Jared Goff and the Rams still have a lot to prove

Last season, Jared Goff took a leap — a big one — elevating himself from the group of still-unproven young quarterbacks in the National Football League and into the tier reserved for guys with tenure. He helped the Los Angeles Rams reach the Super Bowl, got rewarded with a fat new contract, and seemed to enter the 2019 season upwardly mobile in every regard.

Yet four weeks (and only one defeat) into the new campaign, Goff heads to Thursday night’s clash with the Seattle Seahawks (on FOX at 8:20 p.m. ET) in danger of being sucked back into the pack, with questions and concerns raised over his performance to date.

As strong and solid as he looked last year, the 24-year-old has struggled to adapt to the changing circumstances around him. The Rams’ offensive line has failed to be the virtual brick wall of last season, star running back Todd Gurley has been limited by Sean McVay’s coaching staff (and perhaps by injury), and Goff has been unable to pick up the slack.

Even the team’s 3-0 start was not particularly convincing, squeezing out narrow wins against the Carolina Panthers and Cleveland Browns and benefitting from a Drew Brees injury while taking down the New Orleans Saints. Then last Sunday, things blew up spectacularly against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on a weird afternoon of football.

The Rams fell behind 21-0, fought back to 48-40 in the waning seconds and were driving down the field. The deficit allowed Goff the freedom to sling the ball like in his college days. He tossed for a monstrous 517 yards (tied for the eighth-most in NFL history) and completed 45 passes (tied for the most all-time in an NFL game). Ultimately, however, his three interceptions and one fumble (which ended that late drive and was returned for a touchdown) cemented Tampa Bay’s stunning 55-40 win.

Goff is now tied for the league lead in interceptions with six and has fumbled four times in as many games, leading The Ringer to speculate whether his small hands (which were a pre-draft concern in 2016) could be to blame.

According to FS1’s Nick Wright on First Things First, Thursday’s showdown at CenturyLink Field could have far-reaching repercussions, especially with Gurley coming off just five carries in the Ram’s last game and the star running back’s longstanding, vocal opposition to Thursday games.

“If you can’t rely on Todd Gurley, you have to rely on Jared Goff,” Wright said. “Jared Goff has to play a clean game. He has 20 turnovers in his last 12 games. Aaron Rodgers has 20 turnovers in his last 38 games.

“The loser of Rams-Seahawks will be in third place in the NFC West. There’s going to be an 11-win team that doesn’t win their division. In the NFC, when you have only three teams with a losing record, your only clear path to the playoffs is winning the division.”

Virtually no quarterback is going to stack up well when statistically compared to Rodgers, but that’s the comp people will immediately leap to when you (a) come out of Cal and (b) get paid like an absolute boss going into the new season. Goff’s contract extension is worth $134 million over four years, with an NFL-record $110 million of it guaranteed.

The situation for the Rams has been complicated by the surprising early form of the San Francisco 49ers, who sit at 3-0 and are relishing their unexpected opportunity to turn the NFC West into a drawn-out dogfight. FiveThirtyEight gives the Rams a 68 percent shot of making the playoffs, with a 41 percent chance to win the division.

This is the first time since McVay’s appointment that the team does not hold at least a share of the division lead. Things aren’t going to be so comfortable this time. FOX Bet has the team at +1100 to win the Super Bowl, making them the third-favorite overall, behind only the Patriots and the Chiefs, and only barely ahead of the Saints, Cowboys, and Eagles.

The season is still early, but the Rams will be looking for improvement from Goff — and quickly. Adaptation is part of the process for any young QB, and an essential one if he is to avoid getting dragged back into the pack of mid-level signal callers.

Another factor making things tough is that Goff has been unable to maximize the downfield threats of Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks and use his natural arm strength, relying obsessively on the short route speed of Cooper Kupp. That reality is likely exacerbated by Gurley’s mysterious physical struggles, allowing defenses to sit deeper and protect deep throws more effectively.

Last week, NFL.com placed Goff 14th on its quarterback index, which seems low if you’re giving credit for what he is capable of, rather than his actual output. For his part, Goff believes a turnaround is imminent, and certainly a win against the Seahawks would put a far glossier sheen on the Rams’ season and perhaps restore some faith in its QB.

“I have been part of a lot worse than this,” he told reporters this week. “You look at it with good perspective, this week we get a chance to go to Seattle and do some good things.”

Goff has done a lot of good things during his time in the league. But if he wants to avoid being seen as just another quarterback, he needs to start doing them more often.