Coaching matters in the NFL. Sometimes it’s as much as getting 53 players to be a cohesive unit, other times it’s setting up a system that best fit a player’s skillset. The latter is what the Los Angeles Rams have gotten so far from new head coach Sean McVay and quarterback Jared Goff.
After Goff slogged through one of the worst rookie seasons for a quarterback last year under Jeff Fisher, the Rams hired McVay to help get the former No. 1 overall pick closer to his potential. Halfway through their first season together, that goal is already pretty close to being reached. Goff isn’t suddenly a top-five quarterback, but the quarterback and the offense have taken massive steps forward from whatever was going on in 2016.
There’s a drastic difference not just in how the offense has performed, but how it’s set up. McVay’s system has afforded Goff less stress and easier throws. The Rams are now the 10th-best passing offense this season per Football Outsiders’ DVOA after being 32nd by a wide margin last year.
One of the biggest keys in this has been pass protection. Giants fans might be sick of the Andrew Whitworth topic, but he is just one piece on a vastly improved Los Angeles offensive line. Protection played a big part in some of Goff’s struggles last season. When Goff got hit often, he would hurry his process in the pocket, which led to some poor throws and decisions.
Last season the Rams ranked 21st in pressure rate allowed on offense per Sports Info Solutions charting from Football Outsiders. This season, the Rams rank ninth.
Good protection can help open up any aspects of the passing game, especially play-action. Play-action can be a young quarterback’s best friend due to the easy, open throws it can create down the field when executed well. As offensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins and now head coach in Los Angeles, McVay has been able to create those open plays after faking the run. The Rams have run play-action of 25 percent of their passing plays this season, which is the fourth-highest rate in the league. Last year, that just was barely an option in the offense, just 16 percent of passes came on play-action, which ranked 26th.
Now it’s used to help set up big plays. The below play came against the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have the league’s best pass defense right now. On first down, Los Angeles comes out in 11 personnel (three wide receivers) but motions tight end Tyler Higbee into the backfield. On the play fake, all three Jacksonville linebackers bit and rush in to stop Todd Gurley. This opens up the intermediate middle of the field for Robert Woods (bottom of screen) on a post route and a gain of 22 yards.
This play came on a second-and-7 against the Arizona Cardinals. Again in 11 personnel, the play-action draw the defenders to Gurley, this time to the right of the offense and the movement of the linebackers allows Woods, the isolated receiver on that side, to have an open middle of the field.
Last season on throws down the middle between 10-20 yards, Goff had a passer rating of 8.8. That’s correct, eight-point-eight. This year, he’s at 89.3 and while that’s just about league average it’s a massive improvement.
These types of throws are more open and they have allowed Goff to not force the ball into tight windows like he had to do last season. Per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Goff threw into a tight window on 23.9 percent of his passes, the third highest rate in the league. This year, that’s down to 12.6 percent, the second-lowest rate among quarterbacks.
That doesn’t particularly mean Goff and the Rams have been less aggressive. Goff has thrown the ball on average a yard further down the field on all throws (8.5 to 7.4) and on third downs, Goff has thrown the ball a half yard past the first down marker, which is the eighth-best mark among quarterbacks. Aggressiveness on third down can be a telling indicator of quarterback quality and last season he was last in the league at 1.7 yards behind the first down.
Below is an example against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 4. It’s a third-and-4 from LA’s own 31 and the Rams run a 15-yard out to Sammy Watkins to easily pick up the first down.
McVay has also helped speed up the game for Goff and the offense. Per Football Outsiders, Los Angeles has the fastest offense on situation-neutral plays -- when the game is within one score. Last season, the Rams ranked 29th.
Through eight weeks, Goff ranks ninth among quarterbacks in yards per attempt and 11th in DVOA. There’s still improvements in his game that can be made, but he’s already so far ahead of what he looked like as a quarterback in 2016. If this upward trajectory continues throughout the rest of the season, this Rams team is going to be a tough one to face for years to come.