Football coaches will not often admit to being surprised by anything.
Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley definitely wasn’t going there regarding the criticism he’s faced in recent weeks regarding his in-game decision-making.
“I’ve watched sports since I was five years old, drinking coffee with my dad when I was seven years old reading the newspaper,” Staley said. “I’ve been watching sports my whole life and all I’ve ever wanted to be was a coach. It doesn’t matter what era, what sport, you know that when you lead, whether you’re a player or a coach, that’s part of the game.
“And it’s part of the game you cherish because you know how competitive it is. Definitely not surprising at all and it’s part of the reason why you love the job so much.”
Head coaches in the NFL get scrutinized by everybody. Their bosses, fans, even their own players. When Staley went for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 46-yard line nursing a two-point lead with 1 minute, 46 seconds, remaining last week, and failed, injured wide receiver Keenan Allen later tweeted, “WTF are we doing,” in a since-deleted message.
It took first-year Denver head coach Nathaniel Hackett, oh, about 59 game minutes and some change into his tenure to experience the same pressure-cooker in Seattle when he opted for a 64-yard field goal attempt rather than leaving Russell Wilson and the Broncos offense on the field for a fourth-and-5 with 20 seconds remaining.
The next day, he acknowledged that he “definitely” should have gone for it rather than try the low-percentage kick attempt.
The biggest difference between Staley and Hackett’s calls in those particular moments: The Chargers ended up winning and the Broncos ended up losing.
Second-guessing and criticism comes with the territory, with the millions in salary and with the exalted status bestowed upon those who succeed. It also comes for everybody at some point.
“In the end, we have to execute and we have to convert, then it’s a great decision,” Hackett said. “If you don’t convert, it’s a really, really bad decision. That’s part of the game, on any play call that you make in any situation, whether it’s first down, second down, third down or fourth down. … Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. You have to ride with your decision, your gut, and that’s where it balances out. If you feel like you have a good play, you want to go with it. If you don’t, you will probably end up punting it.”
Just two games in, Hackett decided he needed to change the way his game management operation worked and brought in Jerry Rosburg, the former Baltimore Ravens assistant, to provide a gameday voice in his ear and channel all of the information and opinions that flow on gameday into a more streamlined message to the head coach. Since then, he told The Denver Post recently, he thinks game days have smoothed out.
“Without a doubt. Every single thing for a coach is about, ‘What can I control?’” he said. “I felt like there were some things there that I felt like I could control and make me better. And, looking at those first two games, how they went and doing some self-reflection, I realized that I can really correct that and I feel like we did the past three games.
“Now it’s, OK, let’s get back to the other things and control what I can control and just continually teach, continually coach, continually make those guys feel comfortable with each other.”
Staley, meanwhile, is considered one of the most aggressive coaches in the NFL in terms of going for it on fourth down. He told Denver reporters last week that a one-size-fits-all approach is not the way to go. Nor is relying solely on numbers or solely on gut feel.
“What you don’t want to be is somebody that’s winging it,” Staley said. “There’s people that tell you, ‘Hey I’m just going off my gut instinct and my instincts are so superior to you.’ Anybody that knows anything about decision-making knows that’s the worst way to make a decision. You have to have plans in place, you have to have models in place that allow you to think faster. That’s what we try to do is think faster in the moment and not have to pause and say, ‘oh well, hey.’ That time is ticking and there’s a lot that happens quickly in the NFL.
“Your models allow you to make better decisions. Then if you are going to veto something in the moment because of the flow of the game, the feel of the game, the matchup, that’s easier to do than having to do all of it at once.”
Hackett said he usually wants to know the numbers first when a situation arises during the game.
“But in the end, it’s about the play, it’s about the players and executing and making that play,” he said.
“We look at every single thing across the board. When you compare it to other sports, football, to me, is a completely different sport than others. It’s not a flow sport. Every single play is completely independent of the others. There are so many situations that go into it, from the players, to the weather, to matchups and to how different teams are playing. There are so many things that go into it.
“That’s why this is my favorite sport in the world because those situations are ever changing.”