Don't blame Brandon Staley's 4th-down gambles in Chargers blowout loss to Ravens

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·5-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

For years, fans and analysts have screamed at their TVs and into microphones for NFL coaches to go for it on fourth down.

In 2021, we're seeing coaches do it like it's never been done before. The downside, obviously, is that it doesn't always work out. That was the case for the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday as they came crashing down from the highs of a 4-1 start in a 34-6 blowout loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

The Chargers made plenty of mistakes in Sunday's loss. Were their failed fourth-down attempts among them?

Chargers fail on 2 critical fourth-down attempts

Head coach Brandon Staley kept his offense on the field on four fourth-down plays in the loss. Three of them failed. Two of the attempts arrived in obvious situations on a desperation fourth-quarter drive. The other two took place in Chargers territory with the game's outcome in the balance. Both of them failed and played a factor in Baltimore opening the game up. 

But that doesn't necessarily mean they were the wrong calls.

Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley looks on as his team works out prior to an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)
Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley looks on as his team works out prior to an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Staley gambles early, sets up Tucker FG

The first Chargers gamble arrived early in the second quarter. The Ravens scored touchdowns on their first two possessions to open up a 14-0 lead. The Chargers, meanwhile, had watched their high-octane offense sputter to the tune of six yards and a pair of three-and-outs on previous back-to-back possessions. When they faced fourth-and-3 at their own 39-yard line early in the second quarter, Staley kept his punting unit on the sideline. 

Herbert took a shotgun snap and looked to Mike Williams to his left beyond the first-down marker. One of the NFL's most potent connections failed to convert. Herbert's pass fell incomplete, and the Ravens took over on downs. 

Baltimore managed just five yards on its ensuing possession. But it was enough to score, thanks to their starting field position and the best kicker in the game. Justin Tucker hit a 52-yard field goal to extend Baltimore's lead to three possessions at 17-0. 

What the numbers say

Was it a bad decision by Staley? To play the result is flawed analysis. What do the analytics say?

Ben Baldwin's fourth-down decision bot shows the decision to go for it increased the Chargers win probability by 0.9%.

It was close to a tossup, but one that fell in favor of going for it. Because it didn't work out doesn't make it the wrong decision. 

Go for it from inside your own 20?

Fast forward to the third quarter. Baltimore had opened its lead to 24-6 when the Chargers found themselves at fourth-and-1 at their own 19. For years in the NFL, this was a no-brainer for most coaches. Who in their right mind doesn't punt from inside their own 20, no matter the distance to line of gain?

But this isn't previous years or a coach who depends on old-school thinking. Staley again kept his offense on the field with 5:58 remaining in the third quarter. Herbert looked left, this time to wide receiver Josh Palmer. Again, Herbert's pass fell to the ground, giving Baltimore possession deep in Chargers territory with a 24-6 lead late in the third quarter. The game was essentially over.

Was this a bad call by Staley? Let's check the analytics again. 

This time, Staley's decision increased the Chargers' win probability by 1.1% — from about 2% to roughly 3% with a play that had a 70% chance of success. It just so happened the 30% expected failure rate came into play this time.

While Staley's decision may appear unorthodox and overly risky, the math was on his side on the borderline decision. He also has one of the NFL's most accurate quarterbacks running the play. It's just jarring to watch it fail after decades of less-informed decision-making led to punts in similar situations.

Don't just look at the results

There's a tendency in these situations to play the results rather than the process. It's a thought process that had fans and analysts singing Staley's praises through five weeks. Staley has gambled throughout the season, including going for it on fourth down four times in the second half of Week 5's wild 47-42 win over the Cleveland Browns. NFL's Next Gen Stats determined that Staley called a perfect game against the Browns based on the numbers. 

Next Gen Stats agreed that both of Staley's decisions to go for it on Sunday were tossups slightly in favor of going for it. 

This is the nature of gambling. When done wisely, it increases a team's chances of success. But it doesn't always work out. The Chargers clearly made plenty of mistakes in Sunday's 28-point loss, including how they executed on those fourth-down plays. But the decision to gamble wasn't among them.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting