Plaschke: Rams need to stick with John Wolford and start him in playoffs

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INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA JANUARY 3, 2021-Rams quarterback John Wolford picks up a 1st down.
Quarterback John Wolford runs for a first down against the Arizona Cardinals in the Rams' 18-7 win Sunday at SoFi Stadium that clinched a playoff berth. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

His first pass was completed to a guy from the other team.

His third pass was overthrown. His fourth pass was underthrown. His fifth pass was wide.

John Wolford’s first NFL game looked as if it could be his last NFL game. Yet, despite the early madness on the field, the most compelling scene was from the sideline, where the newbie sat casually after his interception, arms draped over the back of the bench, message clear.

“We’re good,” he said to a consoling teammate.

He was. They were. They are.

The Rams eventually rode the smart arm, sturdy legs and resilient composure of their backup quarterback Sunday into the playoffs with an 18-7 win over the Arizona Cardinals at SoFi Stadium, and you know what has to happen now, right?

They need to keep riding with him. They need to keep huddling around him. They need to continue to be inspired by him.

John Wolford needs to remain the starter for the NFC wild-card playoff game Saturday in Seattle against the Seahawks.

Even if Jared Goff’s broken right thumb is healed, start Wolford. Even if Goff throws well in practice, start Wolford.

His athleticism lets the offense breathe. His field vision allows the passing game to expand. His game management makes the drives flow.

With Wolford, the Rams play with more freedom, more versatility, more joy. With Wolford, the Rams' NFL-best defense plays with more rest, less angst and better field position.

With Wolford, especially against a Seattle defense that flustered Goff just last week, the Rams will play with more hope.

Granted, against the Cardinals, Wolford didn’t throw a touchdown pass. But after that quick pick, he also didn’t make any big mistakes. He worked the clock. He worked the field. He knew when to hold it. He knew when to throw it away. After those shaky first five passes, he was 21 for 33, throwing for a total of 231 yards to seven Rams, none of whom was the sidelined Cooper Kupp.

Injured Rams quarterback Jared Goff stands next to quarterback John Wolford.
Injured Rams quarterback Jared Goff, left, stands next to quarterback John Wolford before Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

And he knew when to run. Goodness, did he know when to run, rushing for 56 yards on nearly 10 yards per carry, on his first day surpassing Goff’s best rushing day. He also kept the Rams' offense on the field 15 minutes more than the Cardinals' while setting the stage for their defense to win it with a safety and a pick six.

Smart, versatile, composed execution. That’s all the Rams need from their quarterback. That’s what they haven’t been getting from Goff.

That’s why coach Sean McVay needs to dispense with formalities and shrug off traditions and start Wolford against the Seahawks.

Here’s guessing McVay knows it too.

How about it, coach?

“You know what, we’ll talk about that,” McVay said afterward in response to my question about whether Wolford will be the starter Saturday. “But I thought he did a great job today. … I thought he really gave us a chance offensively with the amount of plays that he made in the pass game, with his legs, athleticism, being able to extend things. … I was really pleased with John.”

When I asked about Wolford’s running, McVay nearly zoomed through the Zoom.

“I thought it really got us going,’’ he said. “John’s ability to … convert with his legs, that’s a big winning edge for us. That was a factor all day. You can just see some of the different things you’re able to do with him really showed up.”

The thing about Wolford is, he doesn’t rattle. Imagine throwing an interception that leads to a touchdown on your first NFL attempt. Imagine then telling your teammates everything is good. Imagine being so composed because the same thing happened to you before … while playing preps?

“It almost settled me in,” Wolford said of the pass thrown directly into the arms of Arizona linebacker Jordan Hicks. “I remember I was in high school, we were playing a good team, I threw a pick the first play of the game and came back and played great. I was kind of thinking about that.”

After that lousy fifth pass, he ran for 13 yards on third and 10, and his game was on. He found Van Jefferson for 15 yards. He ran for 11 more yards. He ran for nine more yards. The Rams eventually kicked a field goal. It was on one of their three drives that chewed up at least 6:57.

“This guy’s resilience came up in a big way,” McVay said.

After the Rams led 12-7 at halftime, Wolford really shined.

On their first drive of the second half, a soul-sucking, field-goal march of 13 plays, he found Tyler Higbee down the right sideline for 26 yards. On their second drive, a crushing 71-yard crunch for another field goal, he found Cam Akers down the left sideline for 38 yards.

Talk about seeing the whole field.

”I felt good out there. I felt comfortable. I didn’t feel overwhelmed,” Wolford said.

He kept that first drive moving by fighting off a potential third-down sack to find Jefferson across the middle for 13 yards. He kept that second drive alive with a fourth-down toss to Higbee against a blitz, followed by a scrambling 19-yard completion to Jefferson.

Talk about toughness under pressure.

“I had a lot of fun. … I was a little anxious going in. … Once I got rolling, I was just playing football again,” Wolford said.

Fittingly, on third and eight on the Rams' final drive, Wolford clinched the game by simply tucking the ball under his arm and running for nine yards, his final steps completed while carrying two Cardinals tacklers.

Does he think he is running right back into the huddle Saturday? Don’t ask. Moments after his first victory, there’s no way anybody was dragging him into his first quarterback controversy.

“I’m here to do a job," he said. "I have no idea where [Goff is] at. I’m just trying to enjoy this win."

In the final moments Sunday, as he strolled the sideline patting his teammates' helmets, eye black smeared across his beard-stubbled face, his smile confident, his swagger strong, Wolford looked like a Rams starting quarterback.

For at least another week, he needs to be one.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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