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NFL roundtable: Want Chargers’ Staley and Herbert or Rams’ McVay and Stafford?

Chargers head coach Brandon Staley, right, hugs  Rams defensive back JuJu Hughes after a preseason game.
Chargers head coach Brandon Staley still has ties with the Rams, having been their defensive coordinator last season.
(Associated Press)

The Rams and Chargers are both 4-1, but at this point the Chargers — with a new coaching staff and playbook — have been more surprising. So who’s really doing better? Moderated by Los Angeles Times NFL editor Athan Atsales, Rams beat writer Gary Klein, Chargers beat writer Jeff Miller, NFL writer Sam Farmer and columnist Helene Elliott discuss:

Considering where the Rams and Chargers were last season, who is doing a better coaching job so far this season — the Rams’ Sean McVay or the Chargers’ Brandon Staley?

Miller: I haven’t seen every play of the Rams’ season, but I can’t imagine McVay has been better than Staley. This guy has been savant-like in his handling of the Chargers. From the fourth-down decisions to the in-game adjustments to the belief he has built. It’s flatly remarkable that he never was a head coach at any level before this.

Farmer: Have to give it to Brandon Staley at this point. The Chargers are winning games they would have lost in other seasons. Beating Kansas City at Arrowhead is huge, then holding serve at home against Cleveland was really impressive. The Rams took care of business against Tampa Bay, but getting stomped the way they did by Arizona was concerning. And that win at Seattle? That game was more about which team would blow fewer opportunities. Neither was sharp.

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Elliott: Gotta agree. Coach of the month-plus in L.A. is Staley. The Chargers are winning games they lacked the confidence and direction to win in previous seasons. Staley and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi have won players over with an aggressive playbook and building trust.

Klein: Both teams are 4-1, I’d say they’re even. Staley has done a great job. Beating the Chiefs in Kansas City was a big win. The Rams beat the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers — and their only loss came against the Cardinals, the NFL’s only undefeated team. And let’s be honest: McVay is under way more pressure than Staley. After the Jared Goff-Matthew Stafford trade, it’s essentially boom or bust for the Rams to play in the Super Bowl. McVay still has them on a track for a shot to get there.

As the Rams prepare for the Giants, they will need to adjust the secondary now that starting cornerback Darious Williams is out for at least one week.

As long as we’re comparing, the Rams and Chargers quarterbacks are lighting it up. Who’s been the better passer so far?

Miller: Justin Herbert threw a pass to Keenan Allen on Sunday against Cleveland that gained 37 yards to convert a third-and-five late in the fourth quarter. Herbert was on the move to his right and fired the ball to Allen over a defender and two quick steps from the sideline. It was perfection passing to perfection as Allen made a tremendous catch. That has to be the best pass an L.A. quarterback has thrown this season.

Farmer: Coming off the opener against Chicago, there wasn’t a hotter quarterback in the league than Matthew Stafford. But he cooled in the past two games — still really good at times, but also made his share of mistakes. Justin Herbert, meanwhile, has been consistently excellent. If he’s had a sophomore slump to this point, it might have lasted 15 minutes — and maybe it was in practice. He has been exceptional.

Elliott: Has to go to Herbert. As Sam said, Stafford has cooled off. Herbert seems to get better every game as he gains experience in different situations. He’s so young and has so much potential that it’s mind-boggling.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford talks with head coach Sean McVay.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford and head coach Sean McVay have been a great combination so far this season.
(Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

Klein: Sorry, don’t like to be the fence-sitter here, but Matthew Stafford and Justin Herbert are essentially even. Yes, I’m peeking at NFL stats. Stafford is third in the league in passing, Herbert fourth. They are nearly identical in touchdowns and interceptions and completion percentage. Stafford averages 9.2 yards an attempt, Herbert 7.6. Haven’t watched Herbert enough to know what he’s done really well and what he’s struggled with. Stafford has made some ridiculously good throws — on par or better than the one Jeff described Herbert delivering — but he also, surprising to me at least, has underthrown several passes on longer routes.

Now that the 49ers lost again and are without quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for a stretch, and the Seahawks are without quarterback Russell Wilson for probably a longer stretch, has the really deep NFC West turned into a two-team race between the unbeaten Cardinals and the Rams?

Farmer: Yep, two-team race. And if the Rams can stay healthy, here’s betting they win at Arizona in December. The Seahawks are cooked without Russell Wilson, and the 49ers are really going to miss George Kittle. I don’t think the Cardinals are going to run away with it, so this should be an interesting battle as the season plugs along.

Klein: It looks that way, but I would not count out Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers. They still play defense, it seems like they can pick any running back off the scrap heap and make them effective, and Trey Lance is only going to get better. Everyone is chasing Kyler Murray and the Cardinals at this point. The Rams play at Arizona later in the season. The 49ers get the Cardinals at home.

The Chargers are the only team in the AFC West with one loss. This division was also considered the strongest in their conference, but who do the Chargers need to worry about most?

Farmer: The Chargers still need to worry most about Kansas City. The Chiefs are like zombies; they aren’t going away. Las Vegas is coming off back-to-back losses, and now they’ve lost their head coach. Denver can rise up and win some games, but it feels like the Chargers and Chiefs are just a cut above.

Chargers guard Oday Aboushi is out for the remainder of the season after suffering a torn ACL in win over the Cleveland Browns.

Klein: Yup, the Chiefs. Any team with Patrick Mahomes is the one you need to worry about most.

Miller: Chiefs, Chiefs and Chiefs. Kansas City right now certainly isn’t as good as it has been the past couple seasons. But the Chiefs still have Patrick Mahomes and that’s more than enough. I don’t buy Denver for a second — three wins against three meh opponents — and Las Vegas is dealing with major off-field issues.

It was all Cooper Kupp at receiver for the Rams early in the season, and last week it was all Robert Woods. Do the Rams need more balance if they hope to reach their super aspirations?

Klein: McVay just needs to keep everybody happy and feeling like they are contributing — and making progress toward whatever incentives are in their contracts. DeSean Jackson was frustrated, requested a sit-down with McVay and broke out the next game. A few games later, Woods did the same. The Rams went to the Super Bowl in 2018 when Woods and Brandin Cooks had nearly identical stats. Last season, when they reached the divisional round, Kupp and Woods had nearly identical stats. So there’s a developing pattern: The Rams offense is at its best when McVay is balancing at least two receivers.

Rams wide receiver Robert Woods (2) makes a catch as Seattle Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner (54) watches.
Rams wide receiver Robert Woods (2) made several spectacular catches against the Seattle Seahawks last week.
(Craig Mitchelldyer / Associated Press)

Farmer: This just feels like one of those years when the spotlight is going to swing from player to player, as the Rams have an embarrassment of riches at receiver. They needed to get Robert Woods more involved, and they certainly didn’t want him unhappy. He’s vital. But the team has to continue to build a running game. As good as Stafford is, he can’t solely rely on his right arm. That’s what happened in Detroit, and — even though he rang up big numbers — he never won a playoff game.

Coach Brandon Staley keeps taking chances on fourth down, even on the Chargers’ end of the field. Will these high-risk decisions come back to bite them, or do these calculated risks seem more game situational at this time?

Elliott: Maybe. But everything has worked fine so far. And it has been fun to watch. The more success they’ve had, the more they believe they can have success in the future on high-risk plays. And the first time it doesn’t work, I bet they won’t be scared off and they will try it again. Good on them.

Chargers coach Brandon Staley says his team has star power all over roster, and winning wit eye-catching play is something L.A. loves ... like the ‘Showtime’ Lakers.

Farmer: Staley does what Anthony Lynn didn’t do — he leans on those analytics. If the law of averages say he should go for it more on fourth down, he should do just that. Hard to quibble with the results so far. Chargers aren’t winning by blind luck.

Miller: Staley loves to talk about games, plays, decisions having “a life of their own,” meaning each one exists independently. His fourth-down choices are all data-driven by a system that assigns a color — green, yellow or red — to denote how strongly the numbers lean one way or the other. Eventually, one of these decisions won’t work out and it will cost the Chargers. But that failure won’t be because Staley was reckless.


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