Was Brandon Staley’s First Season A Success, Or A Failure?
There were things that seemed a lot different about this Chargers team than the teams from the previous years. Unfortunately, there was much of the same that we have grown used to. Whether it’s a last-second loss, a blown lead, or one area of the team ruining exceptional quarterback play. There were many reasons to be disappointed about the end result, but also so many reasons to be optimistic about the future.
So, this begs the question; was Brandon Staley’s first season as the head coach a success, or a failure? I’ll go into four main observations that I had from this season. Breaking it down from two positives and two negatives. Ultimately, I’ll come to the conclusion of what I believe is the correct answer to this question. We’ll go into the positives first.
Positive 1: Absolute confidence in his quarterback
Most of the time, whatever the weaknesses of a team are, the play of an elite quarterback can alleviate the deficiencies of the team. Justin Herbert was a top 3 quarterback this season, if their defense was average, he easily would’ve been in the MVP discussion. Staley was widely known around the league for being extremely aggressive on 4th down, for both bad and good. I am definitely on the side of this being a positive thing.
Something I have been thinking a lot about this week is the difference between an aggressive and conservative coach. I would assume most would agree with me, but I would rather my coach play to win instead of playing to not lose. Staley never wavered from his confidence in his quarterback. There will always be positives and negatives to everything, but Staley’s aggressive approach won them numerous games. It doesn’t always work, but as I said before, I want my coach to play to win. This is why this team got rid of Anthony Lynn, the conservative, playing not to lose approach was infuriating to watch as a fan.
Positive 2: Earned the respect of players
One of my favorite podcasts to listen to is the “Pat Mcafee Show”. Austin Ekeler was on the show earlier this season and he was asked about his favorite part of Staley’s approach. Ekeler mentioned how every week the entire team gets together for a short meeting. In this meeting, the whole team is told what the plan is, how they are going to execute it, and who is going to be in these situations. He went on to say that he had never been part of such a productive meeting where the entire team was on the same page. The offense knew what the defense was going to be doing, and vice versa.
I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Staley talk about football. You could tell that he really understood the intricacies of football and knew how to articulate that. Growing up playing sports, I could really tell when a coach either didn’t know what they were talking about or they didn’t have confidence in what they were saying. These things go a long way with players because they notice it. I know these players have the trust of Staley and you know they trust him as well. Football is so much outside the X’s and O’s, relationships are significant. You could tell that Staley made a concerted effort to unify the team and to build a strong relationship with each individual player.
Negative 1: Underwhelming defensive performance
I’m not sure why so much frustration was pointed at Joe Lombardi this season when the defense was the worst in the NFL. I don’t even have to dive deep into the stats, because we all know it. In my 15 seasons watching the Chargers, this was the worst defense I have seen. Even is this defense is average, this team wins 12 games and is competing for the #1 seed in the AFC. It only had to be a competent unit, but they were truly, truly awful. My issue with Staley on this was he is known as a defensive guru. The defense is similar to last season except they have a healthy Derwin James, and yet they were significantly worse. I understand that it’s impossible to have the roster he wants in his first season, but we should expect more.
The run defense was atrocious the entire season. It got slightly better as the season went on but eventually led to them losing the last game this season. I wrote a quarter-season article and graded the defensive backs as the best unit on the team. They started the season fantastically, but by the end were getting diced up by Davis Mills. I would hope that he is able to adjust his scheme to the strengths of the players around him. This is something I believe will get better as time goes on, but it was bad this year.
Negative 2: Personnel decisions
It’s hard for me to say that a coach is making a wrong decision in who they play. They are around the team and players constantly, and obviously have way more experience and knowledge than I do. That being said, it’s hard for me to see the logic in some of the decisions that Staley made this season. I will back it up and say that some of these may not all be on him. When it comes down to it the coach makes the ultimate decision unless there are unforeseen things happening behind the scenes we don’t know about. It’s safe to say that the majority of the personnel decisions this year come from Staley.
My main issue has been with Kenneth Murray. It is really unfortunate because I was all in for Murray when they traded up to draft him. We all know he was a Lynn guy, which is why they traded up. I thought Staley was going to be able to put him in an advantageous situation to make plays. Eventually, his bad play kept him out of the majority of many games. Staley had said that Murray was a linebacker, then went to say that he is best suited at the edge. By the end of the season, he was saying he’s a linebacker with certain qualities of an edge. Someone that had so much promise regressed mightily his second year, and I just wish Staley stuck with what they had him at all summer. Then there was the disaster of KJ Hill at kick returner for way too long, never figuring out who the RB2 was until Justin Jackson decided it for him. There were many others, but some just seemed puzzling and didn’t make sense.
There’s probably a lot more that I could go into on either side. Unless a first-year coach pulls an Urban Meyer, it’s tough to say a season was a total failure. If I’m asked the question if I believe the season was a failure or a success, I would lean towards a success. A coach took a team that was 7-9 last season, got a roster that did not fit his defense at all, and was 2 seconds away from making the playoffs.
Every first-year coach goes through their issues but I think there was far more good than there was bad. While Staley was considered a “defensive guru”, we were all aware he was hired for the plan that he had for Herbert. He absolutely had a great plan for him with Herbert hitting 5,000 passing yards and 41 total touchdowns. Another thing I wasn’t able to touch on was their quick improvement on the offensive line. They drafted an all-pro franchise left tackle, signed an all-pro center, and two incredibly valued guards, one, unfortunately, having a season-ending injury. I will not be too quick to judge, Staley emphasized the trenches and he delivered on that for the offensive side. We can’t expect him to have his entire vision complete in one offseason. Last year was meant to fix the offense, this offseason is all about fixing the defense. Let’s give him some time.
I consider this season a success for how potent this offense was. The Chargers have the 2nd most cap space in the NFL this upcoming offseason. This is with the offense coming off one of the most efficient offensive seasons in NFL history. I would assume a significant amount of the cap will be spent on the defense this offseason. We all said going into the season that this wasn’t the year, that the 2022 season was the year to go all in. The stars are aligning for the Chargers to go for it this next season. With all of that being said, if they do not go to the playoffs, this next season is a failure. I would almost say not winning a playoff game is a failure. All in all, I thought Staley had a great season as a first time head coach.