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Can Jared Goff be the face of an NFL franchise?

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's October 26 NBA Preview. Subscribe today!

THE MOMENT NEVER lasts anymore. It rolls past, maybe slowing slightly as it nods from the passenger seat, rushing to get somewhere else. So when the relatively anonymous freshman quarterback of a 1-11 team becomes the record-breaking quarterback of a rejuvenated Cal program, the moment hangs around just long enough for the speculation to begin. Sure, everything looks great against Texas and Washington State, but how will the kid's arm translate to the NFL? As fast as a Jared Goff pass travels downfield, now can become next. Time to enjoy the moment? Sorry, kid -- it's already gone.

Goff, the top-rated QB in the upcoming draft, according to most experts, is about to enter a world where accomplishments serve only as a warning to scouts: Don't mistake stats for a superior skill set, lest another sure bet goes bust on your watch. For now, though, Goff's fleeting moment is here, and it looks like this: There are four grown men waiting outside a gate at Memorial Stadium as the junior walks through on his way to his Tuesday afternoon news conference following a Sept. 26 win at Washington. They want his autograph, and they care enough to know Goff's schedule and stake out his route. The 20-year-old who stops and signs for these four men is about 25 pounds heavier than when he arrived on campus two years ago as a 6-foot-4, 185-pound freshman with pipe-stem arms and the legs of a tall bird. He has also gained more confidence, as well as a few more miles of passing yardage, and he exists squarely within that sweet spot between being unknown and overanalyzed, the moment nodding from the passenger seat.

What makes Goff different is that he appears to have emerged in the moment fully formed, unlike those higher-profile prep passers who sign with higher-profile programs and seemingly receive a draft grade the minute they put on a college uniform. It's as if Goff sprouted whole from the earth, planted for the sole purpose of being the face (if he chooses to leave Berkeley early) of this QB class, one that, like it or not, has become emblematic of a swirling debate over the future of quarterbacking.

The dilemma, at least through NFL eyes, goes something like this: Spread offenses have sped up and dumbed down the college game, creating QBs who believe every receiver has a God-given right to be wide open and every defense will remain eternally on its heels. NFL types lament the trend, believing it leaves even the best quarterbacks unprepared for the sophistication of their pro game. In a September article titled "Why the NFL Has a Quarterback Crisis," Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton went so far as to tell the Wall Street Journal that "you have to teach these kids the absolute basics." And it has become increasingly difficult to argue with him. With every game that Colin Kaepernick throws four picks, or every mention of the utter confusion of recent Heisman winners Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston, Hamilton's claim is bolstered. Some NFL coaches have even reported coming across rookies who can't identify the Mike backer, which is as alarming as an accountant who can't add and subtract.

Into this fray comes Goff, that most enigmatic of hybrid creatures, a QB with dropback (read: pro-style) sensibilities and intangibles who excels in coach Sonny Dykes' air raid offense (read: the spread of all spreads). Way back in 2013, Goff and Dykes showed up at Cal surreptitiously -- Dykes replaced the pro-set-minded Jeff Tedford, who had actually recruited Goff, then ESPN RecruitingNation's No. 20 pocket passer out of Marin County, California. That first year, Goff, the only true freshman to start an opener in Cal history, led a team that could beat only Portland State. As Goff traveled across campus, he heard about football only when a student told another unfunny and unoriginal joke. "I'd put my head down and keep walking," he says. With a vibe that was more laid-back surfer than BMOC, the gangly Goff went more or less unnoticed.

Through three games as a freshman, he was leading the country in passing yards per game. Then, at Oregon in a driving rainstorm, he had to be pulled from the game because he couldn't hold on to the ball. Afterward, he manned up, took the blame and avoided excuses. At some point during that season, his father, Jerry, who played baseball at Cal and was an MLB catcher over six seasons, pulled his son aside and said: "You know what, buddy? You're going to learn from this. Do you like how this feels, getting your ass kicked every week? No, because it sucks."

As Jerry recounts the story, it's clear the message was delivered from father to son, one athlete to another, in a more caring tone than the words might indicate. But they're blunt people, these Goffs. Jared was not sheltered from failure or frustration growing up the son of a journeyman who experienced his share of losses and disappointments in 12 minor league seasons. That steeled Jared for that miserable freshman campaign. "There wasn't a lot of blue sky above," says Jerry, "but that year was a blessing in disguise. He learned how to handle adversity and losing, and that's a good experience. He still remembers 1-11."

It was hard for a lot of other folks to forget too. Even the Old Blues who care enough about football to voice an opinion had their pride hurt and wondered if Dykes' Texas roots and air raid system could ever take hold in Berkeley. Meanwhile, the post-Tedford roster was divided between those who were young and talented but not quite ready, and those who were sour and undisciplined. Practices sometimes devolved into internecine farce; Goff would throw a pass over the middle to one of his promising freshman receivers and a veteran safety would blow the guy up. It was about the only defense the Golden Bears played that year.

"Trying to impress the coaches, I guess," Goff says now. "You realize you know how to practice when our safeties don't want to hit Bryce Treggs on a post anymore because they know he's going to have to play this weekend."

While his sophomore year extended Cal's bowl drought to three years, Goff did lead the team to five wins, and his 331 passing yards per game and 35 touchdowns both ranked fifth in the nation. Those numbers, coupled with his big arm and sound footwork, prompted draft analysts to move Goff up their draft boards this offseason. But not even the most prescient of college football analysts could have foreseen how Goff would seize his junior year: Cal started 5-0 for the first time since 2007 and earned its first AP Top 25 ranking since 2010. Of course, an October gauntlet that includes the College GameDay trip to Utah (Saturday, 10 PM ET, ESPN), at UCLA and USC, not to mention an early November trip to Oregon, will ultimately determine whether Goff and the Bears are contenders or simply spoilers.

Assuming Cal holds its own, that stretch could also help Goff overcome a perceived East Coast bias, with a media that seem to pay attention to only two West Coast teams, Oregon and USC. Were he throwing for the Ducks or Trojans, Goff's early rsum would surely have him at the forefront of the Heisman race: Through five games, he completed 70 percent of his passes for 326 yards per game as he closed in on 10,000 yards in less than three seasons. And his ability to throw an accurate deep ball is nearly unmatched. His 61 percent completion rate on passes thrown at least 20 yards downfield through Week 5 is second among qualifying Power 5 passers. All this while playing behind an iffy offensive line.

Yet Goff has always stood strong in the pocket -- "Doesn't see the rush; never bothers him," Dykes says with concision -- and the extra weight has given him the heft to bounce off hits and extend plays. His 5,000-calorie days this past summer -- he would send pictures of every meal to Cal's conditioning staff -- paid off when he iced the 30-24 win over Washington by running through tacklers to get a first down on fourth and five. The following week, a 34-28 win over Washington State, Goff completed a nifty jump pass after shedding a hit deep in the backfield. It wasn't quite Ben Roethlisberger, but if you turned your head just right and used your imagination, you might've caught a glimpse of Big Ben.

Still, the toughness isn't the first thing you notice. Goff radiates unaffected cool -- baseball cap backward more often than not, blond hair in a permanent state of disrepair, brown eyes that always look a bit sleepy. But that's the thing about appearances: They tend to lie, or at least tell only part of the story. Goff calls himself a perfectionist, and like most of those, he seems a little disturbed by his own obsessions. If he throws a pass to the wrong spot in practice, he has to throw it to the right spot three straight times before he can move on.

"I know there's a huge difference between putting the ball here" -- Goff holds his hands near his right hip -- "and here" -- his hands move roughly 10 inches to his left shoulder. Then he launches into a detailed description of an incompletion against Washington, when he threw a pass slightly behind tight end Stephen Anderson after mistakenly expecting the safety to drive in front of the receiver. Goff drops his hands, his shoulders droop, as if preparing to confess. "Trying to be too perfect," he says. "I kind of obsess about that kind of thing."

Goff's mentality has seeped into the Bears' culture. When the team arrived for practice on the Sunday after the Washington win, the day they appeared in the polls, nobody talked about it. "Nobody even flinched," Goff says. "Business as usual." Dykes laughs: "We didn't talk about it when we were ranked last in the country, so why talk about it now? We know how fleeting that is."

Ah, the moment. Don't let them fool you. Amid their team's success, Dykes and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, who followed his boss from Louisiana Tech, still hear all the commotion from their NFL counterparts. It's a knock on them, after all. And rest assured that talk of a "quarterback crisis" will persist as the regular season becomes the bowl season and the bowl season becomes the draft season. So the question will remain: Is Goff a future franchise quarterback or simply a collection of bloated statistics -- 23 school passing records at a QB-friendly university, it should be noted -- who will crumble at the sight of an NFL playbook? Franklin answers like he's expecting the interrogation. "What we ask Jared to do is much harder than what he'll be asked to do in the NFL," he says with conviction. "The NFL people want to make everything where, 'We're smart and you're dumb.'"

No matter what the NFL might suggest, Franklin and Dykes do not sound like part of a failing educational system. To hear Franklin tell it, Goff has full autonomy during those 10 or 12 seconds before the ball is snapped: "The first thing Jared will have to identify is coverage, whether they're in a cover 1, cover 0, cover 4," says Franklin, who is in his third season as Goff's QB coach. "If he's going to get a zero blitz where they have too many for us to block, he's going to have to change the protection. If he's in a run-pass option and he wants to throw, he may see something that tells him we're in a blocking scheme that isn't going to give him enough time to throw. So he's going to have to change the protection on that. It's a lot to think about before every single play -- and we're playing fast -- but last year I'd say he was right 80 to 85 percent of the time. Now I'd say he's a 95 to 99 percent guy, which is phenomenal for what I ask him to do."

Yet overcomplication is both shield and sword for the NFL coach. Sure, Franklin talks a big game, but can Goff pull that off with 11 of the largest, fastest men in the world staring him down? When blitzers encrypt their schemes? When his field is literally cut in half by NFL hash marks? Perhaps those NFL coaches are ignoring the real crisis. Perhaps the very idea that a rookie quarterback should be able to master a complicated system and immediately transform a franchise is a proven recipe for failure. Maybe the suggestion of a "quarterback crisis" is a natural backlash from coaches who are sweltering under the heat of today's win-now culture in a league that lives and dies by the man under center.

Whatever the case, the qualities that are supposedly becoming endangered -- pre-snap reads, ability to run through progressions, capacity to move defenders with a tilt of his head or a turn of his shoulder -- are Goff's strengths.

"I've heard people say he's better than Aaron Rodgers at this stage," says Washington assistant coach Bob Gregory, who was Cal's defensive coordinator during the Rodgers era. "I don't know about that, but I do know he's really good. I've never been in the NFL, but I've been in college for a while and this kid seems like a no-brainer. He can really put the ball in a tight window, and he can do it under pressure with a quick release."

So what does the guy in the moment think? Is he just another shiny product of a gimmicky spread or an old-fashioned, dropback savior for a floundering franchise? The answer to that question -- at this particular point in time -- concerns Goff not at all. "Throughout my life I've let everything take care of itself," he says, "and it's worked out well."

For now, things are good. Four grown men thought enough of him to hang out and ask for his autograph. (Hey, nobody said this was Alabama.) He's got so much freedom to run Cal's offense that his coordinator has effectively ceded control. He goes to practice every day thrilled that DBs are no longer blowing up his receivers.

Let him enjoy this, will you? It'll be over soon enough, as college tributes take the inevitable turn toward pre-professional critiques. Right now, though, he's exactly who he wants to be: a kid trying to keep the moment alive, live inside it, and make it last as long as possible.

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