CALABASAS, Calif. -- Jared Goff plopped himself into a comfortable chair on the back patio of his Hidden Hills home last Thursday evening, smiling at a socially distanced guest at the other end of a round, glass table. The quarterback was barefoot and expectant about the season to come.
In the wake of a disappointing 2019 campaign -- and the most surreal offseason in NFL history -- the 25-year-old believes he and the Los Angeles Rams are headed for an emphatic bounce-back. Beginning Sunday night against the Dallas Cowboys at brand-new SoFi Stadium, in front of a massive television audience but with zero fans in the stands, Goff will attempt to help redirect the Rams' trajectory back toward Super Bowl contention as a skeptical football-watching public moves on to brighter and shinier things.
In the stacked NFC West, with the defending champion San Francisco 49ers now at the top of the heap and the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals also generating ample excitement, the Rams are regarded by many as almost an afterthought. Goff gets it -- but the two-time Pro Bowl passer concedes nothing as he prepares for his fifth NFL season.
"There were a lot of things that I've learned from last season that I know I'm better from," Goff told me. "And sometimes you need, you know, a punch in the face, a kick in the face, like, 'Oh man -- I can be better than that.' (But) we didn't have a catastrophe of a year, and that's what it seems to be thought of often when you're coming off a really good year.
"Every year, there seem to be different storylines and different narratives that people want to perpetuate. The Niners had a great year, and so did the Seahawks, and the Cardinals are ascending -- they are a better team than they were last year, at least on paper. Those teams deserve that. It's a tough division. But at the same time, we've gotten better, and I've gotten better. And it's gonna be a fun year."
Twenty months earlier, Goff and I sat in the same backyard for an NFL Network feature that ran on the afternoon of Super Bowl LIII. He was a few days removed from a gritty and clutch NFC Championship Game performance in New Orleans, and the former No. 1 overall pick appeared to be on the verge of showcasing his California Cool on the sport's grandest stage.
Super Sunday turned out to be a massive buzzkill for Goff, who played poorly in a 13-3 defeat to the New England Patriots and then did everything he could to shoulder the blame for his team's offensive ineptitude, despite coach Sean McVay's efforts to do the same.
After signing a four-year, $134 million contract extension five days before the start of the 2019 season, Goff led the Rams to a 3-0 start, and optimism abounded. Then L.A. lost its next three games and Goff leveled off, enduring a two-month stretch of statistically subpar play during which he threw more interceptions (nine) than touchdowns (seven). Despite a strong December, Goff finished with 16 picks and an 86.5 passer rating -- after having been over 100 in each of the previous two season -- and the Rams, winners of the previous two NFC West titles, missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record.
You know the rest: A global pandemic hit, and as hundreds of millions stayed home to try to stem the spread of COVID-19, the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer triggered a wave of protests against racial injustice and police brutality -- and provoked raw and emotional exchanges in virtual meeting rooms across the NFL landscape.
It also helped stir something in Goff, who has locked in on his leadership role and exuded a palpable sense of urgency as a pivotal season approaches.
"There's a new edge to him," said Andrew Whitworth, the Rams' veteran left tackle. "He's got more fight in him, to me. He's always been an exceptional young man with talent. But he's becoming more a young man willing to realize it's all on him to lead and get his team moving forward -- to put it on himself to make it happen, rather than waiting for it to happen to him. He's embraced that."
Goff's transformation transcends football; he's acutely attuned to his peers' perspectives when it comes to the fight against racial inequities. Like many white players, the quarterback was moved by what he heard from many of his African-American teammates in those virtual meetings that occurred in the wake of Floyd's death this past spring. Having grown up in Novato, a largely white suburb north of San Francisco, Goff enjoyed a relatively sheltered existence. At Cal, he took some classes that made him further cognizant of the struggles experienced by minorities, but this time he connected with their collective pain on a more personal level.
"I think this offseason, specifically with what's gone on, has definitely hit me differently than anything before," Goff said. "I would imagine it's centered around hearing stories from my own teammates about some of the ways they've been treated, actually hearing that firsthand. It was just one after another -- teammates, coaches, staff members -- just allowing them to speak their heart out and speak from their experiences.
"As a white guy from a primarily white area, a lot of that stuff is eye-opening and changes the way you see things. You always knew that there were injustices going on against Black people in different communities, but you never really were affected by it, to an extent. As a white person, it's not directly affecting you. You say, 'That doesn't exist near me. ... That's not on the West Coast.'
"And I think when I was able to really listen and hear some of my teammates talk, guys I consider my brothers -- and it affects you differently. Sure enough, you hear guys that are from the West Coast talk about some of the stuff (they've experienced) and you're like, 'Man -- this is obviously not OK.' You really want to act out and want to stand up for them and want to be an ally for them. And just having those continued conversations, that continued dialogue and being a good listener. I think I've learned so much this offseason."
Consequently, Goff plans to translate his principles into action, beginning with an initiative he's announcing Tuesday that launches an ongoing association with the Inglewood Unified School District -- serving a predominantly African-American city near the Los Angeles Airport where SoFi Stadium sits. In what he calls "an effort to help level the educational playing field," Goff purchased scholastic backpacks for 1,000 first-through-third graders. He also announced that the apparel company he launched last year, JG16, will donate all proceeds from merchandise sales to the school district in perpetuity, with Goff matching every dollar.
As Goff explained last Thursday, "Ultimately, I see this building to where I'm able to give a lot of these kids college scholarships."
Said tight end Tyler Higbee: "It's about right and wrong, and he sees that. It shows what type of guy he is when he is willing to step forward, speak up and take initiative with issues off the field."
Goff expects that the locker room conversations about structural racism will continue -- and concedes that things could reach a tipping point if another high-profile incident were to take place during the season. Just as the shooting of Jacob Blake by a Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officer led the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks to walk out on a playoff game last month, with numerous teams across the professional sports landscape following suit, Goff believes he and his Rams teammates could find themselves in a similar situation this fall.
"I mean, if the Jacob Blake incident happened on the Saturday before a Sunday game, I would imagine there would be conversations not to play ... and I would imagine a lot of people wouldn't want to play," said Goff, who believes the team would make a collective decision. "And you hope that doesn't happen ever again, but if it were to, those discussions will be had."
Goff's desire to speak out against injustices falls in line with his continued evolution as a leader. Just as McVay was heartened by the quarterback's willingness to take ownership for his part in the team's disappointing Super Bowl LIII effort, the fourth-year coach appreciates Goff's push for societal change.
"He's got a heart for people and he's really been listening," McVay said. "I think he's really been enlightened and gotten a perspective from so many of our players and coaches who were able to share their experiences. And I think it's really touched him and he wants to be able to take action and do what he can to try to be part of the solution, to be able to speak out against some of these inequalities that have gone on far too long."
In terms of football preparation, Goff took charge in June when he organized informal workouts during the protracted period when players weren't allowed inside team facilities. From flying in teammates who don't spend their offseasons in the Los Angeles area to coordinating drills and practice plans with defensive backs Jalen Ramsey and John Johnson, Goff tried to make the best of a challenging situation.
"That was something Jared took the lead on, and without a doubt it led to our whole team getting better," wide receiver Cooper Kupp said. "We had a solid group of guys that were able to get together and get some great work in, learn our systems and get some invaluable competitive reps against each other."
Said Goff: "It wasn't anything close to what a real practice would be, but we ran seven-on-seven and we were able to run plays as an offense. We had to move fields a few times because of COVID (restrictions), and were getting kicked out of the high school here -- we actually ended up using three different high schools. But we got a couple of weeks of really good work in."
Goff's excitement about the Rams' 2020 offensive prospects stems largely from a late-season stretch that featured three victories in their final five games -- along with a heartbreaking road defeat to the 49ers that extinguished the team's playoff hopes. During that stretch, McVay energized the team's attack by deviating more from the "11" personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers) that has served as the Rams' primary formation, injecting players like Higbee into the passing game and moving the pocket to reduce stress on the team's struggling offensive line.
The offseason departures of running back Todd Gurley, a former All-Pro whose effectiveness has been reduced by persistent knee pain, and wide receiver Brandin Cooks increased the outside skepticism about the Rams' offensive prospects. But McVay and Goff are excited about the expected emergence of tight end Gerald Everett and wide receiver Josh Reynolds, a fortified offensive line (with right tackle Rob Havenstein having returned to health after being hobbled by a knee injury in 2019) and the injection of a pair of potential impact rookies (running back Cam Akers and wide receiver Van Jefferson, both second-round draft picks) into the mix.
"I think it's really just about executing more efficiently and then being able to utilize all the skill players that we have, whether that's mixing up your personnel groupings or activating guys to different spots," McVay said. "It's really looking at the things that we didn't do well, and being able to make sure that we get those things fixed. And I think the big thing is, just running the football more efficiently on early downs -- usually, a lot of other good things follow if you're able to do that."
Said Goff: "I think that's the best thing about Sean: his humility. As good a coach as he is, he's the first one to look inward. Last year, those last five or six games, we really started involving more of our offense, so we didn't live or die by one thing."
And as for the most important man on the offense? Well, Goff concedes that he needs to play better than he did in 2019, beginning with reining in his desire to bail out the team when adversity hits.
"I think I tried to do too much, for sure," Goff said. "That was definitely part of it. Whenever things aren't going exactly how you want them to, as the quarterback, you want to fix it -- you always want to make it right, right now.
"I'm super hard on myself, and that's always been the way I am. Ever since I was at Cal, I was always looking internally -- how can I be better? How can I fix it? How can I make it right? You beat yourself up about it and you look back at some of those games and say, 'Man, if I just didn't make that throw there ... if I made that throw there ... if I made that decision differently there.' You think about that for the whole offseason. But it's something I've learned from and will look back on and get better from. And my process and confidence hasn't changed one bit because of last year."
One area in which Goff has noticeably improved -- and which was on full display in that 34-31 defeat to the Niners in December -- is his ability to throw on the move.
"It's something I've really worked on -- going back to my rookie year, just noticing it as a flaw in my game," Goff said. "And I'm really, really working on it every offseason, with (private throwing coach) Adam Dedeaux and those guys at 3DQB. It's part of my daily routine now, just something I do every day is work on those throws on the run. It's to the point now where I'm confident in any throw when I'm making any movement on any part of the field, and it really, really opens up our offense."
As always in 2020, all eyes will be on the man executing McVay's attack, with plenty of accompanying scrutiny. In Goff's estimation, he has never been more ready -- or eager -- to lead.