Last season, Chargers coach Brandon Staley developed a reputation as an aggressive coach on fourth downs, seeing fourth-and-1 as “go for it” territory anywhere on the field. This season, Staley hasn’t been so aggressive, and on Sunday night a decision to punt on fourth-and-inches cost the Chargers.
That punt came late in the third quarter, with the Chargers ahead 20-16. The Chargers had faced third-and-1 and a running play got most of the yard they needed, and a quarterback sneak only would have needed Justin Herbert to fall forward by about a foot to make the first down, but Staley punted anyway, and he said after the game that he decided to play for field position.
“We really felt like flipping the field position there was the right thing to do,” Staley said. “The game was even and I didn’t want to swing the momentum their way, and we had been stopped on a couple short yardage plays. I felt like our defense was playing at a high enough level and wanted to give our defense a chance to compete.”
Unfortunately for the Chargers, after the punt the Chiefs marched down the field on a 10-play drive that ended with a Patrick Mahomes touchdown pass to Travis Kelce to start the fourth quarter. “Flipping the field position” isn’t so beneficial when you’re facing Mahomes, who can engineer a scoring drive from anywhere on the field.
The analytics said the right call was to go for it on that fourth-and-inches, but Staley has often eschewed the analytics this year after becoming a darling of the analytics community last year. (Staley also faced two fourth down decisions in Chiefs territory on Sunday night where the analytics might have said to go for it, and the Chargers kicked field goals both times, although neither of those field goal decisions were as egregiously anti-analytics as that fourth-and-inches punt.)
Staley may have been able to defend his punt after the game, but as he looks at the tape today, it’s probably a decision he wishes he could have back.