Jen Ezpeleta

All ball sports: Rams, Goff wandering in the playoff wilderness. COVID threatens USC/UCLA game

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by Paul Teetor

The only thing consistent about Jared Goff and the Rams is their utterly frustrating inconsistency.

And it always seems to come down to one question: can Goff limit his costly mistakes?

This time, he couldn’t. And not even Coach Sean McVay, usually so protective of the quarterback he transformed from dud to stud three years ago, was no longer dancing around the errors in the press room.

“Our quarterback’s got to take better care of the ball,” McVay said. Goff agreed: “He’s absolutely right,” Goff said. “Take better care of the ball, and make better decisions.”   

Let’s get one thing straight up-front: Sunday afternoon’s horrible, no good, truly awful 23-20 loss to the cellar-dwelling San Francisco 49ers wasn’t all Goff’s fault. Like extra gravy at Thanksgiving dinner, there was plenty of blame to go around.

But in a game where Goff hit 19 of 31 passes for only 198 yards, fumbled once and was intercepted twice – including an ugly pick-six that put his team in a 14-3 hole early in the third quarter – it was hard not to point the finger at Goff and wonder if the $134 million man is capable of ever leading the Rams back to the Super Bowl as he did just two years ago. (It seems like eons ago, but everything pre-pandemic feels that way now.) 

The heavily favored Rams, who came into the game leading the NFC West at 7-3 while the 49ers were 4-6, started out like a bunch of sleep-deprived, tryptophan over-loaded guys fresh from an all-you-can eat Thanksgiving buffet. They missed blocks – leaving Goff exposed to a fierce 49er pass rush. They missed tackles, letting the 49ers primary offensive weapons – a pretty good rusher in Raheem Mostert and an elusive receiver in Deebo Samuel – run wild. To make matters worse Goff looked like a backup QB who hadn’t studied the playbook and hadn’t expected to play.

It quickly became clear the 49ers’ game plan was to shut down Goff’s two favorite targets – Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods – and force him to throw elsewhere to make up for an unproductive running game. And it was working: Kupp was shut out in the first half, and Woods wasn’t much better.

In general, the Rams played the first half like a first-place team overly confident that when crunch time came they had the manpower to put these frickin’ guys away. After all, they were playing in their own house – the $5.5 billion SoFi Stadium, which should be re-named Sci-Fi Stadium after this Twilight Zone loss – where they were undefeated at 4-0. 

And that’s pretty much how the script played out for the first 30 minutes. While the Rams were stumbling and bumbling around, the 49ers were allowed to claw their way to a 7-3 half-time lead that would have been much bigger if this was an elite team like the Seattle Seahawks or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — both powerhouses beaten by the Rams in the last two weeks.

Still, the strong sense among Rams fans was no sweat, right? We got this. We’ll close them out in the second half with our great defense while Goff and his other receivers – Tyler Higbee, Gerald Everett, and Josh Reynolds — will be able to manufacture just enough points to win.

Instead Goff opened the second half by throwing the football directly to a 49er’s lineman just behind the line of scrimmage. He ran 27 yards for a TD that ignited a major celebration among his teammates.

Sure, Goff was under pressure, and sure, he might have had his vision blocked so he couldn’t see the lineman just 10 yards in front of him. Still, this was the kind of untimely, killer mistake you just can’t make and maintain your status as a starting NFL quarterback for very long.

Now it was 14-3 and a sense of much-needed urgency was creeping into the Rams play. On the other side of the field the 49ers, who have had injured players miss more games than any other team in the league, were playing like a team gaining confidence by the minute that they could actually pull off this major upset. Their most prominent missing player: talented QB Jimmy Garoppolo, who has been their best player since the Patriots gave him away three years ago for a bag of Fat Burgers and a chocolate milkshake – a crazy, lop-sided trade made mostly to keep Tom Brady happy and secure.

Indeed, backup quarterback Nick Mullens, an undrafted free agent who had been signed twice to the San Francisco practice squad and cut twice before sticking as a third-string QB two years ago, was out-playing Goff, a number one overall pick four years ago who recently signed a $134 million extension. 

If it was Garoppolo doing this to the Rams top-rated defense, that would be understandable, as he is rated slightly higher than Goff among NFL QB’s. But an undrafted journeyman with a weak arm slicing and dicing the Rams? That’s just straight up embarrassing.

It got worse when the 49ers Robbie Gould kicked a 46-yard field goal to build the lead up to 17-3.  

And the Rams defense was just as bad as the offense. Just before the FG that made it 17-3, Rams cornerback Darious Williams was in perfect position for a sure interception on a ball that Mullens badly overthrew. Instead the football went right through his hands, which he then used to slap his helmet in disbelief and frustration. All over the LA Basin, Rams fans were doing the same thing to their foreheads. 

With a gnawing feeling that it was now or never for the Rams to come alive, Goff finally connected with Kupp, who rambled up the middle of the field for 40 yards. But Goff was unable to take advantage of the great field position and punch it in for a TD. Instead they had to settle for a field goal that made it 17-6. 

Then came what looked like the key play of the game. The Rams best player, future Hall of Fame defensive lineman Aaron Donald, got one of his big paws onto a lunging Mostert and forced a fumble that was scooped up by cornerback Troy Hill and run in 20 yards for a TD. Suddenly it was 17-13 and the re-born Rams had all the momentum.

Sure enough, the dormant running game finally erupted, as Cam Akers ripped off a 61-yard gallop before being tackled just short of the goal line. A minute later he ran it in for a touchdown and a 20-17 lead. Having restored order over an inferior team, the Rams were now poised to pull away — as a genuine Super Bowl contender would surely do.

But nope.

Instead the 49er’s forced their way to another FG that tied the game at 20-20 with 3:11 to go. Still, the stage was set for Goff to put his team in position for a game winning field goal as time ran out – just like he did last week against a much stronger Tampa Bay defense.

Instead he threw wide and then long on two very makeable mid-range passes, and the Rams were forced to punt. It’s the kind of end-game sequence that defines the difference between a contender and a pretender, between a genuine franchise quarterback and an average quarterback.

The 49ers took over with just over two minutes left and the same goal as the Rams had just missed out on: drive far enough downfield to kick a FG and get out of there with a win.

Then came the second key play of the game: on a fourth and one, instead of trying a desperation 58-yard FG, the 49ers went for it and gained just enough to get the first down. The Rams defense, feeling deflated after Goff had failed to capitalize on the momentum they had generated, couldn’t get a one-yard stop when they absolutely had to have it.

The nightmare finish was now as predictable as a defeated Trump declaring voter fraud: as the clock wound down to zero, the 49ers drove close enough to try a 47-yard FG as time expired. Any hope Gould might miss was extinguished when the Rams second best defensive player, the usually highly disciplined cornerback Jalen Ramsey, jumped off-sides trying to block the kick. The five-yard penalty made it a 42-yard FG, which Gould made easily. The Rams walked off looking bewitched, bothered and bewildered.

The under-manned 49ers? They gratefully accepted an early Christmas present as they climbed back into playoff contention with a 5-6 record as the Rams slid back into the crowded pack of wild-card contenders with a 7-4 record.

The only thing consistent about Goff and the Rams is their inconsistency.

 

What, we worry?

 

Other than canceling the first part of their football season, the PAC-12’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has mirrored President Trump’s: Pandemic? What pandemic?

Oh sure, they canceled a few games here and there, including UCLA’s Nov. 14 game with Utah. And a few practices here and there have been canceled. 

But basically, the prevailing attitude was borrowed from Mad Magazine Cover Boy Alfred E. Neuman: What, me worry?

But now it has hit home with both USC and UCLA. Now it’s real. When die-hard Trojan football fans and, to a lesser extent Bruin fans, are deprived of their weekly Saturday football fix, even if it’s only on TV and not in person, they get cranky.

USC, which is 3-0, ranked 18th nationally and still in contention for a College Football Playoff slot, took a major hit when it’s Saturday game against Colorado – practically a guaranteed win – was canceled due to too many Trojan players dealing with infection and quarantine issues.

And if they miss another game, like next weekend’s clash with Washington State, the Trojans simply will not have played enough games to be considered for a playoff berth, even if they finish the season undefeated by beating UCLA on Dec. 12 at the Rose Bowl and going on to win the PAC-12 title the following weekend.

That’s why the Washington State game has been moved back from Friday to Sunday night. The hope is that enough of the infected or quarantined players will be cleared to play with the extra 48 hours of recovery time.

That’s life in the time of COVID-19: even big-time college football is profoundly affected.

The pandemic has affected UCLA in a similar but less drastic way. Their only recognizable star, quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, has missed the last two games while quarantining after close contact with an infected person. His backup, Chase Griffin, has played very well in last week’s 27-10 victory over Arizona and in a narrow loss to Oregon, 38-35, the week before. 

One positive note in all the negative news: LA County Public Health officials who issued sweeping new protocols that take effect this week, have said that the annual rivalry game between the Bruins and the Trojans will be allowed to proceed, assuming each team can field a roster big enough to meet PAC-12 requirements.

One thing Bruins fans and Trojans fans can agree on: let’s all hope we never have to go through anything like this ever again.      

Contact: teetor.paul@gmail  .com. Follow: @paulteetor

 

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