The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Lions trusted Jared Goff. He repaid them with a historic win.

Quarterback Jared Goff jogs off the field after leading the Detroit Lions to a 24-23 first-round playoff victory over his former team, the Los Angeles Rams. The win was Detroit's first playoff victory in 32 years. (Paul Sancya/AP)
5 min

DETROIT — Jared Goff took a knee, then stood and raised his arms in celebration as the crowd of more than 66,000 erupted. He knew what he had just done. The fans knew what he had just done. And as much as he tried to downplay the significance of his moment and shift attention to his team, there was no denying his emotion Sunday night after the Detroit Lions beat the Los Angeles Rams, 24-23.

“Yeah, it was — almost, it was surreal,” he said. “It was something that you kind of imagined for so long. From the moment I got here, you imagine getting that playoff win and having this type of atmosphere in front of our home crowd and being able to sit on the ball like that and finish it out. … I didn’t know it was over once we got the first down until they sent in the personnel, and then it kind of all hit me at once.”

It hit the fans, too. Some shed tears as the confetti fell from the rafters of Ford Field. Many chanted Goff’s name.

Detroit Lions fans: The truest in America, long unnoticed by ... America

“You think he liked that?” Coach Dan Campbell asked a reporter facetiously. “Would you like that?”

The Lions — the “Same old Lions,” who for decades found ways to falter — earned their first postseason win in 11,697 days behind a quarterback once discarded and viewed as broken.

Two years after Goff led Los Angeles to Super Bowl LIII — and only 17 months after he signed a $134 million extension — the Rams traded him and three draft picks to Detroit for quarterback Matthew Stafford in January 2021. Goff’s relationship with Rams Coach Sean McVay had soured, and by the end of the 2020 season he had been benched in favor of John Wolford.

“It almost seems scripted just to have it like this,” Detroit linebacker Alex Anzalone said.

Over the past two years, the Lions helped Goff rediscover himself and become an even better version of the quarterback he once was. Their methods were simple: Instill confidence and build trust.

Football belongs to Patrick Mahomes

“I told him this, and I’m going to continue to tell him: All we need from him is to come in and play quarterback,” Campbell said when he introduced Goff to the Detroit media in 2021. “You just play quarterback. You don’t have to be a savior here. You just be the quarterback.”

Campbell’s message never wavered. But Goff’s performance Sunday night, when he passed for 277 yards and posted a 121.8 passer rating against his former team, was the product of two years of refining his game with Ben Johnson, the Lions’ offensive coordinator.

In Goff’s first season with Detroit, the Lions finished with the second-worst record in the league (3-13-1). Before the 2022 season, Campbell elevated Johnson from passing game coordinator and granted him play-calling duties. Campbell had spent four seasons (2012 to 2015) with Johnson on the Miami Dolphins’ staff before hiring him in Detroit.

The familiarity helped, but Johnson’s ability to adapt as a coordinator and develop Goff has put him atop the candidate lists for multiple teams searching for head coaches.

Johnson received degrees in mathematics and computer science from North Carolina, where he was a walk-on quarterback, and he has applied both to coaching. He takes an analytical approach and seems to enjoy digging through his library of plays to enhance his own playbook.

“A lot of guys are smart, and a lot of guys can draw up anything and can put the offense in an advantageous spot, which I think he does a lot,” Goff told the Detroit media before the season. “But he’s very available to listen to not only me but the coaches and all the players. What do we see? What do we like? What do we want?”

In the spring of 2022, Johnson spent time with Goff to discuss their plan. The goal was to incorporate Goff’s strengths and build on them, so they reviewed his film from years prior, when he succeeded with Los Angeles. Incorporating plenty of play-action was critical — Goff did well with that — so having a reliable rushing attack was paramount. Detroit signed David Montgomery in March, then selected Jahmyr Gibbs in the first round of the draft.

The Lions also have entrusted Goff with more responsibility, especially before the snap.

Everything you need to know about the first round of the playoffs

“He was known as a movement and play-action guy when we got him,” Johnson told reporters in October. “But his ability to diagnose defenses, regulate the protection, make sure he’s covered, understand where his issues could be — he’s grown there in the last few years. And he has complete control of our offense right now.”

After Sunday’s game, Campbell said Goff was “locked in,” not just during the week of practice but over the past six weeks. The smallest details — his demeanor during walk-throughs, his command of the huddle, his ability to detail what he wants from the receivers and the offensive line, his interactions with Johnson — showed Campbell that Goff had taken his game to another level.

So perhaps it was no surprise that on the last meaningful play, the Lions decided not to run the ball to eat the clock and inch downfield but to put the ball in Goff’s hands. On second and nine after the two-minute warning, Goff found wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown for an 11-yard catch, leaving only three kneel-downs to seal the win.

“[I’m] just really proud of him and what he means to us and his play today,” Campbell said. “... He’s one of the reasons that we won this division, and he’s another reason why we just won our first playoff game here in 30 years. So what a stud.”