COSTA MESA, Calif.—Just after 7 a.m. last Monday, Brandon Staley, the 38-year-old head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers, walked through the hallway of the team’s training facility when he passed and fist-bumped veteran cornerback Chris Harris. Walking away, Staley said, “He’s such a G.”
G. Gangster. [I will attempt to explain: A “G” is someone great at his job, usually spoken by people under 40. It’s a respectful term.]
“We got Coach talking the lingo!” safety Derwin James said.
Meeting his players on their terms is part of Staley’s deal. His rise to be a head coach is one of the most amazing stories in the league right now. Five years ago today, he was preparing to coach the 2016 John Carroll Blue Streaks. But not as head coach—as defensive coordinator of the Division III school in the Cleveland ‘burbs. He was not a normal Division III assistant coach. He used his connections, for instance, to wrangle a week to learn inside New Orleans Saints camp in 2009. A football-nerdy notebook with drawn plays from that week sits on his desk in Orange County today. “God bless my wife,” Staley said. “I spent every last dime we had to make that trip. I soaked in everything.”
In 2017, he interviewed for a job coaching linebackers coach with the Bears under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and got the gig. He followed Fangio to Denver in 2019, won the defensive coordinator job with the Rams in 2020 (by force of personality and verve), and got the Chargers’ gig 24 hours after the Rams’ season ended last January.
“My path doesn’t make a lot of sense to people,” he told me, sitting in his office. “I was just hoping to make it to the NFL within five years. But this? No.
“Something I vividly remember from my interview here: I told them, ‘I don’t know it all, guys. But I promise there won’t be anyone who will figure it out and learn it faster. That’s who I am—teacher, leader, competitor.’ I didn’t want to come across as a know-it-all, savant, wizard-type.”
Staley didn’t come across that way, GM Tom Telesco said. He came across as a communicator who knew all three phases of football well. “The business has changed a lot,” Telesco told me. “Gosh, he was coaching Division III five years ago, but we thought if you can connect with players, and you really know football, does it matter how old you are?”
The Chargers hope Staley is the defensive Sean McVay. Both are young, extremely exuberant, bursting with ideas, and incredibly self-assured. Both took over Los Angeles football franchises with no head-coaching experience. McVay head-coached in a Super Bowl at 33, though. There’s the difference. Staley’s got a lot to prove, and a league-full of eyes will be on him.
It’s not like the Chargers made a David Culley pick, though—picking a coach out of left field. Lots of teams loved Staley after his lone year as defensive coordinator with the Rams, when they finished first in the league in yards and points allowed. “He’s the best defensive coordinator I’ve had in the NFL for sure,” said all-pro Rams corner Jalen Ramsey, who spent just one season with Staley. The man who hired him to coach linebackers in Chicago out of John Carroll in 2017, Broncos coach Vic Fangio, told me: “Some players, some coaches, see the game through a straw. They see how the game affects them, or their group. They’ve got tunnel vision. Brandon sees how it affects all 11, all 22.”
Staley fit the Mike Tomlin/McVay profile. I remember asking Dan Rooney about hiring Tomlin at 34 when he was a first-year coordinator for the Vikings. “If we didn’t hire him now, we’d never have had the chance,” Rooney told me. NFL teams like to pluck the next hot coach, and Staley was going to get a job soon. The Eagles might have picked him to succeed Doug Pederson; Staley was due to spend a full day with Philadelphia owner Jeffrey Lurie and GM Howie Roseman before the Chargers cut them off by hiring him the day before that scheduled meeting.
I think the 2021 Chargers are the most fascinating team in football, the only team with a prayer to seriously challenge Kansas City in the AFC West. They have:
- Justin Herbert, the rising-star quarterback who looks like a franchise player at 23, piloting a very young team.
- Staley, the kid head coach.
- Derwin James, the quarterback of the defense who’s had two straight years wrecked with injuries (broken foot, torn meniscus, COVID) after being a first-team all-pro safety as a 2018 rookie. He’s healthy and motivated to show he’s not injury-prone.
- A skeptical league staring at them. The Chargers, who didn’t have a strong Los Angeles fan base when they left San Diego, surprised locals last week by saying they’d exceeded 45,000 season tickets in their first year with fans at new SoFi Stadium. The big question: Will those fans be Chargers’ partisans, or will they be lovers of the teams on an attractive home slate—New England, the Giants, Dallas, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Kansas City—who buy from brokers and make this a stadium with road-team advantage. “I think SoFi will be StubHub on steroids,” said one L.A. sports market expert I know. The Chargers took steps to not sell a load of tickets to brokers. Now we’ll see if their attempts to make SoFi a place with a majority of Charger partisans can work.
- A potential Defensive Player of the Year in Joey Bosa, another cornerstone player who’s been hurt more than his share too, with six missed starts last year. His pass-rush ability for 17 games is vital.
The biggest question, I think, is Staley’s ability to hit the ground running with a playoff contender—and with such a thin NFL resume. When I shadowed him for a morning last week, I saw a confident coach with a meticulous plan. But will he have his players’ ears in a three-game losing streak in November, when times get tough? Everyone can be optimistic now, and everyone in this franchise is. But in August…everyone’s optimistic.
At 7:28 a.m. last Monday, Staley walked into a staff meeting at the Chargers’ facility in Costa Mesa. There were 27 coaches/coaching interns in the team meeting room. The average age looked to be about 36 or 38. As he got going, Staley didn’t have any surprises—just verities he wanted his coaches to reinforce on the practice field that morning.
“Make it a great day today, guys,” Staley said at one point. “Physical. Fierce. I want the quarterback to feel the consequences of something bad happening. Show ‘em how we practice. Keep reinforcing it with your players. Talk to them. Talk about competition all the time. Talk about playing the game the right way.”
We went to his office before practice. On the desk was a book called, “When Breath Becomes Air,” by a Stanford neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi, written while he was dying of lung cancer at age 37. It’s educational and inspirational and tragic, all at once. Staley, a survivor of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, was moved by the book, by the surgeon’s search for meaning and importance, all the way to the end.
“Why ‘When Breath Becomes Air?’ I asked.
Staley opened the book, which was rife with Staley’s hand-written notes and underlined passages. “This book spoke to me,” he said. He found a passage written by Kalanithi and read it aloud: “I was compelled by neurosurgery with its unforgiving call to perfection … Neurosurgery seemed to present the most challenging and direct confrontation with meaning, identity and death.”
“I think this job, being the head coach of a football team, requires that type of skill set,” Staley said. While emphasizing that Kalanithi was trained to save lives and that’s real-worldly far different than being trained to coach football games, using all aspects of your brain and your drive felt similar to Staley.
He said: “The depth and the breadth—you’ve got to have command over a lot of things. You have to be able to deal with tough news. You have to be able to have important relationships in your job and your life. Relationships with patients, relationships with doctors, relationships with your family. A lot’s being asked of you all the time. There’s really high expectations, there’s high pressure on the outside. There’s a standard of performance that is real. That’s why I love it so much—because I think it really brings out the best in you. It requires a lot of you.”
The Chargers practice a few miles from their facility. In the 10-minute ride to practice, I asked Staley about being in charge of a team so early in his life. “I don’t care what your age is,” he said. “Whether you’re 38 or 58, it’s important to know who you’re coaching. I am going through some of the things my players—Corey Linsley, Bryan Bulaga, Derwin James, all with young kids—are going through. We’re raising three kids under 6. What I enjoy the most is staying out here, coaching and teaching and building relationships with the players. Relationships are big for us here. Relationships and competition. I feel like in order for you to push it, you gotta know these guys. A lot of people will say ‘players’ coach.’ I’m like, no, I’m just their coach. I would hope that I’m a players’ coach. I would hope that I would say that I have that type of relationship because then we can push it harder. I can ask more of them.”
On the field, Staley’s defense has a good day. Two picks of Herbert frustrate the young passer (“This defense does a great job of disguising,” Herbert said afterward), and overall, the defense won the day. Brandon Staley’s team seems happy, forward-looking, optimistic—which, of course, it should be in training camp.
“He challenges us every day,” James said after practice. “He’s a great leader too. My mom always taught me you can lead at any age. It blows me away that he was a college coordinator five years ago, but that shows me the kind of person and coach he is. It’s his time.”