The Chargers have one of the best quarterbacks in football, which guarantees that they’ll contend for postseason appearances for years to come. Given their failure to qualify for the playoffs in 2021, however, work needs to be done around him.
Personnel is part of it, obviously. But they have plenty of talented players. On defense, stopping the run becomes a priority; they finished 30th in rushing yards allowed, with nearly 139 yards per game allowed. They also finished 23rd in total defense.
From a coaching standpoint, Brandon Staley’s first year featured plenty of questions regarding his propensity to roll the dice on fourth down. Too many times (with the exception of multiple instances of necessity on Sunday night), it didn’t work. Staley was and is undeterred, relying on a commitment to a strategic and numbers-based approach to his approach.
“I certainly don’t make these decisions lightly,” Staley explained on Wednesday, in his end-of-season press conference. He focused repeatedly on “process” over results, reiterating his commitment to having a clear and defined method to what at times may seem to be madness, especially when the method is unconventional and, in significant isolated instances, unsuccessful.
As explained recently on either PFT Live or #PFTPM (sometimes I just can’t remember), the debate isn’t one of analytics. It’s a question of objectivity versus subjectivity. And the most clear example of it came on Sunday night, in the final minute of overtime.
A clear and palpable vibe had emerged that the Raiders were prepared to accept a tie, which would have placed both teams in the postseason. Surely at that point, the chances of the Chargers getting the ball back and winning the game were slim. Staley’s goal was (or at least should have been) to get out of Las Vegas with a 32-32 tie and a ticket to Buffalo for the wild-card round.
Staley had a very clear and objective reason for calling a timeout with 38 seconds left. He knew another run was coming, and he wanted his best personnel on the field to keep the Raiders from gaining enough yards to allow Raiders coach Rich Bisaccia to opt for a field-goal attempt (with the incremental risk of a block that could have been returned for a touchdown) over accepting the tie. That makes perfect objective sense, even though the players he put on the field didn’t keep Raiders running back Josh Jacobs from positioning his team for a 47-yard game-winner.
Subjectively, however, it can be argued that he should have leaned into the momentum that was pointing toward a tie. The timeout pressed a reset button, breaking the spell that had emerged. Would, if the Raiders had snapped the ball with a second or two on the play clock and roughly 35 ticks remaining in the game, have barreled as hard as they did for the 10-yard gain that set up the field goal, or would there have been a less aggressive push, by the linemen and by Jacobs? That timeout potentially gave the Raiders players just enough rest, rejuvenation, and focus to gain just enough yardage to set up the kick.
Think back to Super Bowl XLIX, when the game clock evaporated after a four-yard gain on first and goal from the five left the Seahawks at the one, with roughly a minute to play. Patriots coach Bill Belichick had two timeouts in hand, and all notions of process and objectivity dictated stopping the clock so that the Patriots would have a chance to get in position for a game-tying field goal, if the Seahawks had scored a touchdown and, with the extra point, taken a 31-28 lead. Belichick instead did nothing, yielding to a subjective approach — an instinct — that letting the clock tick and tick and tick as he sensed, based on a lifetime of coaching, something that told him not to do what, objectively, he should have done.
It culminated in the Seahawks calling a play that allowed the defense to diagnose, based on the formation and the situation, what was coming. The Patriots were ready for the pass play, and they maneuvered to disrupt a pick that allowed Malcolm Butler to make the championship-deciding interception.
What would have happened if Belichick had called a timeout? Seattle would have had time to regroup and refocus and reset, perhaps doing a better job of picking a play that the defense wouldn’t have been prepared to stop.
The point isn’t to say that Staley was wrong and Belichick was right. The point is that, in certain moments, an all-in commitment to objective analysis of every situation should yield to something much fuzzier and inherently unpredictable. The point is that, sometimes, a coach helps position his team to win by defying what the objective factors would dictate and by embracing something far less tangible.
The question for Staley, who was coaching at John Carroll when Bill Belichick successfully snookered Pete Carroll, becomes whether further reps and iterations will cause the young coach to abandon objectivity when something far less clear and specific tells him to do something other than the thing that a dispassionate commitment to process would require.
That said, it’s always important for a coach to get the right players on the field. In the instant that decided the Chargers’ fate for 2021, the better play may have been to assume from the moment the prior play ended that the next play would be a run and to get the right players out there without bursting the bubble that was building toward an acceptance by the Raiders of an outcome that would have sent both teams to the playoffs.