Get ready for the risk-taking, head-scratching and second-guessing when the Denver Broncos visit the Los Angeles Chargers on Monday night.
Brandon Staley and Nathaniel Hackett are among the most scrutinized head coaches in the NFL because of their sideline strategies, and both are coming off games where their calls loomed large in the outcome.
The Chargers (3-2) escaped Cleveland with a two-point win when Cade York’s 54-yard field-goal attempt sailed right, taking Staley off the hook for going for it on fourth-and-1 in his own territory, up two with 1:14 remaining and the Browns out of timeouts.
What in the world “are we doing?” wondered sidelined star receiver Keenan Allen in a more colorful tweet he later deleted.
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Staley’s aggressive fourth-down philosophy has rattled football traditionalists since he became the Chargers head coach in 2020.
Hackett has been grilled aplenty in his first season as a head coach for odds-defying decisions such as settling for a 64-yard field-goal attempt that resulted in a 17-16 loss in Russell Wilson’s return to Seattle.
Hackett even had to lure longtime NFL assistant Jerry Rosburg out of retirement to help him navigate in-game decisions after his dawdling play-calling led to too many yellow flags, lots of red faces and fans mockingly counting down the play clock.
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Even with the veteran strategist in his ear last week, Hackett called for a pass into the end zone on third-and-4 at the Colts 13 just before the two-minute warning. A run could have either ended it or led to a field goal and a six-point lead against a team out of timeouts and which hadn’t reached the end zone all night.
The pass was intercepted, the Colts drove down for the tying field goal and then won it 12-9 in overtime when Wilson misfired into the end zone on fourth-and-inches from the Indianapolis 5. A sneak or handoff likely would have given the Broncos (2-3) four more shots at the win.
Staley said at the beginning of training camp that the crucial decisions, particularly on fourth down, would be a mixture of mindset and math, and Hackett echoed that philosophy this week.
“There is this thing called analytics that are out there that give you a great starting point,” Hackett said. “I think for me and all the coaches, that is what we want to hear first. What are the true analytics on that one? But in the end, it’s about the play, it’s about the players and executing and making that play. In the end, we have to execute, and we have to convert, then it’s a great decision. If you don’t convert, it’s a really, really bad decision.”
Hackett said the scrutiny is such that “I think everyone is analyzing analytics now.”
Staley concurred: “When you’re in tight games, when it comes down to the wire, everything is magnified nowadays.”
“Even if we win the game: hey, it could have gone this way, it could have gone that way. And so all you can really do is respect your process, trust the people that you work with and trust your players,” Staley said.
Staley insists the only thing new regarding analytics is the name itself.
“Every coach in the National Football League is into the numbers,” Staley said. “It’s just the context of this framework has changed because of the word ‘analytics.’ But since Paul Brown started this league, people have been looking at data, tendencies, scouting to make decisions.”
What it really comes down to, Staley said, is knowing when to dismiss the data and go with your gut: “It’s important that we don’t go into it saying always and never.”
“What you don’t want to be is someone that’s just winging it,” Staley said. “Those people that tell you, ‘Hey, I’m just going off my gut instinct, my instincts are so much superior to you,’ anyone who knows anything about decision-making knows that’s the worst way to make a decision.”
Analytics allow for plans that you can either implement or ignore, Staley suggested, and if you do crumple them up, at least they’ve helped you make quicker decisions.
“You have to have models in place that allow you to think faster,” Staley said. “If you are going to veto something in the moment because of the flow of the game, because of the feel of the game, the matchup, that’s easier to do than having to do all of it at once.”