Here's why Rams are so stubborn about keeping No. 1 pick Jared Goff on bench

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·NFL columnist
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Jeff Fisher knew the question before he stepped to the podium on Sunday. Just as he knew it last week, last month – and every last second since the Los Angeles Rams selected Jared Goff No. 1 overall in the NFL draft. For months Fisher has endured it, like a parent tolerating a child in the backseat of the car.

Are we there yet?

No.

When will we get there?

We’ll get there when we get there.

Are we there yet?

Where it concerns the future of Jared Goff, the answer is no. Just as it has been for months. Fisher made that clear again, following Sunday’s 17-10 loss to the New York Giants in London. When it comes to Goff, the Rams aren’t there. And they won’t be there until … well … not until they get there. Whenever that is. Maybe after some contract extensions get signed. (Hang tight. We’ll get to that.)

Jared Goff is still waiting to take the reins as the No. 1 QB in Los Angeles. (AP)
Jared Goff is still waiting to take the reins as the No. 1 QB in Los Angeles. (AP)

“We’re staying with Case [Keenum],” Fisher said Sunday, answering the question about his starting quarterback before it was posed to him. “… I’ll make changes at receiver before I make a change at QB.”

It was a declarative moment that solidified support for Keenum and directed some blame for offensive mistakes at the players around him. It was a solid tactic, shielding a starting quarterback who threw four interceptions on Sunday from mounting calls for a change.

This still prompted a chorus of “Why?” – all punctuated with some nuance of Keenum posing as the picture of mediocrity. Take your pick: an 8-to-11 touchdown to turnover ratio; a 3-4 record as starter; a 77.5 passer rating; a three-game losing streak. These are the numbers people use. They’re simply the wrong numbers. Here’s the digit that matters: One.

As in, one shot to insert Goff into the most advantageous circumstances possible. One shot to get it right with him. And most important of all, one last card to play in the deck this season.

To a coach and general manager who have an Everest-like climb to that new Inglewood stadium in 2019, a monumental amount of job security rides on Goff. And that is unequivocally what this is all about. If Keenum fails this season, it means nothing to the long-term prospects of the franchise. But if Goff fails, it means the Rams leveraged the future of their team on a flawed centerpiece. That’s why Keenum is starting right now. Goff isn’t ready – and in the interim, Fisher and general manager Les Snead can survive Keenum’s failure.

Face it, team owner Stan Kroenke isn’t going to trigger some seismic event in his coaching staff or front office over a failing Keenum. That won’t be done because a low-level NFL starter (whose contract expires in a few months) failed to live up to expectations. But Goff? He’s the canary diamond. He’s everything. If there are some significant cracks found in Goff’s game, someone is losing their job.

Or in the case of Fisher or Snead, it’s possible someone doesn’t have their contract extended.

That’s the interesting variable in all of this. The Rams were in talks to extend both men last February. Then it became a pressing issue again in the summer. By September, word in the NFL’s personnel community was that extensions were imminent. Now we’re headed toward November and there is still no word of new deals. There is a possibility that extensions are finally inked next week during the bye. But considering how long this has dragged on, nothing seems guaranteed anymore.

And that’s where Keenum vs. Goff continues to be a potential watershed debate.

It would also be naïve to dismiss Goff’s value as an emergency option this Rams season. Sitting at 3-4, this team is far from dire straits. The next four opponents – the Carolina Panthers, New York Jets, Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints – collectively carry an 8-18 record, meaning the Rams could feasibly enter December at .500 or better.

What if that promising slate bites back, sending the Rams careening? Enter Jared Goff. The final ace in the deck. The guy who gives renewed hope and promise when things are breaking bad.

None of this is to say that Fisher isn’t to be believed when he says Goff isn’t ready. He certainly didn’t look ready in the preseason – something the staff wasn’t hiding. When Fisher and Snead spoke to Yahoo Sports in training camp, both said the same thing: That Goff needed time to acclimate to the playbook and that the Rams were committed to Keenum for as long as it took for fundamental progress to take root.

Could the success of other rookie quarterbacks – guys like Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz – have changed the timeline? Perhaps. There’s no denying the instant impact of those players puts far more pressure on Goff to produce, particularly when both were passed over by the Rams. But if you take the Rams only at their word, the truth is this story has never changed. No matter how much we refused to believe it.

When Fisher and Snead said before the draft that the No. 1 pick didn’t have to be ready to start from Day 1, we rolled our eyes. When they repeated it after selecting Goff, we assumed it was post-draft puffery. And when they both insisted the same thing – over and over – through the spring and summer, it felt like stalling the inevitable.

Now people are starting to understand that Goff really may not be ready. And that can be boxed inside several theories – almost all of them bad: patience; a draft mistake; a lack of ability to absorb a playbook; a security valve if the season goes bad, etc.

The truth is, we won’t know what caused the holdup until we see Goff playing in a regular-season game. When that changes, all mysteries will be penetrated. The Rams aren’t there yet, but they will get there.

Fisher and the Rams know they may get only one shot at this. And regardless of Keenum’s numbers in the interim, that one shot is the only digit that matters.

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