Goff stumbled again in a 20-9 loss. He passed for 234 yards with an interception he called the among the worst plays of his career, and he made a glaring error when he slid short of a first down. To Goff’s credit, he finished the game after breaking the thumb on his throwing hand upon smacking it an opponent’s helmet in the final seconds of the third quarter.
Goff underwent surgery the following day and had three screws inserted in anticipation of recovering quickly enough for a playoff run.
In the meantime, McVay had the opportunity to make the change at quarterback, starting undrafted free agent John Wolford in Week 17. Some in the organization were convinced McVay wanted to do it earlier but didn’t because of Goff’s contract.
“He didn’t have the balls to sit Jared,” a team source said.
Wolford, who hadn’t played in a regular-season game since joining the Rams in 2019, would make his first NFL start in a must-win home game against the Cardinals to earn a playoff bid.
“The worst thing for Jared,” a team source said, “is that [McVay] got a taste of John Wolford.”
With a hired nutritionist, throwing coach and personal trainer outside of the Rams’ facility, Goff put in the work required of most starting NFL quarterbacks. But when compared to Wolford, who some refer to as Baby Brees, it fell short.
Wolford arrived early during the week for practices — 6:30 a.m. — and stayed late, even when he was on the practice squad. “Just a different animal,” a league source said.
“He’s addicted like McVay,” a team source said.
The energy around the practice facility shifted when Wolford took over.
“It was just kind of an opportunity for John to breathe some life into the offense with his athleticism, intelligence,” a team source said.
Some players were excited about Wolford starting — not necessarily because they didn’t like Goff, but because they thought the mobile Wolford provided a spark.
Wolford overcame an interception on his first pass to throw for 231 yards in a 18-7 win over Arizona while rushing for a team-leading 56 yards.
With a wild-card playoff in Seattle up next, McVay decided early in the week Wolford would start, despite having yet to see Goff’s post-surgery recovery progress. Goff insisted he would be ready to play, but McVay’s decision was final, explaining a game plan would need to be installed to prepare Wolford.
“Functionality was going to be an issue with the thumb,” a team source said. “But I think it was probably that combination of, ‘Holy cow, we just saw John play, we got in rhythm, we kind of had a new game plan.'”
“The Arizona-Seattle weeks, those were our best weeks of practices,” another team source said. “The confidence of the team was high.”
Goff, 12 days removed from thumb surgery, was the only active backup against the Seahawks in the wild-card contest, a game-day decision that left some players confused about Goff’s availability should Wolford need to come out.
With 5:40 remaining in the first quarter, Wolford suffered a neck injury, and Goff was inserted. He proved — despite limited opportunity to practice the game plan throughout the week — he could lead the Rams to another playoff victory, closing out a 30-20 upset at Lumen Field.
Despite Goff’s improbable effort versus the Seahawks, questions again began brewing about who would start ahead of a divisional playoff at Green Bay.
Wolford ended up being ruled out late in the week because of the injury, but he did travel to Wisconsin; Goff would start.
However, if it were not for Wolford’s injury, several sources said McVay would have started him against the Packers.
When asked if Wolford would have started if he were available, McVay avoided answering the question.
“[McVay] was totally all-in 100 percent on starting Wolford over Goff,” a league source said.
“When we found out John couldn’t go,” a team source said, “we felt defeated.”
The desire for Wolford wasn’t unanimous, as Goff retained some supporters in the locker room.
“Jared was our starting quarterback,” another team source said.
Goff played well, completing 21 of 27 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown without committing a turnover inside freezing Lambeau Field, but the Rams’ defense couldn’t slow quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and the Packers won 32-18.
“My job is to win the game,” Goff said afterward, in what would become his final news conference as a Ram. “Thought I was able to do some good things out there today, but no, my job is to win the game; there’s absolutely no moral victories, especially in the playoffs.”
‘We are going to take big swings’
Opinions throughout the building on Goff — the football player — fluctuated. Some fully supported him; others thought a change would be beneficial.
In the trade aftermath, McVay reflected on their success, while taking responsibility for some shortcomings. McVay also made clear the two had communicated since the trade, something Goff told the Los Angeles Times had not happened after the deal.
“I’m not going to run away from the things that I could have been better for him as a leader and as a coach,” McVay said, adding, “We have had good conversations that were healthy, and I think we were able to communicate open and honestly with one another.”
Together, McVay and Goff won 42 games over four seasons — tying Goff with the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson for total wins and putting Goff second only to Brady over that span.
But the Rams’ chance to acquire Stafford, who turned 33 last month, was too great of an opportunity to get the offense back on track.
“Put simply, chance to bet on going from good to great at that position,” Snead said. “Especially from where our team was, our core group of players, where they were in their career, the coaching staff we have, felt like it was just too good of an opportunity to pass up.”
Goff, 26, admitted he took the initial news of the trade personally.
“At first, absolutely,” Goff said. “I think it builds that chip on your shoulder a little bit. I won’t lie about that. There is that little extra motivation and chip that you do feel.”
After the trade was agreed on, McVay and Stafford — who both were vacationing in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, according to Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer — celebrated their partnership with a dinner.
The Rams felt it was better to admit a mistake on a contract extension and move on than to make no changes and try to make another season work after two inconsistent seasons with Goff under center.
“Some decisions work; some don’t,” a team source said. “We are going to take big swings.” “It’s disappointing and unfortunate the way it ended.”
“I had so many great memories, made so many great friends, have so many great former teammates from there,” Goff said. “There’s so much I learned there and there’s no ill will. I want to move forward with my life and my career, and this is my next chapter.”
Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp wrote on social media: “Four years of growing and learning from each other. Appreciate Jared for more than just who he was on the field, but I owe him a debt of gratitude for any success I had while out there with him as well.”
In the end, the opinion that ultimately mattered belonged to McVay.
ESPN’s Michael Rothstein contributed to this report.
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