It’s kind of amazing that I’m even writing about the Chargers changing their coaching staff given that QB Justin Herbert is coming off arguably the best rookie season for a quarterback in NFL history, which earned him Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. But years of continued, disastrous, suboptimal in-game decision-making cost Anthony Lynn his job, and the Charges have opted to go modern.
They’ve done that with a coach on a meteoric rise — former Ram DC Brandon Staley. But if you missed Staley’s tenure with the Rams, you can’t blame yourself, as he was only there for one season. At 38 years old and with only one year of coordinator experience, Staley is a pretty staggering hire in a cycle that had more than few of them.
Though Staley enters the head-coaching ranks with one year of defensive playcalling to his name — in which he coached the Rams to FootballOutsiders’ #4 defense by DVOA — he actually has an offensive background.
He played quarterback at the University of Dayton, graduating in 2004, and then soon transitioned to coaching in the college ranks as a graduate assistant at Northern Illinois. Since then, he’s worked almost exclusively on the defensive side of the football. He coached in college from 2006 through 2016, spending just one of those seasons at a Power 5 school, when he served as a graduate assistant at Tennessee in 2012.
After serving as defensive coordinator at James Madison (2014) and John Carroll (2015-16), Staley scored his first gig in the NFL, coaching outside linebackers with the Bears under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. He followed Fangio to Denver for the same role in 2019, before Sean McVay plucked him away to be defensive coordinator in 2020.
Yes, it’s an incredibly fast rise, and it’s fair for anyone to be skeptical, especially Chargers fans used to years of underachievement. But Staley’s introductory press conference suggested these Chargers are ready to move into the 21st century.
Staley openly discussed analytics in his introduction, which is a staggering change for Charger fans used to Lynn’s old-school platitudes.
““I think that there are so many things now that we can measure in pro football, whether it’s on the field or off the field, in training, draft process,” Staley said, via Daniel Popper of The Athletic. “I think analytics is a great way to bring more information to decision makers. … What analytics does is it helps drive better decision making, and we’re certainly going to try and do everything we can to invest resources in that so that we can be at the forefront of that movement, because that is where the game is going. Knowing at the same time, you have to have context and feel and all that stuff that is equally as important.”
But Lynn’s successes as a “player’s coach” shouldn’t be overlooked, and Staley describes his philosophy as collaborative. That has earned Staley praise from a guy you might describe as tough to coach, Rams CB Jalen Ramsey.
“You learn a lot more from [the players] than they learn from you,” Staley said, via The Athletic. “I learned a lot more from Khalil Mack than he learned from me. There’s a lot of guys that could coach Khalil Mack, now. I’m just here to tell you, now. This guy is going to play good for whomever, now. So is Aaron Donald. So is Jalen Ramsey. They’re going to play good for whomever.”
Staley is bringing an experienced offensive mind, Joe Lombardi, over from New Orleans to be his offensive coordinator and playcaller. Lombardi has spent the last five seasons, and 10 of the last 12 seasons, as Sean Payton’s QB coach with the Saints. In between, he had a 23-game stint as the Lions’ offensive coordinator under Jim Caldwell (he was fired in October of 2015 after a 1-6 start). Then-Lions QB Matthew Stafford is notorious for his tendency to want to develop close relationships with offensive coordinators, and Lombardi and he just never got on the same page.
Lombardi has since admitted that he might have been a little bit too rigid in his approach in Detroit. Since then, he’s worked in the same QB room as Drew Brees and Taysom Hill, two QBs with wildly different skill sets. He’s been part of the staff that successfully rehabbed the career of Teddy Bridgewater and is trying to do the same with Jameis Winston, also two QBs with wildly different skill sets.
Given Lombardi’s extensive experience under Payton, it’s likely he and Staley share similar philosophies on analytics. And Lombardi, like Payton, is also an advocate of the run game. Do not expect these Chargers to be one-dimensional, though Lombardi likely wants to put the game on the shoulders of Herbert early and have the ability to wear down a defense late. Indeed, the Saints have finished top-six in the NFL in rushing yards per game in three of the last four seasons (with only 2019, when Alvin Kamara was injured, outside the range).
Defensively, Staley is expected to have his fingerprints all over the scheme, but he hired former NFL defensive back Renaldo Hill as his coordinator. As Popper notes in the piece linked above, Staley and Hill come from split-safety backgrounds, while former coordinator Gus Bradley often ran single-high looks. It’s about as drastically different as defenses can look these days. The Chargers are also expected to run a 3-4 base, though Staley and Hill can both be very multiple (both worked under Fangio, who does so much schematically).
Elsewhere, Staley hired Derius Swinton II as special-teams coordinator, and Swinton had experience as a “situational football” coach with the Cardinals last year, which could mean he helps Staley on game-management decisions. Shane Day, who coached QBs under Kyle Shanahan the last two seasons, will be Herbert’s right-hand man with the Chargers in the same role, also as passing-game coordinator.
Former Raiders TE coach Frank Smith will serve as run-game coordinator. So all these hires indicate exactly what Staley discussed at his introduction — this will be a very collaborative staff with a focus on analytics.
How Staley and his coaches approach Herbert will be critical. Herbert himself has credited former QB coach Pep Hamilton with a lot of the successes he had as a rookie, and now he has an entirely different braintrust here.
While Staley is coming from a defensive coaching background, he was a QB in college, so he obviously understands playing the position. And unlike what you might have come to expect from the stereotypical defensive-minded head coach, I wouldn’t anticipate that Staley views big, dumb, pound-it-out football as the right way to approach offense.
Indeed, he comes from a Sean McVay staff that placed a huge emphasis on zone run concepts and how the passing game builds off that. That includes a massive focus on play-action passing.
Among quarterbacks with 50 or more play-action dropbacks in the NFL in 2020, the Rams’ Jared Goff ranked 5th with a 34.4% play-action rate. The Saints’ Taysom Hill (under Lombardi) ranked 7th at 33.1%, while the 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo (under Day) ranked 9th at 32.3%. Meanwhile, Herbert was just 20th at 26.6%. Herbert was far more effective on play action than not, however — 8.8 YPA and a 112.8 QB rating with play action vs. a 6.8 YPA and a 93.1 QB rating without it. His 5.4% completion improvement on play action was 13th-best in the NFL. (All numbers from PFF.)
Obviously, Lombardi has experience with Hill in getting a QB on the move and producing as a runner, and Herbert has those skills (234 rush yards, 5 TD in 2020). So I anticipate moving pockets and some designed QB runs will find their way into this offense designed to stretch a defense to its limits.
That all being said, for the Chargers’ offense to operate at its strongest, it needs to make improvements up front. The Saints’ finish of 4th in FootballOutsiders’ adjusted line yards (run blocking efficiency) in 2020 was the worst for them in the last five years with Lombardi as QB coach, with two finishes as the #1 overall team in that department. The Rams have finished in the top-7 three times in the last four years (under McVay) in that category, with a finish as high as #1. In the four seasons under Anthony Lynn, the Chargers’ line had just one top-10 finish in that category (2018), and it ranked an abominable 29th in 2020.
Everything is setting up for Herbert to have success. But we do still have some questions here. Lombardi’s offense is obviously one that likes to throw to backs a lot (Alvin Kamara). But will the Chargers work in a bigger, early-down back alongside Austin Ekeler, the way the Saints did with Latavius Murray and Mark Ingram?
The offense should be a boon in the slot for WR Keenan Allen, as Michael Thomas has had great success from that alignment in New Orleans, as well as Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods in LA. Tight ends could produce well here too, but Hunter Henry is an impending free agent.
I liked what I heard from Staley; I think I can endorse what is likely to be Herbert’s meteoric rise up draft boards (I’d hope to snag him somewhere in the 80-100 pick range in 1-QB formats). Both Ekeler and Allen will be in consideration for me among the top-30 picks, as well. However, a concerted approach from GM Tom Telesco to improve the offensive line will go a long way toward making me more bullish on this offense.