Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
-- The QB who could be poised to make a run at Patrick Mahomes' throne.
-- An under-the-radar candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.
But first, a look at the concerning downturn of a WELL-compensated passer ...
What's wrong with Jared Goff?
The football world has spent much of the 2020 season dissecting Carson Wentz's struggles, but lately, critical eyes are shifting focus to the QB who was taken one pick ahead of the Philadelphia Eagle. A disappointing series of performances from Goff -- the No. 1 overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft -- has diminished the Los Angeles Rams' chances of winning the NFC West and claiming one of the top seeds in the playoffs. Moreover, the recent spate of poor play has led to questions about Goff's ceiling and whether the Rams can ever win it all with a "system quarterback" at the helm.
Before you knock me for suggesting Goff is a scheme-dependent player, it's important to note that the overwhelming majority of the starting NFL quarterbacks need to be in a system that caters to their particular talents in order to thrive. The offensive coordinator must keep the QB's game in mind when designing plays or finalizing the call sheet. If the offense features a few top-notch playmakers on the perimeter, a "system quarterback" can deliver MVP-like production in the right environment. Don't believe me? Just look at how Matt Ryan performed in Kyle Shanahan's system in Atlanta. Playing in a scheme that accentuated his strengths and masked his flaws through an assortment of play-action passes and misdirection concepts, Ryan went from top-15 quarterback to NFL MVP.
Goff enjoyed a meteoric rise of his own after Sean McVay's arrival in Los Angeles. Following a brutal rookie season that saw Goff lose all seven of his starts while posting some ghastly numbers (54.6 completion percentage, 5.3 yards per attempt, 5:7 TD-to-INT ratio, 63.6 passer rating), people were already tossing out the B-word. But McVay hit Hollywood, and Goff became a pass-first point guard in an offense that routinely created wide-open layups and three-pointers. He torched defenses as a rhythm passer in a creative attack built on play-action passes and misdirection deep shots. During his first two years in McVay's system, Goff's numbers skyrocketed: 63.5 percent completions, 8.2 yards per attempt, 60:19 TD-to-INT ratio, 100.8 passer rating. Earning Pro Bowl honors in both of those seasons, Goff led the Rams to a 24-8 record, winning consecutive NFC West titles and making a Super Bowl appearance.
The marriage between play-caller, passer and the system looked like such an ideal fit that the Rams signed Goff to a four-year, $134 million extension with $110 million in guarantees before the 2019 season to keep the QB1 in place through 2024.
A season and a half later, though, there's growing concern about whether Goff's contract will be an albatross around the neck of the franchise, given how his game has regressed. In 2019, Goff's passer rating dropped back down to 86.5 and he threw a career-high 16 interceptions. In 2020, the turnover issues are rearing their ugly head again.
Since Week 8, Goff has an NFL-high 10 giveaways -- that's three more than the next-closest player, despite the fact that the Rams had a bye in Week 9. Overall, Goff's numbers fell off a cliff in November:
|W-L||Pass yds/att||TD-to-INT||Giveaways||Passer rating|
After Goff committed three turnovers in this past Sunday's three-point home loss to the San Francisco 49ers, McVay raised some eyebrows with a rare singling out of his quarterback.
"It's taking care of the football," McVay said. "Our quarterback has to take better care of the football."
To his credit, Goff took the comments in stride, saying he has "a great relationship" with McVay and can handle criticism. But given the four-game slump, what's going on with No. 16?
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, the quarterback is solid with his footwork and fundamentals when operating from a clean pocket. Goff sets up quickly and delivers dimes when he isn't under pressure. He continues to display masterful ball-handling and execution on play-action fakes, and fires the ball to his receivers within the strike zone on intermediate throws between the numbers. When Goff is able to play in rhythm, he is as good as any quarterback in football.
That said, the veteran has struggled when opponents disrupt the timing of the Rams' passing game through pressure or tight coverage. As a play-action-heavy team, the Rams rely on deception to create easy opportunities for the quarterback. The combination of offensive line movement and ball fakes lures second-level defenders to the line of scrimmage, leaving huge voids for Goff to exploit on an assortment of mid-range routes. The tactics worked brilliantly during the first half of the season, with Goff connecting on 69.2 percent of his play-action passes over the opening eight games, posting sparkling numbers across the board: 8.8 yards per attempt, 6:0 TD-to-INT ratio, 115.7 passer rating. Goff was able to generate outstanding production via play-action while only tossing the ball an average of 6.4 air yards per attempt.
Over the past three games, though, he has completed just 63.3 percent of his throws off play-action, with slashed figures everywhere else, too: 7.0 yards per attempt, 0:3 TD-to-INT ratio, 44.7 passer rating. Goff is actually averaging 8.3 air yards per attempt, but posting significantly diminished returns. Why?
McVay has changed his play-calling emphasis to feature more traditional play-action passes instead of the stretch-bootleg combinations that were so effective earlier in the season. During the first four weeks of the season, per Next Gen Stats, the Rams' play-action stretched outside of the tackle box on 28.3 percent of play-action dropbacks. Since Week 5, that figure has dropped to 19.5 percent. The decrease in movement passes (bootlegs/nakeds) is puzzling, based on Goff's efficiency and effectiveness on such plays this season.
Just check out this breakdown of Goff's play-action production in 2020, courtesy of NGS:
|Dropbacks||Comp pct||Yds per att||TD-to-INT||Passer rating|
|PA inside tackle box||105||64.4||7.8||4:3||88.9|
|PA outside tackle box||32||80.0||10.6||2:0||133.2|
What does that tell us? McVay deserves blame here, too, for failing to put his quarterback in the best position to succeed. The coach should consider utilizing more bootlegs and naked passes to get his quarterback into a groove.
The stretch-bootleg concepts create hesitation for the defense, giving Goff layups in the flat (bootlegs frequently feature an eligible receiver in the flat with an intermediate crosser working across the field at 10-to-12 yards). The catch-and-run nature of these completions enables the quarterback to pick up cheap yards on throws that travel fewer than 5 yards. Given Goff's effectiveness and efficiency in executing bootlegs, it makes sense for the Rams to scheme them up more to help the QB1 repair his confidence over the next few weeks.
As a quarterback who is heavily reliant on his play-caller to craft a plan that gives him the best chance to succeed, Goff's failures are really a byproduct of McVay not being on his game. If the offensive wizard wants his QB1 to perform better down the stretch, it is on him to maximize Goff's strengths, instead of calling a series of plays that highlight some of the 26-year-old's deficiencies as a rhythm passer.
DINK AND DUNK
Deshaun Watson making history ... and just scratching the surface. It is hard to say with a straight face that a quarterback making $40 million per year is a bargain, but the Texans might look back at the four-year, $160 million extension Deshaun Watson signed before the season as the biggest steal in franchise history. The fourth-year pro is playing the best ball of his career and he might even push Patrick Mahomes for the NFL's QB1 spot before it is all said and done.
I know we've handed the crown to the reigning Super Bowl MVP (who could indeed be on his way to a second league MVP) based on his remarkable achievements in Kansas City, but Watson is breathing down his neck as a special talent finding his groove in the post-Bill O'Brien era.
In fact, the two-time Pro Bowl selectee is on pace to become just the fourth quarterback in NFL history with 4,500-plus pass yards, a passer rating of at least 110.0 and fewer than 10 interceptions in a single season, per NFL Research. The three players who have accomplished that feat each won the MVP award in that particular season (Tom Brady in 2007; Aaron Rodgers in 2011, Matt Ryan in 2016).
Think about that. Watson is playing at an MVP level for a losing team (4-7) that recently dismissed a general manager/head coach. It is unusual to see a quarterback thrive while his team racks up losses, but Houston's signal-caller is doing things we've never seen before. Watson's passer rating (112.5) is the highest in NFL history by a quarterback with a sub-.500 record (minimum nine starts). And he would be the first quarterback in league history to have a passer rating of at least 110.0 for a full season and finish with a losing record.
His play since O'Brien's dismissal really stands out. Since Week 5 (Romeo Crennel's first game as interim head coach), the Texans' QB1 ranks first in pass yards per attempt (9.0), first in passer rating (120.3), second in combined pass and rush yards per game (334.9) and third in touchdown-to-interception ratio (18:2) among the 33 quarterbacks with 100-plus pass attempts during that span.
His ability to put forth such a sterling performance without the original architect of the offense speaks volumes about Watson's intelligence, adaptability and independence as a quarterback. He has found a way to make the Texans' offense work while directing a unit that lacks a true No.1 receiver and a respectable running game (Houston ranks second-to-last in rushing yards per game). With the Texans also breaking in a first-year play-caller (Tim Kelly), Watson's jaw-dropping performance has revealed his greatness as a dynamic QB1.
If Watson is capable of providing historic production with dysfunction around him, imagine what he could do with a five-star supporting cast and an offensive wizard guiding him.
Is the Defensive Player of the Year in Miami? If you haven't paid close attention to the Dolphins' defensive resurgence, you've probably missed the emergence of a superstar at cornerback. Xavien Howard has blossomed into arguably the best cover corner in football with a unique set of skills that should thrust him into the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year.
The Patriots' Stephon Gilmore won the award a season ago, but it is rare for voters to recognize a cornerback as the best defender in football. Five other CBs have received the honor since it was first awarded in 1971: Charles Woodson (2009), Deion Sanders (1994), Rod Woodson (1993), Lester Hayes (1980) and Mel Blount (1975). Each member of that distinguished list was recognized as a shutdown corner and three of them are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame (with another, Charles Woodson, en route to enshrinement). It is obviously too soon to proclaim Howard a future gold-jacket recipient, but the 27-year-old displays a mix of ballhawking skills and lockdown ability that's hard to find at the position.
Howard leads the league with sevens picks this season and has the most interceptions in the league since 2017 (18) despite missing 15 games over that span. That is stunning production. Consider this: His career interceptions-per-game rate (0.37) is better than that of Ronnie Lott (0.33), Rod Woodson (0.30), Sanders (0.28), Charles Woodson (0.26), Champ Bailey (0.24) and Darrelle Revis (0.20). And since 2017, he's allowed the second-lowest passer rating (55.8) among cornerbacks who have been targeted 100 or more times, per Next Gen Stats.
As a combination of ballhawk and play eraser, Howard is quickly becoming the premier playmaker on the island. He excels in man and zone coverage, with his footwork, fundamentals and technique enabling him to snuff out receivers whether he's playing bump-and-run or from distance. In addition, Howard's exceptional instincts, awareness and diagnostic skills shine when he plays with vision on the quarterback. He has a knack for reading routes and anticipating throws. Most importantly, he catches the ball when it is within his vicinity. As you might expect, none of this is lost on his defensive coordinator, Josh Boyer.
"He's really put in consistent and good all-around performances from a run-game standpoint, a pass-game standpoint, as far as his technique at the line of scrimmage, his leverage in pass coverage, his technique at the top of the route," Boyer told Omar Kelly of the Sun Sentinel. "He's really becoming a complete corner and doing it very consistently for a long period of time.
"It's really a credit to him and his work ethic that we're seeing strides on a week-in and week-out basis."
Hopefully, those strides won't go unnoticed when it comes time to recognize the best defensive performers of the 2020 season.