On his final third down pass of the day, Jared Goff threw to a 335-pound lineman named Penei Sewell, who rumbled and stumbled for a first down that sealed the game. Sewell was one of nine receivers that Goff completed a pass to Sunday, because, quite frankly, the way Goff is playing, who wouldn’t want to catch a ball from him?
“I thought he had another helluva day…” Dan Campbell said of Goff, after the Lions dumped the NFC North-leading Vikings, 34-23. “I tell you what, he’s cool, he’s calm, he’s collected.”
Here’s another word: Relevant.
He is. They are. Relevant. Stop rubbing your eyes. Whether the Lions make the playoffs or not, they are in now the hunt less than two weeks from Christmas, and it’s been a mighty long time since you could say that around here. They have won five out of their last six and have climbed from 1-6 to within a single win of a .500 record. Yet perhaps none of that matters as much as this:
They have their quarterback.
It’s the guy who’s been here all along.
Sunday felt like the day Goff officially rammed his stake into the Ford Field turf. In the most meaningful contest since he arrived 20 months ago, Goff was clearly the captain of the ship, the ringmaster of this new, imaginative offense. And Detroit, simultaneously, finally put its midwestern arms around the California kid.
It had been a standoffish romance. Some still pined for Matthew Stafford. Some doubted Goff’s resolve in the fourth quarter. Some couldn’t get past the idea that the Rams would actually trade the Lions a good quarterback; there must be a catch.
All the while, Goff kept trotting out there, handling his business without a whimper. He got better as the team got better, grew more precise as his receivers found their footing, grew more confident as his offensive line and defensive counterparts improved.
And Sunday, it all came together. Three touchdowns, 330 yards, two bombs, no picks, and every important pass completed, including that last surprise to Sewell, the massive offensive lineman, which essentially iced the win and sent fans home feeling this wonderfully fresh, if kinda weird, holiday sensation.
The evolution of a quarterback
“It feels good,” Goff, 28, said after the victory. “It makes me feel like we’re making a lot of people eat what they said.”
I asked if that was a motivator.
“No, I’m kind of joking,” he quickly added. “I really don’t care. It’s the way this league goes. Any time you play quarterback and you go 1-6, you’re gonna get all the heat in the world… (So) I’m halfway joking.”
“Only halfway?” I asked.
Hey. The guy has a right to feel defensive. When the team you took to a Super Bowl gives up on you, trades you to a perennial loser, then wins a Super Bowl with your replacement, while you keep hearing how you’re just a placeholder until your new team gets a high draft pick and dumps you — well, hey, you might get a little cynical, too.
Goff has not. He’s clearly smart, chooses his words judiciously, keeps any frustrations to himself, just goes out and plays.
And let’s be honest. He’s playing his butt off.
Goff has morphed into a precise passer, a laser thrower, a fine reader of defenses, a guy not afraid to scramble and — now — a quarterback unafraid to throw it away on third down and let the defense try and handle things. In his last five games, he has a completion rate of nearly 70%, eight touchdowns, no interceptions, an average of 262 yards a game.
“Early (on) I think he was putting a lot of pressure on himself … to make plays,” Campbell said. “Early in the year we tried to outscore some people. I feel like we’re in a much better place defensively than where we were, and that has a direct correlation to how he plays.”
That’s undeniable. The first time the Lions and Vikings played this year, in Week 3, Minnesota mowed through the Lions defense late in the fourth quarter, going 56 yards in 25 seconds to score the go-ahead touchdown.
Goff responded by pressing and throwing a game-ending interception.
That was September. This is December. The whole football world can change in that time, and for Detroit, it largely has. Goff looks like a different player. And the Lions are playing confident, hard, and, for a change, with a postseason hunger.
‘There’s a lot of faith in him’
What’s notable about Goff’s performance Sunday is how it offered a bit of everything. He connected on two bomb touchdowns, one a beautiful, 48-yard, land-in-the-hands connection to DJ Chark, the other a 41-yard wide-open lob to rookie Jamieson Williams, his first reception in the NFL and his first TD.
“I didn’t throw a very good ball,” Goff said. “I was so shocked at how open he was … it kind of looked like I kicked it to him.”
Those were only the long passes. Equally impressive were the repeated third-down conversion throws Goff made, right on the money, for 9 yards, 11 yards, 14 yards.
In the fourth quarter alone, Goff completed four out of five third-down passes, moving the chains, keeping the ball in the Lions hands. These weren’t lucky throws or run-after-catches on underthrown balls. These were sharp passes in the flat, over the middle, to the sidelines, covering the ground needed.
Goff has a quick release, and the increased confidence in his offensive line allows a fluid movement in the pocket. He’s never going to be Patrick Mahomes or Lamar Jackson, but he’s got better movement than Stafford, and more than once on Sunday, he used it to his advantage.
“He’s playing outstanding and he’s a direct link as to why we are playing better,” Campbell said. “… He’s taking care of the football, he’s making big throws, he’s been highly accurate. There’s a lot of faith in him and he’s got a lot of faith in us.”
It seems like almost everyone has found religion now. It’s true, the Lions must win all four of their final games to have a real shot at the postseason, and winning that many in a row is a very tall order in the NFL. But against the teams they are slated to play (the Jets, Bears, Packers and Panthers) I can’t believe I am saying this, but, that’s not impossible.
For now, let’s lift up what we can hold. Even cynical Lions fans must admit the last seven weeks represent a different brand of football, a different attitude, a different coaching style, and, yes, a different quarterback.
You go nowhere in the NFL without a star under center. Goff may have come to Detroit as the throw-in, but he’s looking more and more like the sweetest element of the Stafford trade. That’s a long way from where we once were.
But then, so is talking playoffs in December.
Who’da thunk it?