REDONDO BEACH, Calif. — The label “laid-back California quarterback” follows Jared Goff everywhere and almost sounds like an insult, but true to form, he doesn’t really care. He doesn’t hate it at all.
Goff, the starting quarterback for the Detroit Lions, has wrapped up a spirited offseason July workout at his gym in Redondo Beach, capping it by schooling his trainer in a basketball game called “Pressure,” and now he’s winding down with a home video on his phone.
He can’t stop laughing at the clip, which is more than 20 years old and looks sort of like a 1990s sitcom. The video shows Goff’s whole family in the yard after his first Pop Warner practice, and they’re helping him with technique.
“Set, hut,” the long-legged 7-year-old boy says, and Goff’s older sister, Lauren, snaps the ball through her legs. Goff had been thrown in with the linemen that first day, but his coach said if he could learn the reverse pivot by the next practice, he’d get a chance at playing quarterback. So his mom, Nancy, tells her children that Jared needs to get flustered with the playcall. She doesn’t know then that it’s impossible. Goff doesn’t get flustered.
Not even now. Thursday night, Goff enters the most important season of his NFL career. His Lions are playing the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs in the 2023 NFL Kickoff game, and Detroit is a chic pick to win the NFC North and maybe even go to the Super Bowl. All of this is a big deal in a football-obsessed city that has not won a playoff game in more than three decades, and Goff will experience it while playing under a contract that expires after the end of next season.
But Goff says he feels no pressure.
“Not any more than I’ve experienced in my past,” he says. ” … People have been like, ‘Oh, it’s a make-or-break year for you’ for it seems like half of my career at this point.
“I don’t know what that means, make or break. But why wouldn’t every quarterback be in a make-or-break year? It seems like every guy should have that mentality. That’s why I think it’s a good thing for me. It keeps me on my toes.”
Goff is 28 but looks younger and seems older. He’s seen a lot. In his eight years in the NFL, he’s been a No. 1 overall draft pick by the Los Angeles Rams, then a bust; a franchise quarterback, then a castoff. Goff, who played in a Super Bowl and fell out of favor with Rams coach Sean McVay, was halfway expected to fade into oblivion in January 2021, when he found out he was being traded to Detroit just moments before it was all over social media.
What happened next was well-documented: Matthew Stafford won a Super Bowl with McVay and the Rams, and Goff went to the cold, harsh reality of Detroit. He lost 16 of his first 22 games. But then they ripped off eight wins in the last 10 games of the 2022 season, including a “Sunday Night Football” victory in the last game of the season that denied Green Bay a playoff spot.
And here now are the Lions, contenders. And here is Goff, coming off arguably his best season ever. But the transformation of Jared Goff — he’d surely roll his eyes at that label — is about more than flipping critics or regaining respect. It’s about finding a home in one of the unlikeliest places, finding your people and never letting go of an unwavering belief. It’s about the flinty side of Goff, which he rarely exposes but burns deep inside.
“I’m trying to word this without saying anything bad about anyone,” Goff says. “I think anytime you’re traded, a team is basically telling you, ‘We don’t believe in you; we’re done with you.’
“You’re no longer 16 years old playing this game anymore. These people are making business decisions based on you. And I think that flipped the switch for me to say, ‘OK, I can do the same thing, and I don’t need 32 teams to believe in me. I need one, and the other 31 can kick rocks.”
Goff’s circle of friends consists mostly of a group of guys he hung out with in high school in Novato, California. He calls them all his best friends. When Goff is with them, he says, “I don’t feel like I’m an NFL quarterback. I’m just the same guy I was when I was 12 years old.”
He played golf with them on January 30, and they’d just eaten dinner that night when he received the call that the Rams were trading him. His dad Jerry called after he hung up with the Lions, and a number of people tried to boost his spirits that night. At some point in the haze, Nancy offered some of the best advice.
“Dad and I moved many, many, many times,” she told him, “and some of the moves that we thought were the worst move that could’ve happened ended up being a pathway to some of the best times we had.”
Jerry Goff made his Major League Baseball debut as a catcher with the Montreal Expos in 1990. In 1991, he’d returned to the minors. His whole career, he bounced around in Canada, Pittsburgh, Houston and a number of Class AA and AAA affiliates. Rejection, and having a team come to the conclusion that it didn’t need him, was a way of life.
Jerry calls Nancy “the backbone of the operation.” She’d pack up the apartments and head out, with no GPS or cellphone, to the next destination. To make a new home. One time, when Jerry didn’t make a big league team out of spring training, she had to take their car from Florida to Buffalo. Nancy, a Californian, wasn’t used to driving in a snowstorm with a baby in the back. But they made it.
And it was fun, even with the chaos. Nancy learned to rent furnished apartments, and Jerry learned to adapt. They passed on to Jared, how to roll with it when things didn’t go your way.
“If you’re prepared and you’re in shape and you’re mentally right,” Jerry says, “you can put your head on the pillow at night and whatever happens, happens.”
Jared was too young to remember much, but he went on the road with the family when Jerry played for the Astros, and during his last run at baseball in 1997 with the Amarillo Dillas of the Texas-Louisiana League.
They were different athletes. Jerry reacted more to his failures. If Nancy showed up to a game in the second inning, she could tell by her husband’s body language whether he’d gotten a hit. “I was my own worst enemy out there,” he says. “I was always, bat to bat, play to play.”
From an early age, Jared was the opposite — cool-headed, but also viciously competitive. He threw for 7,687 yards with 93 touchdowns and 18 interceptions in three seasons at Marin Catholic High, and pledged to play at the University of California, Berkley, the school his parents attended.
But then Cal fired coach Jeff Tedford and hired Sonny Dykes, and the new staff had to re-recruit him. Tony Franklin, Dykes’ offensive coordinator, initially wasn’t blown away by Goff. He watched video and assessed him as a good but not great quarterback. Then he went to see Goff play in the state championship in Los Angeles. Marin Catholic lost, but Goff, to Franklin, seemed unflappable.
Franklin called Dykes and told him, “This kid is really special. He has got it.” He watched him fight until the last play, and saw a skill set. Goff was barely 18 when he skipped his last semester of high school to join the team for spring drills. In the third game of his freshman season, No. 4 Ohio State came to town. “We were really bad,” Dykes says, “and they were really good. Jared got hit about 20 times in that game.”
But Goff stood in the pocket and absorbed hit after hit. Afterward, Dykes said, his linemen felt terrible and apologized to him. But they didn’t need to. Goff told them it his was job to go in there and help them win. They’d finish 1-11.
Dykes, now the head football coach at TCU, calls Goff one of the toughest players he’s ever been around. He says Goff changed the program. The Golden Bears’ 8-5 record and victory over Air Force in the Armed Services Bowl in Goff’s junior year accounted for Cal’s best season under Dykes. After the bowl game, Goff declared for the NFL draft.
“I really do believe that inside him, he’s got a burning desire to be great and to win,” Dykes says. “It’s probably not the first thing you think of when you see him, or really even talk to him, But it’s there, I can assure you.”
Tony Franklin knew Goff was being traded before Goff did. He’d been a football coach for 40 years, and knows that when a coach says things such as, “He’s our quarterback, right now,” that it usually means a team is about to move on.
In late January 2021, shortly after McVay said that to reporters in Los Angeles, Franklin knew Goff had to be down. So he set up a Zoom call with his former student and prepared a PowerPoint presentation to boost his spirits.
Franklin, now retired from coaching, says he did not like the way McVay took the credit for the Rams’ successes, including the team’s run to Super Bowl LIII in 2018, and blamed Goff when things went bad. (McVay did tell reporters in February 2021 that it was unfair to solely blame Goff for the team’s offensive struggles. “I have a big hand in that,” McVay said at the time. “I have to look myself in the mirror and take ownership of that.”)
But one thing was certain: The 6-foot-4, 217-pound quarterback was clearly on the outs by Week 12 of the 2020 season, when he turned the ball over three times in a 23-20 loss to San Francisco. After the game, McVay told reporters that “our quarterback has to take better care of the football.”
The disconnect began long before the Rams were overmatched in a 13-3 loss to New England in the Super Bowl. It went beyond a coach’s expectations, and the quarterback who wasn’t fulfilling them. They never were a personality match; McVay the Type A-plus-plus-plus coach who burned with the intensity of 20 hot cups of coffee; Goff an iced latte.
“[I’m] Type A,” Goff insists. “But I don’t want to make anyone upset and cause any conflict, really.”
Franklin is, of course, biased, but he calls Goff the most underappreciated quarterback in the NFL. He says Goff’s footwork rivals Peyton Manning’s and blames Goff’s L.A. regression, in part, on the Rams’ lack of offensive threats after running back Todd Gurley suffered a string of injuries and eventually was cut.
If anyone ever doubted Goff’s passion, Franklin says, then they didn’t watch the Week 16 game of the 2020 season against Seattle when Goff dislocated his right thumb. He popped a broken thumb on his throwing hand back into place and finished the game.
But in January 2021, after the Rams lost to Green Bay in the divisional round of the playoffs, Goff went home with his football life in limbo.
“[Jared] got his ass whipped,” Franklin says. “He got humiliated in front of the world. You know, you’re the first pick in the draft, you take a team to the Super Bowl, you’re all-pro. You have a couple of seasons that are not quite as good. And the next thing you know, in the quiet of the night, your head coach throws you under the bus, runs over you with the tire tracks and you’re traded.
” … if you’re just human, if you’re just any human being in the world, that can destroy you, it can destroy your confidence, it can destroy a lot of things.”
But before the trade, Franklin presented his PowerPoint. He talked about how Goff got to the NFL, and how to get to the next phase. He went through his days at Cal and what made him good, and segued into his first season in L.A. He broke down the positives and the negatives of Goff’s career in L.A., and then used some words from motivational speaker Tony Robbins.
Franklin encouraged Goff to get angry and use it to prove everyone wrong. Goff, multiple coaches say, is at his best when he’s angry. Franklin closed by talking about gratitude, then told him to write his own story. “You’re the writer,” he said. “You get to edit, delete it produce it and star in it.”
When Franklin told him he’d probably be traded, Goff couldn’t bring himself to believe it. It blindsided him, he said, because he’d never had any conversations with the Rams about being moved.
“That’s where the disrespect was felt,” Goff says, “and I think they understood that afterwards …
“But yeah, I was home, got a phone call from Sean, [and he] told me I was getting traded. Ten seconds later, it’s on Twitter.”
Goff called Christen Harper, his then-girlfriend and now his fiancé, and told her the news. Harper is a Californian too and knew nothing about Michigan. But she didn’t hesitate. “Let’s go,” she told him. “Let’s move out there.”
The Lions had just hired Dan Campbell as their head coach 10 days earlier. In his introductory news conference, Campbell said his team would be built on kicking opponents in the teeth. He also mentioned something about biting a kneecap off.
Jerry Goff, who became a firefighter after his baseball dreams died, knew Jared would hit it off with his new coach. They’re both workers, Jerry says, from blue-collar backgrounds.
And though Jared doesn’t openly display what he calls a “guttural fire” that Campbell does, they are, seemingly, kindred spirits — two men who have spent much of their careers trying to prove that they belong. That mutual respect, and enthusiasm, was clear in Week 13 of the 2021 season, against Minnesota. The Lions had gone 15 games and 364 days without a win, and when Goff threw the game-winner, a 11-yard strike as time expired, he ran to the sideline and jumped into his coach’s arms.
It seemed cathartic, and the start of something they were building together.
“I think the thing that I always tell people that is mostly misconstrued about him is that he’s like a meathead,” Goff says, “and he’s just like an AHHHH, guy. He’s so damn smart and so … Extremely high emotional intelligence as far as reading a room and knowing how to treat people and knowing when to push and when to pull and when to get on guys and when to love them up.
“That’s what makes him such a great leader and [what] gets so much respect from our team. And then on the football aspects, he’s as smart as anybody I’ve been around. He gets the whole game, all 22, defense, offense, o-line, d-line, he sees it all and understands it all.”
At minicamp in June, Campbell told reporters Goff is a better quarterback than he was in Los Angeles. He said they’ve asked him to do “a lot more, in my opinion, than what they were actually doing out there.” With more responsibility, Goff flourished in 2022, hitting 65.1% of his passes for 4,438 yards. Under first-year offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, the Lions also found late-season success by playing to Goff’s strengths and using more play-action, which was a staple of the Rams’ offenses.
Detroit finished the season fifth in the NFL in scoring (26.6 points per game), and Goff led the league in touchdown-to-interception ratio (29-7). According to ESPN’s Stats & Information research, he ranked second in completions of 25 yards or more (35), behind Patrick Mahomes. But many of Goff’s completions were on short passes that were followed by long runs, as his air yards per attempt was 6.9.
When Goff was struggling during a 1-6 start, speculation arose that the Lions might use one of their first two picks in the 2023 draft to select a quarterback. They instead drafted help for Goff: Jahmyr Gibbs, a running back who’s an adept pass-catcher, and tight end Sam LaPorta.
Goff is having fun. He says Campbell and Johnson let him be himself and lead the team. It’s a stark difference from his early days in Detroit, when his life was uprooted.
“It was hard and I didn’t tell anyone how hard it was,” Goff says. “I think it took me until now, this offseason, to realize how hard that was because it was just like I put my head down and worked, blocked everything out and just tried to get better every day.
“I was fine in the moment, and then you look back and you’re, man, that was a tough time, that was tough work because now you’re on the other side of it in some ways.”
Quarterbacks coach Mark Brunell says when Goff came to Detroit, he was focused on going forward instead of looking back. But Goff’s experiences, winning and losing, going to a Super Bowl and completely changing course in a new city, shape who he is and how he leads. Earlier this week, teammates made him a captain for the third straight season — he’s one of six, alongside Alex Anzalone, Charles Harris, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Penei Sewell.
He likes Goff’s demeanor and says it’s not always California cool.
“There are times where he gets really excited and he gets really ticked off, which I love,” Brunell says. “It’s good that his teammates see that. I think it sends a really strong message that what he does is very important to him, and that he just simply does not want to let anybody around him down. He understands that he’s the starting quarterback for the Detroit Lions and that guys are really counting on him.”
Sometimes, it’s OK to look back. Goff has finished a workout with his trainer, Dave Martin, and settles into a small office in his Redondo Beach gym, which is filled with signposts of an up-and-down career. So far.
He’s talking to his marketing agent, Nima Zarrabi, about a John Madden autograph when their conversation drifts to a 2018 “Monday Night Football” game between the Rams and the Chiefs when Goff won an epic 54-51 quarterback duel with Mahomes.
Zarrabi asks Goff if he has the game ball in his office.
“No,” Goff says, “I have this really dope picture though.”
He retrieves a framed photo, and there’s Goff, temporarily in the conversation of top-tier quarterbacks. He has launched his 40-yard game-winning pass in the picture, and the ball is frozen in midair over a scoreboard that reads Chiefs 51-47 and over the outstretched arm of Chris Jones.
“That was such a crazy game, Bro,” Zarrabi says.
Almost two months later, they’re at a shopping mall in a suburb of Detroit. Goff has an appearance at a sporting-goods store that day. Zarrabi and his colleague, Ryan Tollner, the founder of Rep 1 Sports, have seen fanbases turn on their quarterback; in Goff’s class, they also landed Carson Wentz.
Goff, wearing sweats and a T-shirt, isn’t exactly sure what to expect. In Los Angeles, he could move around without being noticed. But at this event, there are at least 200 people in this decaying mall, waiting to interact with Goff. Zarrabi and Goff glance at each other in bewilderment over the loyalty, and the manners.
A man gives him what appears to be a bobblehead that is so old that it is not a replica of anyone. He tells Goff that if he wins the Super Bowl, he can put the bobblehead next to the trophy. Goff signs something for an older gentleman, who looks him square in the eyes. He tells Goff he’s the perfect person for Detroit, and that he’s happy he’s there.
Goff signs his autographs, then crosses a long, empty mall parking lot to BJ’s, a casual chain restaurant. A server asks if he’s Jared Goff, and Goff says yes.
“Oh, wow,” the server says, “awesome, man.”
Goff orders a cheeseburger and enjoys his dinner in the place he’s supposed to be.