Mina Kimes couldn't help herself. She said the quiet part out loud on her podcast last week:
"Mike McDaniel is our king now."
Kimes was lamenting Brandon Staley's status as proxy for the podcasting circuit: young, good-looking, always ready with a pop cultural reference, or a metaphor to make everyone in the room feel more intelligent as he sussed out the labyrinthine strategies of the sport.
Staley was a rising star; a prodigy who was both smart enough to embrace the analytics community, and savvy enough to sell 4th down aggression to everyone—from the general manager down to the beat writers.
Punting is for losers!
Not that Staley would ever say something so crass. Pay close attention and you will notice how the Chargers coach addresses the press by their first names. He learned the reporter's names! Behind a microphone, Staley exuded warmth and inclusivity to the degree that some media members took to calling him Ted Lasso.
Even the way he parsed football information was neoteric. Gifted with both introspection and a conversational prowess that allowed for his ego to be sublimated by his avid curiosity. Staley would readily admit that he did not have all the answers, but even that public ownership of his own limitations—a rarity in professional coaching circles— was seen as a breath of fresh air.
Staley soundbites routinely went viral because they included an element rarely offered by leaders with such a platform: authenticity. That honeymoon feels like twenty years ago.
Apparently, new Miami Dolphins coach Mike McDaniels is the heir apparent. McDaniels wins the press conferences now. Those feeling nostalgic for Q&A sessions which rhapsodically compare linebacker-to-secondary communications to the mycelial networking of mushrooms can go watch Dolphins clips now.
Instead of calling something worthless, or trash, Mike McDaniels—showcasing a quirkiness that Staley never had—calls it "rabbit pellets."
He talks a good sneaker game. He does voice impersonations. He studies sociology. As pure entertainment, Mike McDaniels is a content creator's dream. He told Dan Le Batard that when he was an assistant coach he sometimes didn't shower from Sundays until Wednesdays!
The beautiful mind of McDaniels has brought a scheme so innovative that Tua Tagovailoa is connecting on deep passes to two of the fastest players in football. They are running play-action fakes out of the shotgun formation—and it is working.
More importantly, the Dolphins are winning games so when McDaniels muses from the podium about his excitement level for his wife buying snacks at the grocery store the writers yuck it up.
The Dolphins are undefeated. If they can keep it up, then, perhaps McDaniel's Yeesy collection will be an amusing anecdotal subplot to track for the next three months. If they cannot, then watch how quickly those charmed reporters and podcasters go from laughing with him, to laughing at him.
It's a movie Chargers fans have already seen, to borrow a parlance from Brandon Staley.
Brandon Staley, the analytics savant who eschews punting, felt so confident in his defense in Kansas City in week 2 that he punted from midfield on 4th and short. Twice! Add a field goal kicked on fourth-and-2 and you cannot help wondering if Staley is suffering some sort of identity crisis.
Analytics Twitter reached for the Obi-Wan GIF in reaction to what surely felt like a betrayal. Have the pundits bullied Staley so far back into conventional decision-making that margins he gleaned last season from aggression are now the stuff of memory?
For what its worth, the cowardice was contagious. Staley's conservatism Jedi mind tricked Andy Reid into kicking a field goal from inside the 5-yard line.
"I just wanted to give the defense a chance to compete." Staley said.
Ten days later that same defense did the opposite of compete in the second half against Jacksonville. An injury to Joey Bosa and the offense's inability to sustain drives resulted in the defense running out of gas in the second half as the Jaguars held a 38:27-to-21:33 time of possession. The Jaguars gained 413 yards of offense while only punting once.
Second year quarterback Trevor Lawrence dissected the Chargers coverage, completing 28 of 39 passes for 262 yards and 3 touchdowns with no interceptions. For every blitz that Staley and defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill threw at him, Lawrence had an answer.
Only Tom Brady threw the ball quicker than Lawrence's 2.4 seconds according to NFL Next gen Stats. He was not sacked once.
But those were the least of Staley's problems.
Down by four touchdowns in the final five minutes, the Chargers sent Justin Herbert back onto the field. The team had already lost two starters on the offensive line but somehow Staley allowed Herbert to remain in the game facing a pass rush that was generating pressure on 30% of his dropbacks.
Did the team hand the ball off in an attempt to build some momentum running the ball in the weeks ahead while protecting their maimed QB?*
No. Herbert dropped back 14 more times and was knocked down on three of them.
Center Corey Linsley missed the game due to inflammation in his knee. Left tackle Rashawn Slater tore a biceps tendon and left the game early.
When asked to explain his decision to allow Herbert to continue playing after the cause was lost, the coach reached into his bag and pulled out some platitudes. None of which illuminated the decision anymore than his first painful stab at it. So the reporters peppered him with follow-ups.
"...finish the game with his guys."
"...the big picture is always what we are thinking about."
"...give our group some energy."
"...we were aligned the whole way."
"...it was important for us to do it."
"...that was just the decision that we made."
"...he wanted to be out there with his teammates."
If any of that sounded contradictory, or opaque, it is because Staley—the brilliant young defensive tactician—did not have a defensible answer. He still does not.
For all of the fawning over Staley that the media did in 2021, they came after him with knives sharpened in the postgame Sunday—all trying to get at the same answer. Why would you leave the injured quarterback in with nothing to gain?
This is Southern California. The sporting press here are more inclined to beachside yoga and the practicing of mindfulness than they are to the combative questioning of a coach. This isn't exactly the New York tabloids going after Knicks.
Staley kept calm, but his composure is beginning to show some cracks.
In the NFL, superior coaching—whether it is motivation, scheme installation, 4th down aggression, or just personnel management—can make the difference between winning and losing. In the margins of the game where preparation, game-planning, and adjustments tilt outcomes, good coaching can cancel out superior talent. We've seen it.
Take Jacksonville. Last year Urban Meyer made a compelling case for the worst coach in NFL history. The Jaguars finished 3-14, were dead last in scoring (14.9 points per game) were outscored by 204 total points, and earned the first pick in the draft.
As for Meyer, he was fired after 13 games following multiple incidents ranging from failing to stay with his team after a road loss to the Bengals (which went viral when cellphone video captured his pub shenanigans), to physically kicking his place kicker Josh Lambo in team warmups.
As bad as the team was on the field, Meyer was even more of an embarrassment off it. The fish rots from the head downward.
Through three games, new Jaguars coach Doug Peterson has transformed the Jags into a first place team after dismantling the Chargers 38-10 at SoFi Stadium. By maximizing his players' potential through scheme, preparation, and adjustments, Peterson is proving just how significant good coaching can be.
There is a reason Andy Reid's teams are magnificent after a bye week. Give a superior coach extra time to find advantages in the margins and they usually will.**
When Staley was hired in January of 2021, he was still relatively unknown. His backstory had all the broad sketches of a Hollywood script. A cancer survivor. A communicator. An innovator whose two high safety schemes were transforming the defensive landscape of the NFL in a league-wide response to the explosive offenses of the Chiefs, Rams, Buccaneers, and Packers.
"We're going to build a roof over them." he likes to say.
We are going to give you something to encourage you not to try and take something bigger.
The Staley philosophy being antithetical to conventional football wisdom; his defenses allow rushing yards, and check downs to keep you from throwing it over the top. If a team is patient enough to nickel and dime their way down the field against light boxes and masked coverages, you tip your hat.
The scheme dares opponents to remain patient and assemble extended drives. If a quarterback (or an offensive coordinator) gets antsy and starts forcing the ball into coverage—as the Raiders Derek Carr did in week one—then the secondary has opportunities to create turnovers. Carr threw three interceptions that led to a Chargers victory.
In a sport of copycats, the scheme was soon being implemented in defensive staff rooms around the NFL.
It hasn't stopped there.
At some point the Staley philosophy of making a team laboriously generate yards six-yards at a time bled over into the Chargers offensive meeting rooms. Despite having one of the strongest arms in the game, Justin Herbert is only averaging 6.8 attempted air yards per NFL Next Gen Stats. The Ravens Lamar Jackson is averaging 11.2 air yards by comparison.
The team is so insistent on building a roof over the offense that they have built one over Justin Herbert! It sometimes feels like Staley, and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, are determined to pay for a gallon of milk with coins, when Justin Herbert's right arm is Apple Pay.