Worth the risk? How Brandon Staley and the Chargers fared on fourth down

Chargers coach Brandon Staley yells instructions after a fumble during a win over the Cleveland Browns.
Chargers coach Brandon Staley yells instructions after a fumble during a win over the Cleveland Browns on Oct. 10 at SoFi Stadium.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Brandon Staley’s fourth-down decisions were a seasonlong story around the Chargers.

Only twice did the topic become raging, national debate, however.

Not surprisingly, both occasions were the result of Staley’s decisions failing in overtime losses in front of national television audiences when the Chargers were playing the only NFL game happening at the time.

On Dec. 16 during a Thursday night at home against Kansas City, Staley passed up three makeable field-goal attempts.


How should first season of Chargers coach Brandon Staley be remembered? Is he the right guy for the Chargers? His controversial decisions make some wonder.

Jan. 12, 2022

Then, on Sunday night in Las Vegas, he went for it in the third quarter of a three-point game when the Chargers were at their 18-yard line.

“What we’re trying to do is give our team the best chance to win,” Staley said Wednesday. “I think we’ve been transparent about our process and owning the mistakes if they happen.”

After the Chargers ended with a 9-8 record, here’s a closer look at fourth-and-Staley, just one of the themes that emerged during his rookie season as a head coach:

  • The Chargers’ offense started the season by converting its first seven fourth-down tries and finished by converting eight of its final nine.
  • Overall, the team was 22 of 34 (64.7%), that percentage tying New England for fourth-best in the NFL.
  • Only two teams — Detroit and Chicago — went for it more often on fourth down than the Chargers did. L.A.’s 22 conversions led the league.
  • Two other fourth downs turned into first downs when the Chargers drew defensive penalties. Since each, statistically, is categorized as a “no play,” it was not counted as a conversion by the offense.
Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert throws against the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday.
(Ellen Schmidt / Associated Press)

  • Converted fourth-quarter fourth downs were crucial in wins at Kansas City, against Cleveland and at Philadelphia. “A lot of the decisions that are being second-guessed,” Staley said, “some of those same decisions gave us a huge opportunity to be in the hunt.”
  • The 22 conversions helped extend drives that produced 11 touchdowns and three field goals for 86 points.
  • After the 12 failed attempts, the opposition scored six times — five field goals and one touchdown for 22 points.
  • Two of the conversions were Justin Herbert touchdown passes — to Keenan Allen at Cincinnati and to Joshua Palmer at Las Vegas.
  • Four conversions led to no points, those possessions instead ending in a punt, a turnover on downs, an interception and a fumble.
  • On the 12 failed conversions, Staley passed up reasonable field-goal attempts six times.

“I know that I can improve,” he said. “But I feel like for my first year as an NFL head coach, I wouldn’t change a lot.”

Anyone expecting Staley to re-evaluate his fourth-down approach in 2022 likely will be disappointed.


“We’re going to do the best we can to make the best decisions that we feel like are going to give us the best chance to win,” he said. “And I don’t see that changing any time soon.”

The Chargers are surprised they did not qualify for the playoffs, but they still have admiration for the job done by rookie head coach Brandon Staley.

Jan. 10, 2022