The Los Angeles Chargers lost a heartbreaker on Thursday night, and head coach Brandon Staley is about to face some hard questions. The Chargers passed up four field goal attempts during the game, with three of those decisions backfiring. Considering this game resulted in an overtime loss, fans and media alike are questioning Staley’s aggressive approach.
While the results were less than ideal, the method behind Staley’s madness was sound. The Chargers may have lost this one, but that had more to do with bad luck than bad coaching.
Brandon Staley Made The Right Decisions on Thursday Night
It goes without saying that the major talking points for this game are going to revolve around what the Chargers did on 4th down. Los Angeles converted two of their five fourth downs but, for the sake of this article, let’s just talk about the three that didn’t work. After all, nobody is going to talk about the two times the decision paid off, as most of the fury behind the game stems from hindsight bias.
Mathematically speaking, the Chargers were justified in going for it on each and every one of their failed fourth down conversions. Now, nobody claims that these models are perfect (we’ll get to that later), but they are good to use as a general guideline.
According to Ben Baldwin’s model, each of the aforementioned 4th downs had at least a 2% chance of increasing LA’s shot of winning the game. Again, these numbers aren’t exact, but percentages this large mean that the risk is well worth the reward.
—> KC (13) @ LAC (14) <—
LAC has 4th & 2 at the KC 28
Recommendation (STRONG): 👉 Go for it (+4.4 WP)
Actual play: 👉 (Shotgun) J.Herbert pass incomplete short left to J.Cook (N.Bolton). pic.twitter.com/bFjCc199BQ
— 4th down decision bot (@ben_bot_baldwin) December 17, 2021
This model passes the eye test as well. While I could understand wanting to kick a field goal on 4th and Goal from the 5, the other two should have been no-brainers. On their second failed conversion, the Chargers had the opportunity to take a chip shot field goal to keep it a one-score game, or they could trust their offense to make it a two-score game by picking up a single yard. On the third conversion, the Chargers decided to forego a long field goal attempt and trust their offense to pick up two yards.
More often than not, the Chargers make these short-yardage conversions and nobody ever thinks about these plays again. Unfortunately, because hindsight is 20/20, this is going to be the talk of the town for the next week.
The Faults of the Model
Of course, the win probability model is not an all-knowing tool. The program is simply giving the best approximation based on historically similar events, and there are some important factors that the model simply cannot compute. Additionally, there are some people that deem the very concept of a win probability model as useless. Math might be able to send man to the moon, but it can’t possibly approximate something as complex as football.
The biggest holes in Baldwin’s model are the fact that he doesn’t know which teams are actually playing. However, once you account for the strengths of both teams, it only makes more sense for Staley to be more aggressive.
For one, the Los Angeles Chargers are really good at moving the ball. Entering Week 15, the team ranked 8th in points per game, 7th in EPA/play, and 8th in success rate. By just about every metric, they’re a top-10 offense in football. Additionally, according to Sharp Football Stats, the Chargers entered the game converting 64% of their 3rd/4th and short attempts, good for the 12th-best mark in the league. Put simply, this is an above-average unit, and Baldwin’s model is probably selling the odds of conversion a little short.
On top of that, the Chargers were facing off against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. Even in a relatively down year, Kansas City has one of the best offenses in football. More often than not, you’re not going to beat Patrick Mahomes with field goals, so the Chargers should be trying to score as many points as possible every single time they have the ball.
If the Chargers were terrible in short-yardage situations and just lost to the Detroit Lions because they were over-aggressive, then the critics might have a point. However, considering the math, situation, and opponents all justified an aggressive approach, Brandon Staley deserves no blame for his fourth down decisions.
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