Is Chargers head coach Brandon Staley too aggressive on fourth down?

Brandon Staley

Brandon Staley
Photo: Getty Images

Sometimes football coaches can become so set in how “they do things” that their philosophy can negatively affect the team’s overall production. That could be said about Los Angeles Chargers second-year head coach Brandon Staley. He believes in rolling the dice and going for it on fourth down. And isn’t shy about it.

“If we lose, we’re going to do it on our terms, not someone else’s terms.” Staley told The Athletic.

You’ve got to love the young coach’s confidence, though his offensive aggressiveness is a bit surprising considering defense is his specialty. Staley was the Rams’ defensive coordinator in 2020 before taking the Chargers job last season. He also spent three seasons as the outside linebackers coach for the Denver Broncos and Chicago Bears. Brandon’s college coaching stops were on the defensive side as well.

We rarely see a head coach in the NFL that came up through the defensive ranks be this aggressive in his offensive scheme and mindset. Traditionally, defensive coaches have mainly gambled on fourth down when they needed to. Only in specific situations would going for a fourth down conversion even be dreamt of years ago.

Two teams attempted more fourth downs last year than the Chargers, but Los Angeles converted the most, going 22 for 34. LA also finished the season tied in fourth down conversion percentage with the New England Patriots, another team with a defensive-minded head coach. While this contradicts everything of what the NFL has been on the field for decades, it’s not out of the ordinary anymore to see defensive coaches be less conservative on offense.

Staley seems to be leading that charge and isn’t apologetic about using analytics. Even in confidence, Staley is humble enough to admit that it isn’t about himself but the team. If going for a fourth-down conversion gives the Chargers a higher win probability, then Staley is probably taking that chance.

But at what point does it become predictable? Opposing defenses are also using analytics and looking for an edge against these modern offensive attacks. Staley’s Chargers went seven for seven on fourth downs to start the ‘21 season. They closed the year by converting eight of their last nine fourth downs.

Sure, it worked, but so did the wildcat offense for Miami — for a season— until the rest of the NFL figured it out. And that’s where sticking to your plan can come off as stubborn. Some coaches fail to adjust when teams figure them out or simply won’t. Teams didn’t know what to expect from Staley on offense his first year. This season will surely be different.

Having a young star at quarterback like Justin Herbert helps a lot, but even the best QBs have a team or two that figure them out at some point. Every defense they play this year will be prepared for numerous fourth-down attempts against the Chargers.

Like many, I still believe in taking points when they’re available. I don’t mind going for fourth down, but Staley sometimes chose to pass on field goal attempts in close games. Sometimes it feels like coaches outthink themselves with these decisions. It’s okay to only get three points out of a drive.

With Staley’s gambler disposition, he could be on the hot seat after only two seasons if these Chargers can’t make the postseason. No coach ever wants to be on the hot seat but especially not when a name like Sean Payton is out there lurking.

LA won nine games last season, and their division only got tougher this offseason with the addition of Russell Wilson in Denver. All four teams in the AFC West have an above-average to great QB situation. Herbert, Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, and Derek Carr. The AFC West is the best QB division in football.

At least Chargers fans know what they are getting with Staley. He’s firm in his belief in going for it on fourth down. This means you’ll miss out on some points here and there, although Staley takes responsibility and is willing to live with those decisions. Staley says the Chargers will lose on their terms. He could be looking for employment elsewhere if those terms don’t land the Chargers in the playoffs this year.

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