Why I'm still All-In on Brandon Staley

Some of you may be thinking to yourselves "Why is this Aussie guy so gung-ho still about Coach Staley? Didn't he watch what went down in Jacksonville?"

Well, I get why you might ask yourselves that. I truly do. Football is a bottom-line business. If results don't match expectations, fans begin to revolt. Not only is this not unexpected, but teams themselves invite this through carefully targeted marketing campaigns (All-In? Right?). By that standard, Staley's 19-15 record (.559) + heartbreaking playoff loss falls short of team and media manipulated fan expectations.

The problem with all of this is I never thought that to be a reasonable expectation for the Chargers irrespective of what the team's marketing people or NFL Experts ("The Chargers roster is loaded!") said. In fact, anyone who's listened to me on TDU over the course of the season will know that I've been telling fans to temper their expectations for some time. On our pre-season show (see here from 27:01 to 43:26) I predicted:
  1. A12-5 record for the Chargers
  2. They would win the AFC West in a tiebreaker with KC
  3. The team would have a chance to make a deep playoff run because of the talent on the roster
  4. Ultimately, 2023 was the more likely year that the Chargers would rival the best teams in the NFL. (FYI, I predicted the Bills to beat the Ravens in the AFC Title Game; and the Ravens to beat the Chargers in the Divisional Round).
How did the season actually finish? 10-7, with worse injury luck than I'd anticipated (which seemed to be trending positive in 2021) and the team's first playoff berth since 2018. By my pre-season expectations, the team has not fallen far short of this standard, and particularly after taking into account bad injury luck.

Now, more recently I've shown using data (top comment, here) why I think two years may be an insufficient sample size for the proper evaluation of an NFL Head Coach (particularly one with an overall winning record). That is because some coaches have started their tenures poorly yet become legends of the game. Whereas others have started with powerful momentum but faded into the abyss. It is difficult at this juncture to predict which bucket Staley belongs in.

As such, I'm more interested in other indicia that may predict future consistent success. I have spoken about many of Brandon's personality traits (almost all of which I think project towards greatness) on BFTB ad nauseum. I know you're all sick of it and will not repeat myself in this post.

But there are two other indicia I felt like briefly exploring this evening, so here goes.

Game Management

I read a tweet yesterday that shows Brandon Staley to have been the 4th best coach in the NFL in 2022 in terms of win probability added over expected (see here).

This measures each head coach's decision-making on 4th down, 2-pt conversions, their timeout usage and delays of game conceded. Essentially, it answers whether the coach is giving his team a competitive advantage through key in-game decision-making.

As can be observed, only Nick Sirianni, Sean McDermott and Dan Campbell performed better than Staley in this metric in 2022. And, as you can see from the columns of the table, if Staley shows more testicular fortitude on 4th downs in 2023 (like he did in 2021), perhaps he will rank higher on this list in the future.

So much is made by critical fans of Staley's inexperience as an NFL assistant, coordinator or coach, and that he was ill-suited as an applicant for this role.

Yes, he's inexperienced. So why, Chargers fans, are you not making more of how well Coach Staley is performing in this notorisouly difficult area of coaching despite his relative inexperience. Is that not an impressive feat? Does that not give you hope for the future?

How many "experienced coaches" have you watched accept their first head-coaching gig but go on to show woeful ineptitude when it comes to game management. Nathaniel Hackett? Todd Bowles? Mike McCoy? Lynn towards the end of his tenure? These are, and were, experienced NFL assistants who quite often seemed completely overwhelmed by the pressure that came with making key decisions as Head Coaches during games. Poor performance in this area, in my opinion, is likely to be a potential poison in the locker room (eg, so much being made of Keenan's tweets during the Browns game).

Yet overall poor performance in this area has not been the Brandon Staley experience. Even if you disagree with some of his individual game-management decisions, his visage on the sideline often fills me with confidence because critical moments do not look too big for him. He has a plan and the data shows that his plan benefits the team and maximises their prospects of success. Please don't forget that as some of you hand this young coach his marching papers. He's one of the best in the League at something that improves your team's chances of success at the margins. Very important in a game 'determined by inches".

Indeed, IMO game management is one of only a handful of areas where you can actually tell whether a Head Coach is impacting his team positively or negatively. So many other factors bear on the outcome of NFL games (not all of which are in the coach's direct control). Game management is something a coach can control.

Staley is giving his team a competitive advantage in this area which I think bodes well for his future success as an NFL head coach.

Player Development

A little about me. As a younger man, I played two sports at a couple rungs below the professional level: cricket and Aussie rules football. A number of my teammates from that time, and some opponents, went on to become professional sportsmen while I gave up the dream and pursued further tertiary study.

I wasn't particularly good at sport to be honest. I just enjoyed the camaraderie. But along the way I learned a valuable lesson about team sports (my personal adage, below):

Being a successful team happens when (a) you can anticipate your teammates' on-field behaviours because you trust them, and (b) there is strong leadership within the core parts of the team.

Hardly Shakespeare, huh? But nevertheless my experience was that it was never so much the quality of my team's individual players that was important, but rather our time on task together, and confidence that my teammate would be where I needed him to be in the critical moment. My experience was also that this generally takes time to develop. And this is why I never really predicted a Super Bowl appearance for the Chargers in 2022 (although I desperately hoped for, and would've welcomed, one).

In 2022, Brandon Staley for the first time established his defensive core. Since Staley is the defensive playcaller and primarily focusses on the defense, I am also limiting this assessment to the defense.

This off-season was Staley's chance to select the long-term building blocks for his defense. They were Derwin, Bosa, Mack, JC Jackson, Austin Johnson and SJD. Only 2 of the 6 had played together prior to 2022. Then Staley added some other veterans whom he knew would bring with them additional leadership and experience: Van Noy, Fox, Callahan.

With a core like this coming together for the first time, I was under no illusion that it might take time for the Defense's whole to equal the sum of their parts. The core pieces must learn how the other core pieces play, how they lead their positional groups, what they're like as people, and what they will do in crunch time. A reasonable retort to this might be that NFL teams experience wholesale changes most seasons and that good coaches can expedite this "coming together" process. That may be true. But I would counter that not all teams experience wholesale changes to their core every season.

The Great Kyle De undertook an interesting investigation of this very question on a pre-season TDU episode. He investigated how a team changing its core might correlate with Super Bowl success (see here from 01:07:25 - 01:55:42). However, he defined 'core' by reference to a player's on-field snap count, whereas I am using the term in a materially different way, instead focussing on team leadership in the context of a new coach establishing a culture. It goes without saying, that changing the team's core is not something I expect Brandon Staley to be doing every year (and he certainly won't have the cap space to do it!)

But while the core develops together and the whole improves, in parallel, I like to monitor whether individual players seem to be improving (which IMO speaks to the head coach's powers of teaching and development).

It is difficult to assess this. In the NFL, PFF grades are imperfect but are the best that we've got.

Here is how Chargers players who were starters (at some point in 2022) graded, along with how that compares against their 2021 grades:
  • Morgan Fox (62.7, +7.0 from 2021 and career high in sacks)
  • SJD (51.6, -10.0 from 2021)
  • Austin Johnson (58.3, -2.4 from 2021)
  • Mack (71.1, -1.9 from 2021)
  • Bosa (85.8, -+0.0 from 2021)
  • Van Noy (63.4, -9.5 from 2021)
  • Murray (47.8, +13.8 from 2021)
  • Tranquill (66.5, +1.1 from 2021)
  • Asante (63.6, +7.2 from 2021)
  • Davis (72.7, +18.7 from 2021)
  • Derwin (75.5, -2.6 from 2021)
  • Callahan (64.2, +4.2 from 2021)
  • Gilman (56.5, -2.3 from 2021)
  • Adderley (62.2, -5.1 from 2021)
Of the 14 players above, PFF thinks that 6 improved (Fox, Murray, Tranquill, Asante, Davis, Callahan), 1 remained constant (Bosa), and 7 regressed (SJD, Austin Johnson, Mack, Van Noy, Derwin, Gilman, Adderley). Now, I ask you of those who regressed, how many do you agree with? How many were worn down as the season progressed due to injuries to other players that were supposed to be in the trenches next to them? And, perhaps most importantly, how many do you think were actually improving, rather than regressing, towards the end of the season as they became more comfortable in the scheme?

On balance, I'm seeing enough at the individual level to believe that the defensive players are being developed reasonably well by Brandon Staley and that injuries played a material role in the regression of certain players in the scheme and contributed to some of the unsatisfactory overall team defense metrics.

Is it problematic that all of my so-called core players were either injured or regressed this season (per PFF)? Perhaps. But when you take into account that Bosa/Derwin still played at their usual high-level, and that Mack/JC Jackson/SJD/Austin Johnson were juggling being new to the team with their new core leadership responsibilities (+ injury), I have seen enough reason for optimism in 2023 and beyond.

Bottom-line: Why I'm still All-In on Brandon Staley? Observation and intuition

A bit more about me. I'm a senior lawyer at a large Australian law firm. I'm a commercial litigator and in my role I provide strategic legal advice to large publicly listed companies in Australia, and some multinational organisations too. I have seen great organisational leaders, poor ones, and some in between. I like to think that I have developed a good eye for what success looks like.

From the moment that Brandon Staley gave his introductory press conference, I had a strong intuition that the Chargers had hired a great organisational leader, and one that would very likely succeed. I was about as sure of his success as one can reasonably be about something so difficult to guarantee. But given his relative inexperience, I expected it would take the majority of his initial contract before the fruits of his hard labour became abundant. I just wish more fans had that kind of patience. It is a diminishing virtue in modern society, to its detriment.

My observations of Brandon Staley over his first 2 years as coach have confirmed my initial impression. I believe he is a developing and potentially special organisational leader. This is reflected in how his players publicly endorsed him following the Jags loss.

That is not to say that he has been an exemplar of perfection; no human being can be. But I have observed a number of the key indicia I believe are predictive of future greatness and replicable success. I have dealt with two of these in this short post and hope you enjoyed reading it.

Go Chargers

This FanPost was written by a member of the Bolts From The Blue community and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Bolts From The Blue editors or SB Nation.