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Head coach’s wise decisions marred by poor execution

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Brandon Staley just couldn’t get it right. He tried. Lord did he try. When faced with two paths in the woods, he weighed all the possibilities and outcomes at hand. He delved into analytics and understood the gravity of each decision he made on high. He saw what could improve his win probability the most, whether it was an in-game decision or with his input in roster building. And he mostly made the right choices. He just made them in the worst possible ways. Staley’s run for two-plus seasons as head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers is over. He was fired Friday morning (on the West Coast) following a game in which he let the Las Vegas Raiders go over the sportsbooks’ game-long total of 34 points, all by themselves, roughly 26 minutes into Thursday Night Football.

The man with one of the hottest seats in the NFL could not survive a game in which he trailed 42-0 at halftime to the league’s worst starting quarterback and a 5-8 divisional rival. Analysts were calling for him to be fired before he could even finish out the game and, honestly, it wasn’t that much of an overreaction. The trigger that knocked over the final domino in Staley’s career was shocking. The final outcome was not.

Staley was a sigil, a useful fill-in to throw back at couch jockeys who know a little bit of ball and suggest they could be reasonable NFL head coaches. He leaned into cavalier fourth-down decisions in vital points, eschewing punts with the lead in favor of keeping his offense on the field to kill the clock. And, every time we paid attention, he’d follow up this bold, mathematically sound move with a very stupid playcall. Here he was on fourth-and-1, protecting a 28-24 lead against the Minnesota Vikings with fewer than two minutes to play and Minnesota out of timeouts. Going for it here increased his win probability by 10.6 more points than punting. It was a risky decision, but one that should have been a clear win for a coach in need of one. Except that he dialed up a run up the middle with Joshua Kelley, a backup runner who’d seen little success in two runs earlier in the drive (two yards, negative-three yards) and brings almost no value in the receiving game. The Vikings snuffed it out, because it was entirely predictable. Minnesota only had to go 24 yards for a game-winning touchdown, raising its win probabilty from 14 percent to 42 in a single defensive play. That didn’t happen because the Vikings are possibly the only team more cursed with tantalizing, ungraspable success than the Chargers, but it sums up the Staley era pretty well. Los Angeles succeeded in spite of his ability to trip over his own feet whenever he’d surge to a gallop.

Staley appreciated the drama of the fourth down call. He understood the value of keeping the ball in his offense’s hands. And then, after empowering that offense to go for it in huge situations, he’d eschew all innovation and get throttled for his trouble. One week later, he attempted to simplify the equation on fourth-and-1 at his own 34 with fewer than four minutes to play against the Raiders. This was, again, the correct decision: It was, again, the wrong call. As Justin Herbert’s quarterback sneak went nowhere and the Chargers once again handed a trailing opponent the ball deep in their own territory with the game on the line. And these are the games Staley won! He haven’t even gotten to the real embarrassments — the ones that ended with press conference quotes that stumbled the line between terse and defeated like a sorority girl leaving the White Claw brewery tour.

Getting stomped by the Raiders was just the latest in a long line of embarrassments that included: Ruining 2021’s 4-1 start by gaining 208 yards of total offense in a 34-6 Week 6 loss to the Baltimore Ravens and proving this was an unserious team Taking a 28-21 late fourth quarter lead versus the 2021 Kansas City Chiefs, only to blow it 63 seconds later in a 31-28 overtime loss Giving up 24 fourth quarter points to David Culley’s Houston Texans (4-13 in 2021) in a 41-29 loss crucial to the Chargers’ playoff hopes Erasing a 15-point deficit in the final nine minutes against the Raiders, only to lose in overtime, in a Week 18 win-and-in game with a wild-card spot on the line Taking a 27-23 late fourth quarter lead versus the 2022 Kansas City Chiefs, only to blow it 75 seconds later in a 30-27 loss (he went 1-4 against Kansas City overall) And, the true Bansky commentary piece on the misery that is Chargers fandom amidst a sea of imitators, blowing a 27-0 lead to lose to the Jacksonville Jaguars — the Jacksonville Jaguars! — in the wild-card round last winter

These were merely his failures on the field, a master class in getting “almost there” before diverging from the highway and into a ditch. He and also-deposed general manager Tom Telesco followed a similar path when it came to roster building. They knew they had to beef up their defense, so they spent to acquire Khalil Mack, who has been great. They also added JC Jackson, Sebastian Joseph-Day, Austin Johnson and Sebastian Joseph-Day, who are not. They made the correct decision to beef up the receiving corps behind an aging Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. They did so by drafting Quentin Johnston ahead of players like Zay Flowers and Jordan Addison. Johnston has rewarded that faith with the 15th-most receiving yards among rookies this fall and too many moments like this: Quentin Johnston could have won this game for the Chargers pic.twitter.com/v9dUQj1OVr — Christian D’Andrea (@TrainIsland) November 19, 2023

Staley boiled his decisions down to bets that gave him the best odds, then lost almost every important one. It’s poetic his regular season record is an even 24-24. It’s even better that his postseason one is 0-1. He’s a guy who followed the numbers but couldn’t quite win a coin flip when it came to translating those decisions into meaningful results. Seven years ago, Staley was the defensive coordinator at Division III John Carroll University. His achievements and meteoric rise deserve praise. His ability to honestly assess situations and choose the right path are commendable. To borrow from Oregon Trail, he knows when to ford the river and when to float his wagon across it. And then halfway across he’d dump its contents into the water anyway because, deep down, he wasn’t ready for this. So Brandon Staley had to go. And while he’s not head coach material, he did enough good things in Los Angeles to earn a coordinator job somewhere in the NFL next fall. He just needs someone who can take those 50-50 calls and make the right one.

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