The term “coach killer” is football jargon used to label a player, normally a quarterback, whose on-field performance is so bad that it routinely undermines his coach’s game plan and eventually leads to the firing of the coaching staff. But there isn’t a term for when the opposite happens, when a coaching staff’s game plans are so insufficient that they undermine the skills of their quarterback. Until now …
noun: fish·er \ ˈfi-shər \
- A coach who makes his quarterback worse.
Origin: It is a derivative of Jeff Fisher, the former NFL coach.
After 22 seasons as an NFL head coach, five leading the Los Angeles Rams, Jeff Fisher and his staff were fired last season. Like many failed staffs, Fisher’s crew probably convinced themselves that they would have succeeded if they had only found a decent quarterback. By bubble-wrapping their egos in that theory, most coaches enjoy peace of mind for many years. But poor Fisher wasn’t even afforded a year of self-delusion because Jared Goff and Case Keenum became very good NFL quarterbacks almost immediately after being freed from his tutelage.
This season, Goff is 8-3 as the Rams’ starter under the guidance of 31-year-old rookie head coach Sean McVay. Goff was 0-7 a season ago. Keenum ended up in Minnesota with the Vikings, where he assumed the starting role after Sam Bradford, another former Fisher quarterback, got hurt. Keenum has gone 7-2 for his new team. He went 4-5 with Fisher in 2016. But their records aren’t the only evidence of improvement. With a Total QBR of 18.3 last season, rookie Goff was being called the worst quarterback of all time. So far this season, his QBR is 55.2. That places him right at the league average, which is promising for a player in his second season, his first as a Week 1 starter. At the beginning of last season, Goff was deemed unfit to even be a backup by Fisher and crew. He was third on the depth chart.
All quarterbacks should improve from their first season to their second. The average QBR increase from year one to year two is +5.6. But Goff’s QBR increase of 36.9 is enormous. If he sustains his current QBR, it will be the largest increase from first to second season since the stat has been kept. However, it might not be the biggest year-to-year QBR increase regardless of level of experience. That distinction could go to Keenum, Fisher’s other 2016 quarterback. If Keenum can sustain his 77.2 QBR (second-best in the league), he will have increased his QBR by nearly 40. The Vikings are Keenum’s third team in his five-year career. The first two seasons he spent in Houston, where his QBR was 48.6 and 39.3. Then he went to Fisher’s Rams for a couple of seasons, where he had the two lowest QBRs of his career (34.8 and 37.5).
To be fair to Fisher, he is a defensive-minded coach, so maybe the quarterback failures are not a result of his poor game plans. But hiring a complementary staff is one of the chief responsibilities of a head coach. And Fisher went through three offensive coordinators in his time with the Rams, so it doesn’t seem that he knows how to find the right guy. Goff and Keenum are surrounded by more talent than they had under Fisher, so that could account for some of the quarterbacks’ improvement. That explanation, though, isn’t strong enough to restore Fisher’s reputation. Only winning could do that, and no franchise is going to give the 59-year-old anti-quarterback whisperer a chance now. Which is probably for the best.
The stats show this season’s Rams offense under McVay is more productive. Watching the video of games shows why. This season the Rams are taking big shots down the field on early downs, when the defense is most susceptible. They are using receiver motion, tight splits and receiver stacks to keep defenders from pressing receivers at the line of scrimmage and to create mismatches and angles for the receivers to get open. And every week, they run a few unique route combinations that almost guarantee that a receiver will be open down the field.
In last week’s game against the New Orleans Saints, on one play the Rams overloaded the Saints’ zone coverage with four eligible pass catchers running routes to one side. Goff completed a pass to tight end Tyler Higbee for a gain of 38 yards.
McVay has taken the responsibility of scheming success for Goff. Fisher’s 2016 offense put the responsibility on Goff and the skill players to create success. The formations were traditional and stagnant, and the schemes were simple and predictable. On first down, they would run the ball or throw short, isolated passes. Fisher’s goal was probably to keep it simple for his rookie quarterback, but the game plan was obvious to the defenses. So opponents had a good idea of what the Rams were going to do, which meant that Goff had to be deadly accurate on every play or the receivers had to be spectacular. Fisher’s attempt to coddle Goff backfired.
Although Fisher is out of the league, it doesn’t mean that his way of thinking left with him. Goff and Keenum were fortunate to find situations that suit them. Not all young quarterbacks are that lucky. They get labeled as a bad quarterback before ever getting the opportunity to play for a creative and resourceful coach. Instead, they get stuck with a coach who is searching for a superstar quarterback to ride to glory rather than getting the best out of the players he has.