The decision is made on the sideline, but the work is done during the week.
The Los Angeles Chargers have become must-see TV on fourth down, the results of a highly detailed spreadsheet, a focus on analytics and a belief in their stellar QB.
“You’re trying to put the ball in his hands,” Chargers head coach Brandon Staley told NFL.com, with star quarterback Justin Herbert in mind. “When you have a guy who is a dual threat like he is, you really do have the threat of run and pass. You don’t have a worry about him being swallowed up with pressure, he gives us an advantage. And we have good ball distribution because we have quality weapons. We’re tough to defend.”
The decision on whether to go for it on fourth down goes much deeper than that, as Staley explained over the phone this week. They construct models after meetings with their analytics department and all three coordinators, knowing going into the week where they would go, with all of it explicitly broken down by down and distance.
Recently, they’ve had plenty of success. Over the last two games, the Chargers have converted three of their last four fourth-down conversions. That’s second in the NFL only to the Dolphins (5 of 6) over two games. Overall, their four conversions are fourth-most in the NFL, with an 80% conversion rate that ranks third-highest in the NFL.
It begins with a conversation with Director of Football Research Aditya Krishnan and analyst Alex Stern. Then the coordinators, with an eye on weather, field zone, where the ball is and how far they have to go. Each situation is broken into green, yellow and red, providing a guideline for when to go for it. Staley can then adapt from there during game day.
“In all those fourth-down situations, they all had a life of their own,” Staley said. “That needs to be expressed. Just because you make one, doesn’t mean you are playing with house money and are more likely to go with it. You treat each as its own, but we’ve done a good job of assessing risk.”
Going into each game, every situation is addressed with how to proceed. And they’ve had a lot of success doing it.
The most eye-popping was the fourth-and-4 against the Chiefs that turned into fourth-and-9. With 48 seconds left, Staley decided against a 52-yard field goal to take the lead. The result was a pass interference penalty to keep the ball and eventually win.
“On paper, that was the riskiest one, but our data still showed it as green,” Staley said. “Even with the penalty, we were confident in the play-call and matchup. There was a cross-wind, and the kickers and punters were having a tough time. And it had a lot to do with the QB (Patrick Mahomes) on the other side and the team we were playing.”
Based on the Chargers model, it wasn’t as big a risk as it appeared. And it worked.
Another key one came against the Raiders this past Monday night. Up 21-14 with Las Vegas pushing, it was fourth-and-2 from the 50 with about nine minutes to go. It was a 13-yard pass from Herbert to Jared Cook to keep the drive alive and key the eventual put-away score.
“Given the zone, we felt like we should lay it all out there,” Staley said, “and the matchups are good. But our philosophy has been prepare like they are each their own.”
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