With Todd Gurley gone, Jared Goff must deliver under pressure for Rams

Gary Klein
LA Times
With the Rams letting Todd Gurley sign with the Atlanta Falcons in free agency, it's up to quarterback Jared Goff to be the focal point of the team's offense. <span class="copyright">(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)</span>
With the Rams letting Todd Gurley sign with the Atlanta Falcons in free agency, it's up to quarterback Jared Goff to be the focal point of the team's offense. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

A day after a disappointing Rams season ended in December, Jared Goff expressed optimism about his future, the team and Todd Gurley.

“He’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever had,” the quarterback said of the three-time Pro Bowl running back, whose productivity enabled Goff to flourish in the 2017 and 2018 seasons. “He handles everything every day, works hard and does his job.

“I’m glad he’s a teammate of mine.”

A little more than three months later, Gurley is gone. He was cut last month — a salary-cap casualty in part because of the massive $134-million extension the Rams awarded Goff before last season.

Consider: The day after the Rams cut Gurley to avoid paying him $10.5 million in bonuses, they deposited $21 million into Goff’s bank account.

Now Goff, the face of the franchise by virtue of his selection as the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft, is the undisputed focal point of an offense that was one of the NFL’s highest-scoring units in 2017 and 2018 before falling off last season.

After passing for 22 touchdowns in 2019, with a career-worst 16 interceptions, the pressure will be on Goff as Sean McVay attempts to rally a team that missed the playoffs for the first time in the coach’s three-year tenure.

McVay and general manager Les Snead said Gurley’s departure should not put all of the pressure on Goff.

“He’s got 10 other teammates around him that we'll expect to be able to do their task at a high level,” McVay said, adding of Gurley, “We certainly don't replace the production, the way that he's influenced and affected the game, but what we can continue to do is try to adjust and adapt.”

Said Snead: “We don’t think that puts pressure on Jared, but it’s up to all of us in the organization, all the way down to the players, to make sure that we do a better job in ‘20 than we did in ‘19 running the ball, being more balanced so that we can get back to … more like who we were in ‘17 and ‘18 and the back half of ‘19.”

While McVay and Snead have adopted an optimistic view, others are more circumspect. Without Gurley to ease the burden, Goff could feel the heat from all directions.

“The bottom line is: You understand that’s what the position is all about, that’s why they paid him a hundred and some million dollars,” said former Ram Kurt Warner, a Hall of Fame quarterback who works as an NFL Network analyst. “When you need to have the ball in your hands and win games you have to do it. ... You got the big contract, you made it to the Super Bowl and now you don’t have your guy.

“You got to prove that you can be that guy and why they paid you all that money. It’s a tough position to be in because … we see the dollar amount and we think that automatically should calculate to being able to do that. And there’s a lot of guys that make that much money that can’t do that, or haven’t shown that they can do that. So it’s high level of expectation.”

Dan Fouts, another Hall of Fame quarterback, said players at the position should embrace the scrutiny and responsibility of an offense being built around them.

“Being the focal point as a quarterback — that’s what you want,” said Fouts, an NFL analyst for CBS Sports. “You want to be Michael Jordan. You want to be the guy with the ball.”

Rams quarterback Jared Goff passes against the Arizona Cardinals on Dec. 29. <span class="copyright">(Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)</span>
Rams quarterback Jared Goff passes against the Arizona Cardinals on Dec. 29. (Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

Goff, 25, has enjoyed a number of shining moments in three-plus seasons as a full-time starter. He helped the Rams reach Super Bowl LIII. He was twice voted to the Pro Bowl.

But Goff achieved those feats with the aid of a superstar running back who created enormous advantages off play-action fakes. Gurley forced defensive coordinators to account for him on every play.

“So much of it is play-action and bootlegs and rollouts off the fake to Gurley,” Fouts said. “If the defense doesn’t respect who you’re faking to, as we saw a lot last year and even in the Super Bowl, you know they’re just not going to worry about the run.”

Gurley ran for a career-low 857 yards last season, but Goff still will feel his absence.

Just ask former Rams quarterback Jim Everett.

In 1987, the Rams traded Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson to the Indianapolis Colts.

“When you have a running back that defenses respect, it hurts when he leaves,” Everett said. “That’s very difficult. A good running back is a quarterback’s best friend.”

Now, with veteran Malcolm Brown and second-year pro Darrell Henderson set to replace Gurley — who signed with the Atlanta Falcons after the Rams cut him — Goff is not assured of benefiting from the same threat.

“The game’s going to go through him,” Everett said. “There’s no two ways about it. The game goes through Aaron Rodgers, the game goes through Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson.

“The game’s going through the quarterback.”

In 2017, McVay’s first season, the Rams ranked first in scoring and 10th in offense. Gurley was voted the NFL's offensive player of the year after helping lead the Rams to the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

The next season, the Rams were second in scoring and second in offense. Gurley was slowed and then sidelined because of a knee injury, but the Rams advanced to the Super Bowl.

Last season, they ranked seventh in offense and 11th in scoring.

After working without a titled offensive coordinator the last two seasons, McVay hired Kevin O’Connell for a non play-calling role similar to the one Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur filled for the Rams in 2017. O’Connell also will serve as the de facto quarterbacks coach. Thomas Brown replaced Skip Peete as running backs coach.

Those moves were made before the Rams cut Gurley.

“Now you get to see who Jared is and what he can become if they can’t generate a running game like that,” Warner said. “And I think the same with coach McVay. ... If they can’t do that anymore, now what do they become offensively? And how does that fit what Jared does, and what their team [does] and how they’re built, and all of those things.”

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