Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay may not have a decision to make at quarterback this week. Doctors could do that for him. Most expect Jared Goff’s right thumb to not be ready to start against the Seattle Seahawks in the wild card game on Saturday, which means that John Wolford would be making his second career game appearance.
In his debut on Sunday, Wolford went 22 of 38 for 231 yards and an interception, with 56 rushing yards on nine carries.
I re-watched the game and every play by Wolford and my takeaway was ultimately this:
The offense is much different with Wolford than it is with Goff. He runs out of shotgun most of the time, which could be bad for the Rams’ running backs. He’s in empty a lot. The offense could become predictable, more so than it already was. The offensive linemen could struggle more with him than with Goff. He has accuracy issues. He is willing and able to throw downfield, but that did not result in many big plays. He usually goes with his first read.
And he’s also damn exciting.
Wolford was better than he had any right to be. Given the class of quarterbacks that he comes from — the practice squad guys, the undrafted free agents, the stars of non-NFL pro leagues — Wolford made some plays happen that I’m not sure Goff could make happen. In fact on the ground, we know that Goff can’t. His throws were often better than expected and at times, those plays also seemed like ones that Goff can’t, or at least doesn’t, make.
I’ll highlight three observations I had about Wolford.
“Aggressive” does not equal “dangerous”
Wolford averaged 9.4 intended air yards per pass attempt against Arizona, which is significantly higher than Goff’s 6.6 iaya. I want to emphasize that averages can be misleading, especially on a sample size of only 38 pass attempts; Wolford had a deep shot to Van Jefferson (incomplete) early in the game that went 44 “air yards” and if you averaged that out with three throws of zero yards, then you’d say that he tends to throw it “11 intended air yards.”
Except that none of those four passes went anywhere near 11 yards.
Say this about Sean McVay and John Wolford... they weren't timid.— J.B. Long (@JB_Long) January 4, 2021
Using NextGen Stats, in his NFL debut, here were Wolford's Week 17 ranks:
Aggressiveness (throws into tight coverage) - 2nd
Intended air yards - 11th pic.twitter.com/byTk5iqVH2
However, it remains true that McVay was not afraid to have Wolford throw the ball downfield, given the fact that he had to adjust the offense around his strengths and to avoid his weaknesses. Wolford completed passes of 38 yards, 27 yards and 16 yards, and only the 27-yarder to Robert Woods was in tight coverage.
He was credited with six deep incompletions, most of which were either inaccurate or not close enough to the intended target because if miscommunication or other reasons.
That would make Wolford three-of-nine on deep attempts, but only one of those was into tight coverage. One-of-nine.
The shotgun offense is bad for Cam Akers
Wolford threw 34 passes out of the shotgun, compared to four from under center.
Jared Goff threw 357 passes out of shotgun, compared to 195 from under center.
That is roughly an 8:1 ratio for Wolford and a 2:1 ratio for Goff. Oh, and Wolford went three-of-four for zero yards from under center. He gained all of his yards out of shotgun. This is a spread offense with Wolford and that’s a much different assignment for the offensive linemen than it is to block for Goff’s offense. That’s worth noting when we talk about the o-line’s issues against the Cardinals.
Cameron DaSilva wrote “Rams’ predictability out of shotgun is becoming a huge flaw“ for RamsWire last year, highlighting LA’s difficulties with rushing out of shotgun formation.
According to Inside Edge, running backs have only gotten 12 carries out of the gun this year, picking up 45 yards on such plays. Both numbers are the lowest in the NFL by a wide margin. When the Rams go into shotgun formations, they throw the ball 96% of the time, according to Sharp Football Stats. Of course, that’s the widest differential in the league, with the next-closest team being the Buccaneers (91% pass).
When under center, the Rams are more balanced. They throw the ball 35% of the time (8th-highest) and run it 65% (25th). That’s why they’re able to run play-action fakes when the running back is lined up behind Goff, because there’s actually a threat to run the ball.
Cam Akers has 10 carries out of shotgun this season, picking up only 22 yards. He is averaging 4.5 yards per carry when the QB is under center.
Akers faced a stacked box on 57.1% of his carries, which was the most of any NFL running back in Week 17.
If Wolford’s offense is a shotgun offense, that could be bad news for the running backs. Akers had his worst game as a pro in Week 17, gaining 34 yards on 21 carries and fumbling at the one-yard line. He only picked up two first downs and he averaged 0.7 yards before contact, his worst average of the season. He gained 1.0 yards after contact ... his worst average of the season.
Pro-Football-Reference lists Wolford has having gone 3-of-5 for 35 yards out of “RPO” with three carries for 32 yards. They don’t list either running back having gotten a carry out of “RPO” which would mean that the only running option seems to be Wolford.
He could have been a lot worse
I do not believe that the Seahawks necessarily “fear” a John Wolford-led offense. I also don’t know that they would fear a Jared Goff-led offense. The quarterback position for the Rams has not been what is fearsome about the 2020 team. It’s the defense.
However, I do believe that Wolford is capable of making plays that give LA a chance to win. I believe that McVay has been forced to open up the playbook in certain directions that he wouldn’t with Goff based simply on the fact that Wolford’s been limited to a style of play since his first year in college — and that’s all he knows. The bad side is that those limitations don’t tend to lead to long careers as starters in the NFL.
The good side is that those plays, if executed properly, should still result in some offense. If Akers doesn’t fumble, if Wolford gets one more yard near the goal line, then the Rams would have scored 28 instead of 18. Wolford isn’t only mobile, he’s a legitimate rushing threat, and given that he’s probably aware of how fleeting this moment could be, isn’t likely afraid to leave it all out on the field on Saturday.
For better or worse.
And even though he threw one of the worst-looking interceptions of the season by any quarterback, I didn’t see any other interceptable passes on the 37 attempts that came after it. Wolford was feeling the moment, he got lost in it, he returned to the field on the next drive and though he was fairly inaccurate (like Goff), he did seem composed. If he can tweak some of those deep shots to be catchable, he does resemble a legit NFL quarterback.
The Rams might be better off with Jared Goff, if his thumb was in the right condition. But even without Goff, I do not think that the player under center — or shotgun — will be what ultimately determines the outcome of Saturday’s wild card game. That burden may fall on how lockdown the LA defense gets against the offense on the other side.