Column: Brandon Staley’s fearless play-calling strategy unlocking Chargers’ potential

Chargers coach Brandon Staley shouts instructions after a fumble against the Cleveland Browns.
Chargers coach Brandon Staley shouts instructions against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. Staley’s team was three for three on fourth-down conversions in a 47-42 win.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The difference in the Chargers this season can be found in the look in quarterback Justin Herbert’s eyes, an expression of confidence and command that gives his teammates assurance and inspiration no matter the situation.

The difference in the Chargers this season can be found in the bold play-calling of coach Brandon Staley and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, who have shown they won’t hesitate to go for it on fourth down if the circumstances are right — and they have the personnel who can make those circumstances right even when it might seem a debatable call.

The Chargers’ offense is seven for seven on fourth-down efficiency this season, including two gutsy calls during a third-quarter drive Sunday and another in the fourth quarter. They’re not timid or uncertain anymore.


“It’s different, you know?” running back Austin Ekeler said of the Chargers’ risky fourth-down strategy after their sensational 47-42 comeback victory over the Cleveland Browns at SoFi Stadium. “But here’s the thing: It’s a two-way street. It’s, ‘Hey, OK, we’re going to be aggressive,’ but I believe that we’ve proved that we have the guys that can get it done.”

The Chargers extended their winning streak to three games in an incredible 47-42 victory over the Cleveland Browns.

Oct. 10, 2021

The difference is these Chargers have the personnel and the tools to win consistently, and to win tight games or shootouts. After scoring 47 points against the Browns, who had given up a total of 13 points in beating the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings in their previous two games, they have a three-game winning streak and the lead in the AFC West. More than that, they have a strong sense of who they are and what they think they can become.

“I think we’re learning how to win games,” Herbert said, “and I think that’s huge for us because over the past couple of years we’ve let a couple get away.”

So far they’ve been fearless. Entertaining. Successful (4-1). But popular?

That’s still asking a lot. But the balance of fan sentiment in the orange-dotted announced crowd of 70,240 on Sunday seemed to be about even — and that’s a win for the Chargers. Their game against the Las Vegas Raiders last Monday night was, for all purposes, a Raiders home game. Most of their home games are home games for their opponent. On Sunday, they gave their own fans reason to be loud by scoring 34 points in the second half, including 26 in the frantic fourth quarter.

“What we’re trying to do is earn respect every time we go out. And today was a great chance against a really good team,” Staley said. “We’ve got to be able to beat good teams in this league, and I felt to do it in front of our home crowd, hopefully that draws even more in our next game. And I look forward to seeing a lot more powder blue as the season goes on.”

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert throws during Sunday's win over the Cleveland Browns at SoFi Stadium.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Miracles do happen. “Felt some love today, so shout out to the Charger fans out here in L.A., coming through,” Ekeler said. “If you’re not a Charger fan, hey, we’re giving you something to be excited about watching. Come check it out.”

He was a fine advertisement for his team, rushing for 66 yards and two touchdowns and catching five passes for 53 yards and another touchdown. But he also had a first-half fumble and couldn’t stop the Browns from dragging him into the end zone in the fourth quarter on a play in which he was supposed to work the clock and deny Cleveland a final possession.

“Sick to my stomach,” Ekeler said of how he felt, though it ended up not hurting the Chargers because the defense made a late and successful stand.

That’s a big difference too. They’ve won probably three or four games they might have lost a year ago or two years ago. They’re earning each other’s trust and learning to trust Staley and Lombardi on those fourth-down situations.

The most surprising call was on a fourth and two at their own 24-yard line, which they converted on a nine-yard run by Ekeler.

Austin Ekeler was hoping to kill time on the clock when he was forced into scoring a go-ahead touchdown in a 47-42 victory over the Cleveland Browns.

Oct. 10, 2021

“I don’t know how many coaches would have made that [decision]. I know ours did, though, and he believed in us and I believe in him,” Herbert said. “And that entire offense, I believe in those guys. And those guys up front, they blocked super well today, and that’s a tough defensive front that we’re going up against and I thought they handled it pretty well.”

Staley said the call wasn’t automatic. “It was just how the game was going, time, score, and then two is not a big deal for us,” he said. “I felt like Joe Lombardi was fantastic today. I can’t say enough about him and our entire offensive staff. I just felt like our guys are executing well. We needed it today. We needed all those plays, and I’m really proud of our offensive football team today.”

Later in that possession, on fourth and seven at Cleveland’s 22, Herbert found Keenan Allen on a short pass on the left side for a gain of 12. Two plays later, Herbert scrambled for nine yards and a touchdown and then hit Donald Parham Jr. for a two-point conversion to cut the Browns’ lead to 27-21.

“I really felt like the fourth-down conversion would give us some rhythm, and we were able to finish that drive with points and then that completely flipped the momentum of the game, and now our defense is feeling better and we were able to settle our guys in,” Staley said.

Breaking down the numbers behind the Chargers’ 47-42 victory over Cleveland Browns — scoring and statistics.

Oct. 10, 2021

Well after the game, the fourth quarter was still in Ekeler’s mind. “Wow,” he said. “Wow. I’m still taking that one in. That was crazy.”

It truly was a double “wow” game for the Chargers, who haven’t had many reasons to say that in a positive sense the last few years. There may be many more wows in store for them before this season ends.