It was supposed to be a glorious homecoming for Jared Goff.
In 2016, five months after the Rams made the Marin County native and former California star the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, Goff was on the field at Levi’s Stadium for the season opener against the San Francisco 49ers.
Goff did not play. He was not even in uniform.
A player the Rams proclaimed as their franchise quarterback was inactive, coach Jeff Fisher saying the previous week that Goff was “not ready.”
So with family, friends and a “Monday Night Football” audience looking on, Goff watched journeyman Case Keenum struggle in a 28-0 defeat. And those close to Goff observed how he navigated the beginning of his NFL career.
“It was a tough start there,” Mazi Moayed, Goff’s coach at Marin Catholic High, said this week in a phone interview. “But he’s handled things gracefully, and I think he’s done a great job of that his whole career.”
On Sunday, Goff returns to Levi’s Stadium riding a wave of momentum. A player who led the Rams to a Super Bowl and then was discarded two years later has been at the forefront of the Detroit Lions’ drive to the NFC championship game. A victory over the top-seeded 49ers would send the Lions to the Super Bowl for the first time.
Goff had a 3-6 record against the 49ers when he played for the Rams. He is 2-2 at Levi’s Stadium.
“I grew up a Niner fan and I was able to get all those ‘playing in front of the Bay Area team’ done when I had my time with the Rams,” Goff told reporters in Detroit this week.
“So, yeah, it’ll be fun to be able to play a big game there, but I’ve played there quite a few times.”
The Bay Area is where Goff first demonstrated a knack for helping revive moribund programs. After losing only a few games in high school, Goff experienced a 1-11 season as a freshman starter at Cal. By his junior season, the Golden Bears qualified for a bowl game and he became the No. 1 pick in the draft.
As a Rams rookie, Goff was 0-7 as a starter for a team that finished 4-12. The Rams hired coach Sean McVay in 2017 and Goff thrived for two seasons, earning Pro Bowl nods in 2017 and 2018.
But in January 2021, shortly after a divisional-round defeat by the Green Bay Packers, the Rams jettisoned Goff to Detroit, sending the quarterback, two first-round draft picks and a third-rounder for Matthew Stafford.
Stafford promptly led the Rams to a Super Bowl title. The Lions, under first-year coach Dan Campbell, finished 3-13.
But Goff helped the Lions improve to 9-8 in 2022. This season Goff passed for 30 touchdowns with 12 interceptions as the Lions finished 12-5 and won the NFC North.
Two weeks ago at frenzied Ford Field, fans booed Stafford and chanted “Jar-ed Goff” as Lions beat the Rams, 24-23, for their first playoff win since 1991. Last week Goff led the Lions to a 31-23 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before another ecstatic Ford Field crowd.
Campbell praised Goff for his ability to remain calm in pressure-packed moments.
“It’s just the way he’s made,” Campbell told reporters in Detroit this week, adding, “He does do a great job with it, and he does stay calm, he does stay cool, and he knows even if it feels a little shaky, a little rocky, it’ll smooth out.”
Goff said Campbell was “the greatest leader I’ve been around.” Goff also has benefited from the creativity of offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, who Goff said has allowed him input in the offense.
“Whether he takes it or he doesn’t, he allows me to say it and uses some of it,” Goff said. “It’s fun for me, it really is. It allows me to really be a part of the plan.”
Kyle Shanahan, in his seventh season as coach of the 49ers, told Bay Area reporters that Goff has “shown some of the stuff” he demonstrated when he played for the Rams, especially his first two seasons under McVay when he played at an “MVP-type level.”
“When they give him a good scheme, when he’s got good people around him, Jared’s going to always find the spot,” Shanahan said. “He’s as accurate as any quarterback I’ve seen. … If you sit and make things easy for him, he will gash you.
“I’ve seen it over and over, whether he’s with the Rams, whether he is with Detroit. That’s why he challenges you. You better be on your stuff or [he] can embarrass you fast.”
This will be Goff’s second appearance in an NFC championship game. As with the first, it is on the road.
In January 2019, he passed for 297 yards and a touchdown with an interception in a 26-23 overtime victory over the New Orleans Saints that sent the Rams to Super Bowl LIII, where they lost to the New England Patriots.
“It’s helpful playing in playoffs and winning playoff games and then being able to draw on those experiences,” Goff said. “Certainly, road playoff games I think are extremely hard to win and I’ve been fortunate to have success in them in the past.”
In the Lions’ two playoff victories, Goff outdueled Stafford and Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield. All were No. 1 picks in the draft.
Brock Purdy, the 49ers’ second-year quarterback, was the last player chosen in the 2022 draft.
This season Purdy passed for 31 touchdowns with 11 interceptions. He was voted to the Pro Bowl and is a finalist for most valuable player. Last Sunday he passed for 252 yards and a touchdown and directed a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter of a 24-21 divisional-round victory over the Packers.
Moayed is looking forward to this matchup. He is confident Goff will rise to the occasion, as he did two weeks ago against the Rams.
“That game against the Rams served him better than anything that could have possibly happened,” Moayed said. “I think it helped him with the Tampa Bay game, and I think that will help him this game.
“Because right now, you don’t have all that other emotional drama — you just have football.”