Rams QB Jared Goff’s leadership will be put to the test

THOUSAND OAKS — Jared Goff begins his fifth season as the Rams’ quarterback facing expectations as high as the SoFi Stadium roof after coaches and teammates spent the summer praising his improved mobility, his growing command of the offense, and his own rising confidence.

Whether that’s truly what they see, or what they hope to see, we’ll begin to find out Sunday night when the Rams open the 2020 season against the Dallas Cowboys at their new home in Inglewood.

This much is certain: The Rams need a big year from Goff, 25, after the release of running back Todd Gurley left the offense in the quarterback’s hands more than ever.

They talk about his ability to shrug off bad moments and get on with the next.

“He never dwells on the past,” wide receiver Robert Woods said. “He lets things go – bad play, good play. Super positive. That’s what we love to see.”

But can he move on from a bad season the same way?

There are reasons to think so.

In a sport that quickly turns young men into elder statesmen, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft is one of only four members of that season’s offensive roster still with the team.

Tackle Rob Havenstein, in his sixth year now, said Goff has “amped up” his leadership.

“He’s very focused. He takes everything super serious, but you can see that there is a different gear with the way he’s preparing, the way he’s thinking about things,” Havenstein said. “Where he’s coming into the huddle and guys are feeling that presence of like, ‘All right, we’re all in this sucker together, we’re going to get it done.’”

Tight end Tyler Higbee, who came into the NFL the same year as Goff, has said his friend is in “the best shape of his life” after an offseason diet and workout program. And that’s only the beginning.

“I think his leadership skills have even taken another step,” Higbee said. “He’s just getting better every year. I don’t see anything else but him taking that next step this year.”

Malcolm Brown, the fifth-year running back who should have the largest role of his career this season, said it has been “a joy to watch” Goff mature from the rookie he knew to the take-charge veteran he sees now.

“When he’s speaking (in the huddle), everybody is listening,” Brown said. “He’s a talented guy, and he just keeps growing, to be able to take command like he has over these years, to be the guy,”

When it comes to leadership, the closest Goff comes to self-aggrandizement is when he talks about the importance of cultivating relationships with all of his teammates and being “the guy that everyone knows.”

More than that, this year Goff becomes the guy everyone sees as the focus of the offense after four years of handing off to Gurley, the two-time All-Pro and 2017 NFL Offensive Player of the Year.

In a sense, it has always been true that as goes Goff, so go the Rams. Rank his four seasons using the NFL’s passer ratings, and they correlate to the team’s records. His best year (101.1 rating, eighth in the league) was 2018, when they went 13-3 and won the NFC championship. His worst was the half-season he played in 2016, when they went 4-12.

Last year was Goff’s second-worst, his 86.5 passer rating ranking 22nd in the league, and the Rams’ 9-7 record was their second-worst in this stretch.

The cause and effect can be reversed, of course. Goff’s numbers could be a reflection of the team’s performance as much as they’re the cause.

It will be easier for him if Gurley’s ballcarrier workload is effectively picked up by Brown, rookie Cam Akers and second-year Darrell Henderson, the three backs Goff called a “three-headed monster.” It will be easier if the traded-away Brandin Cooks’ third-wide-receiver role behind Woods and Cooper Kupp is effectively divided between Josh Reynolds and rookie Van Jefferson, adding variety to the passing game. It will be easier if the young blockers in the middle of the offensive line pick up where they left off at the end of an often-difficult 2019 season.

McVay acted to make things easier for Goff when he hired Kevin O’Connell, the former San Diego State quarterback, NFL backup and Washington offensive coordinator, to be the Rams’ offensive coordinator and unofficial quarterbacks coach.

“He’s been really good, and you can tell he knows what he’s doing and has done it at a high level,” Goff said of O’Connell in August. “It always helps when you have a guy coaching you that has played the position as well.”

O’Connell hasn’t seen Goff’s leadership style evolve, but he said he likes the result.

“I’ve seen the guys really respond to him,” O’Connell said. “His teammates know that he has their back, he’s willing to be out in front of this thing, and when things don’t go well I’ve been really proud of him to step up and say, ‘Hey, that’s on me. Here’s how we are going to fix it’ or ‘Let’s get back up there and fix it.’

“Whose fault (it is) doesn’t matter. It’s about being a leader, and it’s about taking control and accountability of the group.”

Those are intangibles. What will the fans – watching on TV – see from Goff when the Rams start playing?

Said O’Connell: “I think if his play on Sunday night comes off confident, decisive and has some urgency to it, it’ll mean that mentally and physically he’s comfortable with not only our plan, but the fundamentals and the discipline that we’re looking for in the position from a decision-making standpoint, timing standpoint. I think hopefully those things are visible.”