The Los Angeles Chargers’ head coach Brandon Staley gained a reputation for making bold fourth-down decisions during his first season in that position.
The Chargers converted on fourth down 31.5 percent of the time, the highest percentage of any NFL team. The Chargers also performed admirably when faced with fourth-down situations, converting at a rate of 64.7 percent, which is tied for the fourth-best in the league. The Chargers were able to beat the Browns and Chiefs early in the season thanks to the aggressiveness, but late in the season Staley came under fire when his aggressiveness did not quite work out as well.
In 2022, Staley has reportedly grown considerably more conservative. On Thursday night, Staley decided to kick in multiple spots where he generally would have gone for it a year ago against the divisional foe Chiefs. Staley decided to punt or kick a field goal on five of seven fourth-and-4 or shorter situations on Thursday night, compared to going for it at a rate of 54.5 percent last season (and completing those chances 62.5 percent of the time). The decisions to kick the ball cost Los Angeles about 11.6 points of win probability, according to at least one assessment. Two decisions to take a chance in comparable circumstances made up some, but not all, of that (10.1 percentage points).
Staley explained his selection process as follows: “The only goal was to give our defense an opportunity to compete. The manner we were playing was fantastic. To flip the field there, in my opinion, was the answer. We felt like we were assertive tonight when we needed to be. All four of our fourth down conversions came for us. The field position would be a huge advantage for our defense to be able to pin them back there, in my opinion, given who is over there (Patrick Mahomes) and the way our defense was playing. And I thought our defense played well tonight.”
Staley’s description of his decision-making is startling, especially in light of the manner he has previously discussed opportunities of this nature. Take a look at how his postgame remarks and the interview he gave to The Athletic during the offseason differed:
To participate in this game, one must be brave, and that was what Staley sought to promote. “When I first joined this squad, the past suggested that something terrible was about to occur—someone would get hurt, they would squander a lead, etc. There’s this thing called “charging.” I am aware of numerous outside variables in my life, but they are all merely justifications. They are all merely defenses.
So, how do you alter that? You must, then, approach things differently and carry out your tasks in a unique manner. … The focus of our thinking will be on us, not the competition. It will fall on us. Therefore, cultivating a fearless attitude where we are going to be aggressive, put the ball in our hands, and trust our players to create plays.
“If we lose, it will be on our terms, not theirs,” the team said.
In particular, the line about having the attitude that “it’s on us, it’s not going to be on the opponent” applies because Staley highlighted Mahomes being on the opposite sideline as a justification for kicking rather than running in certain circumstances. That not only directly conflicts with what he told The Athletic, but it also doesn’t really hold up to close examination.
Mahomes playing for the opposite team means that you will probably need to score even more points to win. Kicking eliminates the possibility of doing so. And if you have that much faith in your defense and the way it is playing, you should have enough faith in their ability to recover the ball even if you try for it but fail to score. Staley in the year 2021 would have almost certainly said the same thing. Staley may have adopted a more conservative position on these topics as a result of criticism of his choices in the final stretch of the previous season. Maybe he just didn’t like the way these particular opportunities presented themselves in this particular game. The course of the season will reveal more information.