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Jared Goff, Case Keenum, and Nick Foles: The Importance of the Whole Team

Mat Adler, Staff Writer

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Summer 2016: Jared Goff, Case Keenum, and Nick Foles are all quarterbacks on the St. Louis Rams. Jared Goff is going to be one of the ten worst rookies passers in modern history (second-worst in the past eighteen years), Case Keenum will be benched for Goff after nine putrid starts, and Nick Foles will be released and sign with the Chiefs and start just one poor game. They will go a combined 5-12.

February 4th, 2018: Jared Goff, Case Keenum, and Nick Foles have all made the playoffs, with the latter two having faced off in the NFC Championship. Goff, by the same measure that called him one of the worst rookies in history, was the best quarterback in the league. Case Keenum was seventh, and is in line for a big pay day in free agency. Foles is your Super Bowl LII MVP. They went a combined 27-8.

So the question is, what happened? It’s unlikely that any of them transformed into significantly better players; players don’t change too much from one season to the next, especially players as far into their careers as Keenum and Foles. Each of them played better this year, but their improvements can’t be explained by development alone. Looking at what they each have in common, we see they all got different (read: better) coaches and teams. All were mired by a talentless roster and the perennially mediocre Jeff Fisher on the Rams, and Goff, Keenum, and Foles were each coached this year by Sean McVay, Mike Zimmer, and Doug Peterson, respectively. (Each of them were Coach of the Year candidates this year, with McVay eventually winning it, and Keenum’s offensive coordinator and now-Giants head coach Pat Shurmur winning Assistant of the Year.)

How did each of these coaches help turn these QB’s from scrubs to stars? It starts with the Rams offense under Jeff Fisher — a mediocre dinosaur. He had success in Tennessee running a “smashmouth,” ground-and-pound offense, and quickly decided that was what he was comfortable with. Despite being fired for sustained mediocrity, and despite spending the first overall pick on a spread quarterback with a limited arm, and despite spending a first-round pick on a gadget player, and despite spending another first overall pick on a spread quarterback with a limited arm, Fisher only ever opened up his offense for about four games in 2013. He asked his quarterbacks to execute an offense that minimized their ability to win games and maximized their ability to lose them. And their supporting cast — their offensive line, runners, and receivers — was one of the worst in the league. Their situation couldn’t have gotten much worse.

Jared Goff

Despite being just 30 years old, Sean McVay was seen as a slam-dunk hire last year. He had spent the previous three years making Kirk Cousins, a below-average quarterback, look so good that he’s in line to be paid about 30 million dollars next year. His scheme and play-calling are top-two in the league. Most quarterbacks would look better playing for him.

If you look closely enough, Goff hasn’t improved all that much. But he’s doing much better this year, thanks to a bit of improvement and a lot of McVay’s offense and new personnel. McVay’s offense gets running room for Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley and open receivers for Goff, so he operates as more of a part of the offense than the leader of it. Concepts that give Goff wide open space to throw the ball into, such as hard play fakes, clearouts, screens, misdirection plays, packaged plays, and isolation routes that take advantages of defensive mismatches, form the majority of the passing game, which, combined with Todd Gurley’s dominance in the running game, makes Goff’s job easy enough that he can often turn around and throw the ball without so much as a second thought.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the complete overhaul of the L.A. Rams roster. Only four of the Rams eleven offensive starters returned this year, the other seven — and more — being replaced through free agency (left tackle Andrew Whitworth, center John Sullivan, receiver Robert Woods), the draft (receiver Cooper Kupp, tight end Gerald Everett), and trades (receiver Sammy Watkins).

Case Keenum

What a shame Sam Bradford’s career has been. He had potential as a prospect until Jeff Fisher and multiple leg injuries found him. Looking like a bust, he was traded to the Eagles, where he dealt with an offense telegraphing its play calls and the worst set of receivers in the league. On the Vikings, he spent 2016 healthy while everyone around him got injured, but spent most of 2017 on the injured reserve when everyone else stayed healthy. And he’s had immense talent all the while. Just a shame.

Bradford’s left knee wear and tear has, however, opened the door for the consistently “meh” Case Keenum to play. And Keenum has not only played, but played well. His athleticism, interception luck, and passable accuracy — pun fully intended — allowed him to lead the third-best passing offense (by DVOA). But much like Goff, his success came less as a leader, and more as a distributor. Pat Shurmur switched to an air raid offense this year, emphasizing athleticism on the ground and stretching defenses every-which-way through the air. As a result, the Vikings talent at skill positions, including the best receiver tandem in the league in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, forms the base of their offense. Plays that require neither wide-open receivers nor touch throws make Keenum’s life easy. The (unspectacular) consistency of the Vikings rushing attack allows Keenum favorable conditions. Keenum is still what he’s been for most of his career — limited by his arm and instincts, but viable because of his near-accuracy and some athleticism — but he’s been allowed to play to his strengths, and as a result seems likely to start somewhere next year.

Nick Foles

Nick Foles almost took himself out of this story. After being released by the Rams, Foles considered retiring. But a call (and subsequent contract) from Andy Reid kept him in the league, which allowed him to sign with the Eagles this past summer to be their backup, which meant he was the starter once MVP candidate and overhype machine Carson Wentz tore his ACL.

Once he began playing, Nick Foles wasn’t a massive downgrade from Carson Wentz. The shift was noticeable, but more so in the offensive process than its results. Wentz’s athletic profile and aggressive mindset meant the Eagles could run a variety of run-run options (or run-pass-run options, if they were feeling frisky), complemented by straight runs and deep shots. Foles is slower and more cautious, so the offense couldn’t do run-run options and shot plays, instead running more run-pass and pass-pass options and leaning on play designs to help the run game. With the Eagles’ depth at skill positions, Foles had to do very little to move the offense, beyond having decent accuracy and making the right reads. Much like his 2013 season, when he had the third-highest single-season passer rating. But also like then, his results this year — aside from a spotless Super Bowl showing — have been predicated on a healthy amount of interception luck (i.e. interceptable passes that were not intercepted). Even so, the Eagles’ offense puts Foles in a position where his weaknesses are usually hidden. And now some team like the Bills — actually, almost certainly the Bills — is going to trade at least a second-round pick for him.

 

This has been the year of bad quarterbacks. Keenum, Foles, and Blake Bortles all made championship games. A-Rod, Wilson and Luck all missed time and/or played injured. The quarterback with the best record was Jimmy Garoppolo, now the proud owner of the richest contract in NFL history. Yet that hasn’t stopped teams from being successful. At least partially dispelling the myth that you need a great quarterback to win big, several teams worked around disadvantages under center through excellent coaching and supporting casts. And none of the three non-Patriots that made the championship games are likely to make big upgrades at quarterback. (Sorry, David.) Will this focus on the team over the quarterback be an emerging trend?

Probably not. NFL coaching is notoriously slow to change, and it’s still really hard to win without a great quarterback, especially if the great ones are actually healthy. But if recent events are any indication, there is hope that a poorly quarterbacked team can still win it all — they just need to find their talent elsewhere.

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