Guest column by Damon Gulczynski
Jared Goff, to put it diplomatically, did not have the rookie season he was hoping for. The first overall pick in the 2016 draft, it became clear early in the preseason to the Rams' coaching staff (and to people watching HBO's Hard Knocks) that Goff was not going to be the type of quarterback to start in the NFL right away. Although that must have been slightly concerning to Rams fans (assuming they still exist), sitting on the bench for a while is certainly not a death knell for a young quarterback. Plenty of good quarterbacks have struggled early to adapt to the pro game.
As the season progressed, however, and the Rams' playoff chances began to quickly spiral down the drain for the 11th year in a row, the decision not to play Goff became more and more curious. The Rams were foundering on the field once again; their current starting quarterback (Case Keenum) was a replacement-level filler; they were back in Los Angeles and surely wanted to give their new/old (hypothetical?) fans some hope for the future; their head coach was on the hot seat and likely needed to showcase something positive from the team's large investment at quarterback to save his job. How unready could Goff possibly be to not get a chance under these circumstances?
We found out the answer in Week 11 when Goff finally made his first start: very. He was very unready.
Goff played the remaining seven games of the season without picking up a win. Much more disconcerting than his record was his performance. Goff was a disaster, so much so that if Rams management wanted to give up on him and start looking for a new quarterback of the future after the season, it would have been tough to criticize them for doing so. I'm not saying they should have done so, but if they had, it would be a completely reasonable decision. My rationale for this is illustrated in three tables below.
First, I gathered data for all quarterbacks drafted in the top ten overall since 1987. I took the first season in which each of these quarterbacks recorded at least 200 pass plays (by Football Outsiders' numbers -- counting sacks and defensive pass interference penalties, but not clock-killing spikes), and sorted all these seasons by DVOA from worst to best. All seasons with a DVOA below 20.0% are listed below.
|Worst Debuts as Starting QB, Top-Ten Draft Picks, 1987-2016|
|* First season in which player had at least 200 pass plays.|
As one would expect, this list contains pretty much every quarterback bust of the last 30 years -- Gabbert, Russell, Smith, Leaf, they're all there. It does contain a few very good players, notably Hall of Famer Troy Aikman. But this isn't all that comforting for Goff fans, when you consider that although Aikman is on the list, his bad first season was still better than Goff's. And that's an immediate corollary of the fact that everybody's bad first season was better than Goff's. Goff is at the very top of the bad first season list, and he's markedly worse than everybody from No. 3 (Ryan Freakin' Leaf!) down. His only close companion at the top is Kelly Stouffer, and as you will find out shortly, that is not great quarterbacking company to keep.
In the next table, in an attempt to find at least one positive comp for Goff, I considered the first season with at least 200 passes of each quarterback since 1987 who had achieved some success, defined in this way:
- He had five or more NFL seasons with 12 or more starts each, or is currently a starting quarterback in the NFL.
- He ranked in the top half of the league in passing DVOA at least two seasons.
- He was the primary starter on a team that made the playoffs
I figure this is very close to the absolute minimum level of achievement Goff would need to attain in order to have his career be deemed somewhat of a success. I then sorted the seasons of each quarterback who fit these criteria by DVOA from worst to best. In the table below I include all those with a DVOA less than -10.0%.
|Worst First Seasons by "Successful" QBs, 1987-2015|
This table is even worse for Goff. Now there is nobody particularly close to him. Worse, there are only 11 names, illustrating just how unlikely it is to go from even a moderately bad first season to even a moderately successful career. And Goff's first season was much worse than moderately bad, which brings me to Table 3. Here I list all seasons since 1987 for a quarterback with at least 200 passes and a DVOA below -45.0%. These are the very worst years in the FO database.
|Worst Single-Season Passing DVOA|
|Minimum 200 pass plays.|
Again, we find Jared Goff at the top the list -- the worst of the worst. Somehow Goff was less efficient than a quarterback who threw nine interceptions and no touchdowns. Even more troubling, he was worse than Kelly Stouffer.
Although few fans probably remember Stouffer, he occupies his own little nook in NFL history for being one of the quarterbacking costars (along with Stan Gelbaugh and Dan McGwire) of the 1992 Seahawks -- arguably the worst passing team since the forward pass became a thing as we know it. As an avid Seattle sports fan since the mid-'80s, I can tell you first-hand how bad the 1992 Seahawks were. My favorite stat about them is that even though they a decent running game and a very good defense, they never scored more than 17 points in a game. I couldn't even win with them on Madden -- they were too dreadful for even virtual success. And Jared Goff last season was worse than their worst primary quarterback.
The most encouraging name in the table above for Rams fans is definitely Donovan McNabb. The ex-Eagle had a legitimately terrible first season (which was still nontrivially better than Goff's) before putting together a near-Hall of Fame career. But the thing about McNabb is that it took him many years to develop into a top-notch passer. In the interim, however, he was still able to generate value on the field in large part by running the ball and by scrambling to keep plays going… and going… and going. Being that Goff is a pocket passer who ran for a total 16 yards last season, any McNabb comp feels like a big stretch.
Alex Smith -- the only other guy on the last table who was or has been a good quarterback over a sustained period of time -- is also an imperfect comp for Goff, but he's a better one than McNabb. And Smith was actually once worse than Goff. His rookie 2005 campaign came up a bit short of the 200-pass threshold, but it's still worth considering:
|Rookie Seasons: Alex Smith vs. Jared Goff|
Precedent has been set! There is still hope for Goff. If everything goes exactly right for him, he might someday get benched for a quarterback who in turn will get benched for Blaine Gabbert!
Snark aside, this does show at the very least that it would not be totally unheard of for Goff to develop into a useful quarterback. But that is essentially the case for optimism for Jared Goff: 192 passes from Alex Smith 12 years ago, and the truism that anything can happen. There's just not a lot there to hang one's hat on.
Damon Gulczynski is a life-long Seahawks fan who writes about sports as a hobby; his recent work has also appeared at Football Perspective.