SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, Calif. — It’s 5:39 a.m. in Orange County, and Chargers coach Brandon Staley is in a rush to get to work 25 minutes away. But he can’t rush his drive too much through the thick fog enveloping the area around his home, not far from the Pacific Ocean.
“In the morning, you can get this fog, which is kind of cool,” said Staley, an Ohio kid exposed to California life for the first time in 2020. He speaks of it not in annoyance for adding five minutes to his commute — but rather in a Hey, look at this awesome rolling fog tone.
“My wife is from Chicago. I’m from Cleveland. I don’t know what our picture of California was, but coming to southern California we couldn’t believe how much it feels like home.”
Staley, 39, has a natural eagerness to him, which the football world should see a lot of this year. The Chargers were doomed by a leaky defense last year — the dramatic postseason-elimination loss to the Raiders has left a scar — and the offseason has brought in credible reinforcements: cornerback J.C. Jackson, pass rusher Khalil Mack, run-stoppers Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson, guard Zion Johnson. With mature-beyond-his-years quarterback Justin Herbert piloting a top-five NFL offense, the pieces are in place for a young team to make a 2022 run, even in the stacked AFC West.
Staley’s not just a coach, though. He’s become a lightning rod for progressive football. The Chargers led the NFL in fourth-down conversions last year with 22, and they were fourth in efficiency, making a first down on 65 percent of their fourth-down tries. But it’s the one they didn’t convert — fourth-and-one from their own 18- in the third quarter of that final game in Las Vegas, leading to a Raider field goal in a three-point loss — that prompted a torrent of criticism.
The young coach is wounded but unbowed. The analytics community, quietly, loves Staley. “He’s our Trojan horse,” said one team research analyst in the growing community of numbers-crunchers throughout the league. Meaning: Staley’s taking the heat from many who think it’s insane to go for it on fourth-and-one deep in your own territory in a tight game, but four models say (narrowly) it was the right thing to do. Another analyst told me, “Everyone screamed about fourth-and-one from the 18-, but no one mentions the Chargers were six of seven on fourth down in their biggest game of the year, and they lost because they were awful against the run.”
Raiders 35, Chargers 32, Week 18, game 272, Sunday night. America watching.
“That was the … that’s the toughest loss that I’ve ever been a part of as a competitor for sure,” Brandon Staley said, merging onto I-5, fog dissipating. “Then to watch the playoffs unfold how they did, you know, to see the AFC Championship Game and then the Super Bowl, that was a tough month for me. As tough a month as I’ve had.
“But I think it was a good month for me because I got a lot of work done in that month. I really took a hard look at myself number one, our team, our organization, how we did things, make those after-action reports in all phases. I got a lot of work done. As hard as it was, I think it set the stage for the type of offseason that we’ve had but it was as tough as it gets.”
“Ryan Tannehill told me he got professional help,” I said. “Not suggesting you did or you needed it, but can football send you into, even temporarily, a really depressed state?”
“When things matter to you so much, like I’m sure they do for Ryan…I think the finality of the NFL and sometimes how you lose, you can’t help but be affected, because of how much it means, how much you care. But that’s part of competition. I think when you compete, especially in the NFL, you’re gonna sign up for losses like Ryan had, like we had. There’s gonna be these really tough moments. That’s what gets you back going again, though, knowing that you get an opportunity to prove yourself again. You have to show that resilience and I think that’s what it’s about for me. You learn a lot from everything and then you gotta bounce back and you gotta come back better. That’s what I spent my time learning this offseason.”
One thing that sticks with me about that game — and that spurred GM Tom Telesco to over-scout run defenders last winter — was the very end, the last two plays of the 2022 NFL regular season. The Raiders had second-and-11 from the LA 46 with 80 seconds left. Tie game. If it ended in a tie, both teams would have made the playoffs. Next two snaps: Josh Jacobs for seven, Jacobs for 10. Daniel Carlson’s 47-yard field goal won it.
“My regret,” Staley said, “is that in what should’ve been able to get us out of there with a tie. They ended up splitting us on a 10-yard run and that’s what I’ve been thinking about — our execution on that last play. That’s the tough side of things, having to live with that. I didn’t do a good enough job. That’s the tough side of things. That’s what gotten me moving this whole offseason.”
Staley was hired after coaching the league’s top-rated defense with the Rams in 2020. The Chargers were 23rd in team defense last year, allowing more points than Jacksonville and Houston. That led to the offseason urgency to fix the defense. In Staley’s first year as an NFL assistant, 2017, he coached the Bears’ outside linebackers and got to know Mack well. Now he’s gambling that Mack, at 31 and coming off foot surgery, can be the Mack of five years ago. It’s a big gamble.
“I felt like we were missing…that presence up front,” Staley said. “I think Derwin James is as good of a leader as there is in pro football. I think Joey Bosa is one of the top defensive players in pro football. But I think to establish a culture and the type of mindset, you gotta bring in players who can live that. I think there’s no better example of that than Khalil. I saw it happen in Chicago. He’s a fierce competitor.”
Of course you regret something when it doesn’t work. That’s human nature. But in the six or seven minutes we discussed it, these were the five words that meant the most: “The mindset, I don’t regret.”
I don’t see Staley changing. And he shouldn’t.
“I think as a coach any time something doesn’t go down, you’re gonna challenge yourself and say, ‘Was that the best thing? Did I give myself, our team the best chance to win?’ That was a moment in the game that I felt like we could take advantage of to really give our team a lift. And looking back on it, when we didn’t make that fourth down, it had an impact on our offense for a couple of possessions. Defensively, we stopped them right away. I like the way we were playing but it had an impact on our offense for a few possessions and so I think I underestimated that, what that could do if we didn’t make it. But the mindset, I don’t regret. That’s obviously something that in one of the many decisions in that game that if you had to do over again and you knew it was gonna happen, you obviously wouldn’t do it. But the mindset of why we did it, I think in games like that, you have to go meet moments like that head-on.”
There’s a Twitter account run by a football analyst for The Athletic, Ben Baldwin, called the 4th down decision bot (@ben_bot_baldwin). Baldwin uses historical data for each team and each situation and analyzes each fourth-down decision to go for it during the NFL season. He provides, by the numbers, a percentage for the team to win if it goes for it and if it doesn’t. He first-guesses, essentially. On this play — Raiders up 17-14, Chargers with fourth-and-one at their 18-, 8:57 left in the third quarter, Chargers with 15 running-back rushes for 77 yards to this point — the 4th down decision bot said the Chargers had a 44 percent chance to win the game if they went for it, a 41 percent to win if they punted. The recommendation (“STRONG”) was to go for it. NFL partner Next Gen Stats and two other public analytics sites also said the right call was to go for it.
Austin Ekeler got swarmed trying to pierce the left side of the line. Loss of two. Maybe the Chargers will put the ball in Herbert’s hands even on a short one the next time. Herbert was six for six throwing it for conversions on the other six times Staley went for it on fourth down.
There’s a bit of an old-school/new-school divide on fourth-down tendencies. The four coaches who went for it on fourth down the fewest times in the league last year, in order: Pete Carroll (11 fourth-down attempts), Andy Reid (15), Bruce Arians (16), Bill Belichick (17). But Sean McVay (19 tries) and Kyle Shanahan (20) were close, so it’s not definitive that the youngsters are all changing the landscape.
“We had two primetime games at the end of the season that were really, really, really the big games. We didn’t win. There were some [fourth] downs in there that people are gonna scrutinize. That’s part of it.
“But then there were five or six, seven games for sure — five games for sure, six seven depending how you look at it — where I know that we don’t win without that mindset. What you have to be able to do is look at the entire season and then in those games that everyone is rightfully talking about, just be really critical of yourself and that’s what I’ve tried to do. I know that what I’m not gonna apologize for is how our team played in those games because our team played exactly how I would want them to play.”
Fourth-down attitude is the bright shiny object; it’s easy to take shots when the team doesn’t convert a controversial one, and it’s understandable because it’s such an untraditional decision. But this was the big picture for the ’21 Chargers: They lost three of their last four. They gave up 34, 41 and 35 points in those losses. They weren’t enough of a complete team and didn’t deserve to make the playoffs. Now they’ve done something about it —but that something isn’t a change in philosophy by the head coach. It’s a change in personnel.
Now Staley was in the parking lot in Costa Mesa. Time to go to work.
“I know the mindset I tried to create within our team,” he said. “I know that’s not gonna change. Not one bit.”