Brandon Staley is committed to his metrics, and he doesn’t care if you think he’s a moron
Well, he did it again.
Chargers coach Brandon Staley, fresh off of a barrage of criticism following Week 3 after he went for it from his own 24-yard-line on 4th-and-1 with 1:51 remaining and his team leading the Minnesota Vikings by four points, repeated the gamble this past Sunday. This time, with the Chargers ahead of the Las Vegas Raiders 24-17 with 3:34 to play, he went for it on 4th-and-1 from his own 34. In both instances Staley tried to slam the ball up the middle, first with running back Joshua Kelley on a dive play and then with quarterback Justin Herbert on a sneak, and both times the Chargers were denied. The Vikings and Raiders each took possession deep in Los Angeles territory and drove inside the 10-yard line before throwing interceptions. Los Angeles survived and won both games.
That hasn’t stopped the critics from lambasting Staley in the aftermath. Pro Football Network’s Trey Wingo tweeted “Brandon Staley is now actively TRYING to be fired.” Former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon said Staley committed “coaching malpractice” with his late-game decisions. ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, as you might imagine, had plenty to say on the subject as well, and none of it was flattering. The comments on blog sites and message boards have been almost universally critical, while a friend of mine seemed to capture the mood of the football world when he told me this about Staley: “That guy’s a moron.”
The thing is, Brandon Staley doesn’t seem to care. You have to admire him in that regard. After an entire universe of football watchers blasted his decision in the Minnesota game, you might think he’d be hesitant to make the same decision the next time the situation arose. Think again. The very next week, in an almost identical scenario, he did it again. That takes guts. Or hubris. Or as my friend suggested, simply being a moron.
Maybe it’s none of the above. Maybe it’s math. Brandon Staley is one of the many individuals across the coaching spectrum these days who rely on metrics for some of their most crucial decisions. Rather than coach by impulse, or “feel,” or even something as practical as film study, the metrics revolution stresses an application of analytics to in-game situations. Some may view this as the work of a bunch of nerds who’ve spent too much time studying numbers on a spreadsheet and don’t truly understand the game. For others, though, the numbers provide a valuable way to gain insight into an opponent or to self-scout. The data, they argue, is not subjective the way opinions are. It simply provides results that give coaches a better idea of what to expect from a given situation. If the numbers say an opposing quarterback completes 78% of his passes against the blitz, don’t blitz him. What’s so controversial about that?
One of the most widely-cited metrics these days is DVOA, which stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. This metric measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent. Put simply, DVOA doesn’t just collect numbers, like passing yards per game. Rather, it puts them into context. Passing for 350 yards against a terrible defense like Denver’s, for example, is not worth as much in DVOA terms as throwing for 300 yards against the Bills. To the metrics crowd, the offense that moves the ball well against Buffalo is better than the one who racked up good numbers against Denver, even if the raw data seems to favor the latter.
The data on 4th-down decisions is pretty clear. Over the past three seasons, NFL teams have combined to convert 76% of their 4th-and-1 attempts. When you factor in how the league has changed its rules to favor offenses, and how good NFL kickers have become, punting the football offers diminishing returns. A coach like Staley, whose defense has never been among the league’s elite units, must look at those 4th down numbers and conclude that he trusts his offense to make one yard more than he trusts his defense to stop teams from driving the field late in games.
Staley’s late-game decisions this season have drawn so much scrutiny because they involved particularly high levels of risk given the scenarios. These are not big-picture decisions like choosing not to blitz an elite quarterback. They come down to a single play, a single moment, that in isolation seems to hold the fate of the game in its balance. For Staley, however, these decisions are simple. He uses the data to guide him, whether in the first five minutes of a game or the last. Over the past 2+ seasons, there have been a number of contests where Staley has made seemingly unorthodox decisions in late-game moments. Consider:
2021 Week 3 vs Chiefs (bypassed long FG while tied)
2021 Week 4 vs Raiders (bypassed punt while up 7)
2021 Week 5 vs Browns (four different fourth-down attempts)
2021 Week 9 vs Eagles (went for it on fourth down while tied in fourth quarter)
2021 Week 11 vs Steelers (went for it on own 34 while tied)
2022 Week 4 vs Texans (went for it on own 45 in fourth quarter while up 3)
2022 Week 5 vs Browns (went for it from own 45 up 2)
2022 Week 12 vs Cardinals (went for 2 while down 1 to end the game)
2023 Week 3 vs Vikings (went for it from own 24 up 4)
2023 Week 4 vs Raiders (went for it from own 34 up 7)
All of those decisions were deemed risky at the time. And guess what? The Chargers won all of those games. So while Staley may seem reckless to some, or even a moron to others, there’s a case to be made that’s he’s just playing the odds. Given the success he’s had with his late-game approach, it’s hard to argue against him.
Unless, of course, you think like a normal football coach. Or fan. Or even a casual observer of the game. You don’t go for it from your own 24-yard-line in the final two minutes up by four. You punt the ball, make the opposing offense go seventy-or-so yards to score and put it on your defense to stop them. That’s the traditional approach. And it’s traditional because more often than not it works.
Just don’t tell that to Brandon Staley. He has the numbers to make a compelling counter argument. And despite his best efforts to screw things up, the wins as well. So call him a moron if you’d like. He just doesn’t seem to care.
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