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Six football seasons ago, Brandon Staley was the defensive coordinator at John Carroll University, a small, non-scholarship, Division III program in Ohio. That was 2016.
The 39-year-old is on a meteoric rise (he coached linebackers in Chicago for two seasons, then Denver for one, then became the defensive coordinator in L.A. for the Rams before landing the Chargers' top job). As such, it shouldn’t surprise that he is unafraid of betting on big things happening even if their happening would defy the long held conventional wisdom of how big things happen.
Three times against Kansas City, Staley’s Chargers faced fourth down within field-goal range. One was from the Chiefs' 5-yard line. Another, on the last play of the first half, from the 1. In the third quarter, there was a fourth-and-2 from the 28.
All three times Staley went for it rather than taking the likely field goal. All three times the Chargers were stopped – once on a scary play where tight end Donald Parham wound up hospitalized after hitting his head on the turf and two others on incomplete/batted down passes.
That’s nine likely points the Chargers left on the field.
Considering the Chiefs were able to come back and courtesy of two, 75-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown drives force overtime where they delivered another 75-yard touchdown drive to win, 34-28, those nine points mattered. A lot.
Not just in the final score, but in how the game was played along the way. If the Chargers kick, the Chargers probably win. They didn’t and didn’t.
Perhaps most interesting about the postgame fallout was that Staley didn’t just lean on “analytics” for his decision-making. He didn’t just point to some chart and explain that these decisions are made via cold calculations while ignoring any feel for the game. He didn’t snap at anyone questioning his choices.
“I’d love to answer that,” Staley said. “It’s life in the NFL and decision-making like that. Where my mindset is, I know the quickest way to win the game is to score touchdowns not field goals, especially considering who is on the other side.
“To me, when you think you are in an advantage-situation, when you don’t think it is a gamble, this is an advantage for you, then that is going to be your mindset,” he continued. “I don't think any decision we made tonight, I made tonight, was a gamble. We felt like it was an advantage-situation for us and that’s why we did it. If we didn’t feel like that was the case, we would have kicked the field goal.
“That is how we are going to do things around here,” Staley said. “And I know our team embraces that mindset and we are going to continue to do it in every game going forward.”
So this was as much attitude as it was analytics. Or that’s how it sounds. Calculations probably played a role, but not the conclusion.
Young coach, young quarterback in Justin Herbert, essentially a new franchise in a fresh city with almost no fans and even fewer media. The Chargers are going to play all in to win because … why not?
It’s an intriguing answer. Had it just been about the numbers, then there could be obvious criticism. How do these NFL formulas calculate for things like momentum and confidence, let alone COVID-depleted rosters and opponent mindsets?
Football is, and always will be, an emotional game. Its physicality demands it. And so things such as a score (even a field goal) as everyone heads to the locker room can have an impact beyond the actual points. Same with succumbing to a goal-line stand.
What Staley was saying, however, is that the culture he’s trying to build in L.A. is part math but mostly mindset. Hell, yeah, we are going for it. Every time, probably.
The fact he is a rookie head coach with limited NFL experience who looks about 27 years old doesn’t rattle his confidence into conservatism. If anything, it apparently does the opposite.
“That’s going to be the mindset no matter who we play,” Staley said. “... That’s the way we are going to play around here. When we have a quarterback like ours and an offense like ours that's how we are going to play.
“And that is how we are going to become the team we are ultimately capable of being, is by playing that way. “
On Thursday it cost them the game. But even with the loss, L.A. is 8-6 and still very much in the playoff chase. The Chiefs are two games up for the division, but Staley seemed pleased that his guys went toe-to-toe with the division’s bully and didn’t back down.
“We just quite didn’t get it done,” he said.
The players said they loved the strategy and their coach having faith in them.
“We believe in each other,” Herbert said. “I think that is a statement of trusting everyone on the field. We love to be put in those situations. Unfortunately we didn't convert as many as we would have liked to have today but we are going to ride with each other and be right back.”
This was about building an identity, Staley said. No apologies. No regrets. Nine points and a likely victory over the Chiefs left to flutter away and no one was blaming anyone, hiding behind analytics or even grumbling that anyone was asking about it.
Staley was proud of it, proud of how his team fought and even how L.A. lost. Give him this much, it’s a new day for the Chargers.