COSTA MESA, Calif. — Brandon Staley is sitting on a sofa in his nook workplace on the Chargers’ facility, freshly brewed espresso in hand. He is carrying an informal offseason outfit — sneakers, shorts, a skinny child blue dri-fit hoodie and a black BNP Paribas Open hat.
He considers a query concerning the worth of understanding mathematical benefits.
“There’s a really powerful part of this book that has stayed with me …”
Staley stands up and walks over to the bookcase alongside the again wall of the workplace, subsequent to his desk. He kneels and scans the shelf together with his index finger till he finds what he’s on the lookout for — “The Undoing Project” by Michael Lewis. Staley pulls it out and begins flipping by means of the pages as he walks again to the sofa and sits down once more. With the e-book resting on his lap, he turns web page after web page, trying to find a selected passage.
His purpose right here is to show — he’s the son of educators, in spite of everything. His mom, Linda, who died in 2004 after an extended battle with breast most cancers, taught sixth-grade English. His father, Bruce, taught fourth grade for a number of years earlier than beginning a second profession.
The solely noise within the workplace is the flip, flip, flip of turning pages till Staley finds the passage he’s on the lookout for and reads aloud. “The new definition of a nerd,” he recites. “A person who knows his own mind well enough to mistrust it.”
He appears up.
“Your instincts aren’t better than everybody on Earth,” Staley says. “Do I feel one of many massive the explanation why I turned the pinnacle coach of the Chargers is as a result of I’ve received instincts? Yes.
“But do I think that when it comes to making these premium decisions in the heat of the moment that, man, my instincts are so much better than everybody else, and I would do a perfect job if I didn’t have any information? There’s just no way.”
For most of soccer historical past, coaches have made game-management selections utilizing nothing greater than custom and intestine emotions. Staley is as effectively versed on this historical past as any individual on the planet. He is a strolling soccer encyclopedia. He has learn Bill Polian’s “Super Bowl Blueprints” cowl to cowl extra occasions than he can rely.
Staley can also be decided to search out benefits wherever he can, to higher his staff and provides his gamers the very best alternatives to achieve success, even when it means admitting what he doesn’t know. Staley sees a possible benefit within the admission — and in buying as a lot data as he can from as many assets as attainable, in understanding his personal thoughts effectively sufficient to distrust it.
We are discussing fourth downs, alternatives gained and misplaced in an eventful 2021 season that fell simply brief, and the dreaded, polarizing phrase that has brought on arguments and outrage throughout sports activities for many of this century.
Analytics — folks in and round soccer spend numerous hours dissecting the subject. But when the dissection occurs, analytics are not often outlined as what they really are: extra data.
“I think the problem with ‘analytics,’ when you use that word, immediately somebody is feeling something, and they shouldn’t be,” Staley says. “If it was one other time period that individuals have been extra comfy with, then there could be a unique response. But analytics has … it’s like, effectively, it doesn’t belong in ball. It belongs within the CIA. It belongs in funding banking. It doesn’t belong in sports activities. And that’s not true. Information has been how folks have been making judgments on this sport since Paul Brown and Vince Lombardi have been teaching.
“What we try to do is try to use data to make better decisions.”
For Staley, that course of began within the winter of 2021, earlier than he went for it on fourth down at the next fee than any coach within the league, earlier than his in-game selections helped propel the Chargers to the cusp of the postseason and earlier than the fierce backlash of the NFL world got here crashing down on the then-rookie head coach when his staff got here up one win (or tie) brief.
Staley believes in math, however he additionally acknowledges there is part of the sport numbers can not and should by no means be capable to quantify. Mindset. Emotions. Effort. The human aspect. And the driving power in Staley’s method to in-game decision-making was rooted in that understanding.
“There has to be a fearlessness to play in this game, and what I wanted to establish was that,” Staley says. “The historical past of this staff after I received right here, it was like somebody’s going to get damage, they’re going to blow a lead, one thing catastrophic goes to occur. There’s this ‘Chargering’ factor. There’s all of those exterior components that I do know in my life, they’re simply all excuses. They’re simply all excuses.
“And so, how do you modify that? Well, you need to do issues totally different, you need to have a unique method. … Our mindset’s going to be on us, it’s not going to be on the opponent. It’s going to be on us. So creating that fearless mindset of, we’re going to be aggressive, we’re going to place the ball in our arms, we’re going to belief our guys to make performs.
“If we lose, we’re going to do it on our terms, not someone else’s terms.”
It was essential to Staley to instill that mindset in all of his gamers. But it was most important for his rising star quarterback Justin Herbert, who was set to enter his second professional season after an eye-opening rookie marketing campaign. Whether he failed or succeeded, Herbert wanted to expertise the strain. He wanted to face the do-or-die realities of the NFL head on.
“The first person that I was thinking about was Justin. I wasn’t thinking about anything or anybody else,” Staley says. “For me, I got here into this and I mentioned, I do know I’ve a particular quarterback. I additionally know a part of my duty is to coach him. Part of my duty is to get him prepared. And I additionally know that if I take the ball out of his arms, I do know what that’s going to do, too.
“For him to grow and be as good as he’s going to be, he needs to be in these pressure-packed moments. Whether he throws it or not, it’s not the point. It’s that the ball is in his hands, it’s in our hands as a team, and that is where it all started for me.”
For his imaginative and prescient to be executed, Staley felt he wanted to institute a transparent plan for streamlined communication on sport days.
Only six folks could be concerned in game-management discussions on the headsets. Staley and his three coordinators — offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill and then-special groups coordinator Derius Swinton — plus two staffers devoted completely to game-management technique, director of soccer analysis and analytics Aditya Krishnan and offensive assistant Dan Shamash, who had earlier sport administration expertise on Anthony Lynn’s workers. (Shamash was employed away within the offseason by Robert Salah to be the Jets’ situational soccer and sport administration coordinator.)
“Those (six) people are in complete alignment in terms of how we’re going about these decisions,” Staley says. “You don’t have time to have a big powwow. You don’t have time to have this intricate back and forth on a headset during a game.”
Next, Staley constructed the mechanics of the fourth-down decision-making in a “yes, unless” system.
At the beginning of every collection of downs on offense, win-probability fashions from the Chargers soccer analysis division would point out the variety of yards the offense must achieve on first, second and third all the way down to make it a go-for-it — or “green,” within the staff’s lexicon — resolution.
Say the Chargers have a first-and-10 from their very own 40-yard line. And say the mannequin signifies that they’d improve their win chance by going for it on fourth down so long as they’ve 4 or fewer yards to realize. That data is communicated to all related events, together with Lombardi. Lombardi can then name performs on first, second and third down understanding that if he will get to fourth-and-4 or much less, the Chargers are going for it — except Staley says in any other case.
“You can be a better decision-maker if you have things modeled ahead of time,” Staley says. “You have to go into the game with a plan, and then that way you’re saying, ‘No,’ as opposed to deciding yes or no. I’m going into it saying, we’re doing this unless.”
With the infrastructure constructed, the Chargers entered the 2021 season.
“It’s not just about that one down on fourth down,” Staley says. “It’s what happened on the previous three. And that changes the way you play, and it changes the way they have to play you. And that’s what I wanted to do, was use mindset and math to our advantage.”
Back in his workplace, Staley is quoting “The Mighty Ducks.”
He references a scene from the 1992 basic through which protagonist Gordon Bombay, a protection lawyer who takes over teaching a youth hockey staff to meet a court-mandated group service sentence, is speaking to one in all his gamers, Charlie Conway. Bombay was a star participant as a child, and he rehashes a painful childhood reminiscence of a possible profitable penalty shot hitting the submit in a championship sport.
“A quarter of an inch this way and it would have gone in,” Bombay says within the scene. “A quarter of an inch, Charlie!”
“Well, yeah,” Charlie replies, “but a quarter of an inch the other way and you would have missed completely.”
Staley recites the alternate practically phrase for phrase from reminiscence as he discusses the 2021 Chargers season, when Los Angeles missed the playoffs after shedding three of its last 4 video games, together with two losses in prime time.
They entered their Week 15 Thursday night time sport in opposition to the Chiefs with an opportunity to take over first place within the AFC West however fell in extra time after going for it on 5 of their six fourth downs, solely changing twice.
Three weeks later, within the last sport of the season at Las Vegas on Sunday night time, the Chargers had an opportunity to make the playoffs with a win or tie. They misplaced to the Raiders in extra time. They went for it on seven of their 12 fourth downs, although 5 of these got here in desperation conditions within the fourth quarter and extra time.
One failed try — a third-quarter fourth-and-1 from the Chargers’ personal 18-yard line when Austin Ekeler was dropped for a 2-yard loss on a run — was a sticking level within the Monday morning quarterbacking that adopted. And the failed fourth downs in prime-time video games turned the lasting pictures for what had been a promising season.
“I take full responsibility for those two games,” Staley says. “There’s nobody that was more devastated, that was more crushed by us losing. We’re going to learn a lot from those two games. But we’re going to learn a lot from all the games that we played in.”
“You have to accept it can go both ways,” Staley says. “And you’re ready for it.”
In complete, the Chargers went for it on 34 of 108 fourth downs throughout 17 video games — a 31.5 p.c go fee that was the best within the league. Despite the excessive fee, the Chargers have been tied for fourth in fourth-down conversion fee at 64.7 p.c, making them the one staff within the league with a go fee over 25 p.c and a conversion fee over 60 p.c.
The Chargers have been extremely productive on all fourth downs, regardless of having one of many worst punt models within the league and a area purpose unit that solely discovered its footing over the second half of the season after the staff changed kicker Tristan Vizcaino with Dustin Hopkins.
Expected factors added (EPA), extensively used to measure and evaluate effectivity in all three phases, makes use of historic situational knowledge — like down, distance, rating and time of sport — to provide a degree complete a staff is predicted to provide on a given play. After that play, a brand new anticipated factors complete may be calculated based mostly on the identical components. By subtracting the second complete from the primary complete, you might be left with the variety of anticipated factors produced on a single play.
The Chargers ranked third within the league in EPA/play on fourth downs — by going for it, punting and making an attempt area targets — regardless of rating twenty fifth in complete EPA on punts and sixteenth in complete EPA on area targets, based on TruMedia.
“I don’t think I’m smarter than everybody else,” Staley says. “I believe in myself. I believe in how we do things.”
Imagine you’re a contestant on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” You have made it to the ultimate query. One extra right reply and also you win $1 million. The query pops up, alongside along with your 4 attainable a number of alternative choices. You are stumped. You don’t have any clue. Luckily, you’ve stored one in all your lifelines — telephone a good friend.
Now reply this: Do you make the decision to get another person’s opinion? What is the draw back in gathering as a lot data as attainable earlier than making your million-dollar resolution?
The similar logic ought to apply to any resolution — even the ultra-high-stakes ones NFL head coaches should make each week within the fall: the extra data, the higher. And that’s the place the Chargers soccer analysis division is available in.
At the time of his hiring, the Chargers solely had one full-time analytics staffer within the constructing, Krishnan, whom they employed from the Browns as director of soccer analysis in March 2020. In July 2021, the Chargers employed Alex Stern, a former guide for the University of Virginia soccer staff who was a finalist on the 2020 NFL Big Data Bowl — the league’s annual analytics contest — and an honorable point out in 2021.
“When you say analytics, it’s like, well, that’s an outsider’s view of the game,” Staley says. “But there are people that really care about the game that are really smart. They may not be a coach, they may not be a player, they may not be an executive or front office, but they have a real place in the game.”
Krishnan and Stern are liable for producing the weekly game-specific win chance fashions Staley makes use of to tell the staff’s strategic selections. The fashions embody myriad components, like rating, time of sport, down, distance, climate circumstances, adjusted level unfold, harm experiences and histories, opposing quarterback, house vs. highway sport, kicking and punting effectivity and extra.
The fashions give Staley a mathematical indication of how a lot worth the Chargers are gaining inherently in a fourth-down resolution, earlier than the play occurs. That failed fourth-and-1 from the season finale in Las Vegas is a worthy instance. And we are able to use Ben Baldwin’s fourth-down bot — an open supply win chance mannequin — as a framework.
Inputting the related parameters — rating (Chargers down 3), quarter (third), time remaining (8:57), area place (personal 18), and yards to go (1) — Baldwin’s win chance mannequin gave the Chargers a 41 p.c probability of profitable the sport in the event that they punted. If they efficiently gained that yard and transformed the fourth down, their probabilities of profitable the sport would leap to 49 p.c. If they did not convert, their probabilities of profitable the sport would fall to 32 p.c.
—> LAC (14) @ LV (17) <—
LAC has 4th & 1 on the LAC 18
Recommendation (STRONG): 👉 Go for it (+3 WP)
Actual play: 👉 A.Ekeler up the center to LAC 16 for -2 yards (D.Philon). pic.twitter.com/Xo1e5M9Wtv
— 4th down resolution bot (@ben_bot_baldwin) January 10, 2022
The subsequent step is calculating the probabilities the Chargers have of changing the fourth-and-1. In this case, Baldwin’s mannequin gave the Chargers a 71 p.c probability of changing this fourth down. (For context, the league common conversion fee on fourth-and-1s was 68.1 p.c final season.)
Next, take the distinction in win chance between a profitable conversion and a failed conversion — on this case, 17 p.c or .17. Multiple that by the chance of conversion — 71 p.c or .71 — and also you get 12 p.c. Add that to the win chance within the case of a failed conversion — 32 p.c + 12 p.c — and also you get 44 p.c, three share factors increased than the win chance if the Chargers punted.
In different phrases: According to Baldwin’s mannequin, the Chargers had a 3 p.c higher probability of profitable the sport by going for it than by punting.
The Chargers’ team-specific and game-specific fashions are extra nuanced than Baldwin’s extra normal mannequin that calculates win chance for each fourth-down resolution from each sport all season. More components come into play — climate, kicking conditions, opposing quarterback metrics, harm experiences and historical past, and so on. The Chargers additionally tailor their fashions based mostly on how Staley needs to play in a given week, both extra conservative or extra aggressive.
The win chance figures are relayed to Staley and the remainder of the coaches concerned in sport administration at first of a brand new collection of downs — the “yes, unless” system — versus fourth down. Staley then has last say and may do no matter he sees match. There is not any chart or sheet, simply extra data put into the headset of the pinnacle decision-maker. And whereas he trusts the maths, there’s at all times extra to the choice than simply numbers. That was the case with the fourth-and-1 resolution in Las Vegas, too.
“When we make this, we’re going to tell that team, ‘This is our game to win, not yours,’” Staley remembers considering in that second. “‘It’s our game to win.’”
Mindset, then math.
Most usually, these two issues aligned. According to Baldwin’s mannequin, Staley confronted 17 fourth-down selections through which he would achieve a minimum of 3 p.c in win chance by going for it. He went for it on 12 of these selections. The Chargers did not convert 4 of these 12 fourth downs, together with Ekeler’s run in opposition to the Raiders. Staley says he isn’t so process-oriented that he “can be immune to the result.”
“You can’t be blind and say, ‘Oh man, I’m so proud of that decision. It didn’t work out, but I can live with that,’” he says. “There’s a reality to the result. And I think as a leader, you do have to factor that in, because there’s this thing called morale and buy-in that really matters. And that’s something that you have to take very seriously, and that’s something that is incumbent upon me to communicate to our entire team and make sure that you don’t ever cross that line.”
Buy-in. Morale. Mindset. The unquantifiable human aspect of the sport.
“It’s not about me,” Staley says. “The mindset, it’s not about one person. It’s about our team.”
The loss in Las Vegas confirmed either side of this coin. The fourth-and-1 try was the appropriate mathematical resolution. But even Staley now admits that he observed a letdown from his offense after the failed Ekeler run, and the Chargers went three-and-out on their subsequent two possessions.
In the fourth quarter, although, the Chargers, led by Herbert, staged an epic comeback, storming again from 15 factors down with 8:23 remaining. Joey Bosa sacked Derek Carr on a third-and-6 to power a punt within the Raiders’ last possession of regulation, then Herbert tied the sport with a 12-yard landing move to Mike Williams on the ultimate play of regulation. Herbert had an ideal passer ranking on fourth down within the sport
For Staley, his imaginative and prescient for forging an unflappability amongst his gamers had been realized on this comeback.
Even if it in the end fell brief, does it occur if Staley doesn’t prioritize a fearless mindset in his gamers from his very first day on the job? There is not any mathematical mannequin on the planet that may reply that query.
“For me, coming here to this team and what I had heard about this team. I knew that mindset was something that I was going to have to establish — and that I wanted to establish,” Staley says, “And I think we’re in the process of doing it.”
Staley is studying one other passage from “The Undoing Project.”
“Lung cancer proved to be a handy example,” he quotes. “Lung most cancers docs within the early ’80s confronted two unequally disagreeable choices: surgical procedure or radiation. Surgery was extra more likely to prolong your life, however not like radiation, it got here with the small danger of prompt demise.
“When you told people that they had a 90 percent chance of surviving surgery, 82 percent of the patients opted for surgery. But when you told them that they had a 10 percent chance of dying from the surgery, which was of course just a different way of putting the same odds, only 54 percent chose the surgery.”
He appears up.
“I think that’s a big part of the language of football,” he says. “Think about science itself. Sports does an even worse job of framing. People don’t always have a good reference point to help them frame some of these decisions.”
Staley begins scanning once more, flipping pages, studying sentences to himself below his breath. Then he finds one other passage he needs to share.
“The understanding of numbers is so weak that they don’t know how to communicate anything,” he reads aloud. “Everyone feels that those probabilities are not real.”
He appears up once more.
“That’s the real issue,” he says. “They don’t think these probabilities are real.”
But they’re. And they may very well be the distinction between profitable and shedding.
“Facts are what bring people together,” Staley says. “When I tell J.C. Jackson that a wide receiver catches 90 percent of his passes outside the numbers, that math should matter to him. When I tell Justin Herbert that over 70 percent on third-and-4-to-6, they pressure, that should matter to him. That math should matter to them. It doesn’t mean that on those 4-to-6s it’s always going to be pressure and vice-versa. But it’s part of the calculation.”
Staley held exit interviews together with his gamers, the individuals who introduced his mindset to life, in his workplace after the season. Veterans got here in and delivered Staley a message, as he remembers: “Don’t you ever change. Don’t you even think about it.”
Staley had hoped to construct perception amongst his gamers. And because the Chargers flip to a brand new season, one with Super Bowl aspirations buoyed by a defensive overhaul, it’s that perception that permeates. The returning gamers have it. The new faces — like Jackson, Khalil Mack, Sebastian Joseph-Day, Kyle Van Noy and Bryce Callahan — wish to be part of this staff due to it.
“Where we are now, we are different because of that. It’s the mindset that got us here,” Staley says. “This is a different group out here than last year, and it’s not just because of the additions. It’s because of what we accomplished last year and what we didn’t accomplish.”
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photos: Matthew Stockman, Keith Birmingham / Getty Images)