Justin Herbert broke the huddle with 16 seconds left on the play clock, then spent the next five seconds repeating the call to veteran tight end Jared Cook and third-year tackle Storm Norton, barking against the backdrop of a raucous SoFi Stadium. Facing fourth-and-2 at midfield with over nine minutes remaining Monday night, the Chargers had arrived at a pivotal moment. Their 21-point halftime lead against the Raiders had melted to just seven, and failing to convert would give Derek Carr and Co. a chance to evaporate that deficit entirely. Yet Brandon Staley never hesitated in sending his offense out there to attempt the conversion.
“Just felt like in that game, fourth-and-2, that’s an advantage situation for us,” Staley said after the game. “We knew the coverage systems that would be played in that particular [down-and-distance].”
The Chargers lined up in a trips formation to the field side, with Keenan Allen motioning from a wide alignment before settling between Cook and wideout Jalen Guyton. Herbert watched as Las Vegas’s defenders reacted to Allen’s shift. The mismatch: 6-foot-5 Cook versus 5-foot-11 linebacker Denzel Perryman. “As soon as [Perryman] lined up kind of outside of the box, inside leverage on me, we knew what it was immediately, that we had the perfect play call,” Cook said. “I knew at that moment that Justin was probably gonna come to me.”
When the ball was snapped, Allen scraped inside as Cook cut outside, beating Perryman past the line to gain and into space. Herbert dropped a pass onto Cook’s near shoulder for a clutch 13-yard pickup.
“That’s just one of those tempo plays that we kind of go unbalanced,” Herbert said. “We were trying to just get up on the ball quickly and see what the defense was in and thankfully we got the look that we wanted to.”
Six plays later, running back Austin Ekeler slipped into the end zone for a game-clinching score in the Chargers’ 28-14 win. As Herbert noted afterward, last season, that would’ve been a game that L.A. found a way to lose. The ingredients for a meltdown—including a home crowd filled with antagonistic Raiders fans and an unusual pregame weather delay—were all present. But under Staley’s direction, the 3-1 Chargers no longer seem tethered to misfortune. The crucial fourth-down conversion served as a perfect encapsulation of the team’s high-level preparation and execution.
“I felt like operationally, we were pretty clean,” Staley said. “When it’s fourth down and it’s loud, I thought our guys really handled it.”
Monday marked the second straight game in which the Chargers composed themselves to convert a crucial late fourth down. In Week 3, at Kansas City, Herbert connected with Allen on a fourth-and-4 inside the Chiefs’ 30-yard line at the start of the fourth quarter. L.A. scored to cap the drive, then went on to beat Kansas City in a signature win.
Cook, 34, has played for six different teams and seven different coaches. He’s as well equipped as anyone to gauge how good or bad a coach is at picking their spots. To Cook, Staley is making all the right calls.
“Sometimes on critical downs, especially when we have the momentum and we’re driving, and maybe when he feels like we need points, I think he picks and chooses the right time,” Cook said. “Especially like last week against Kansas City and especially today as well. That’s imperative, and he’s choosing great. I might as well play some lottery numbers with Coach.”
One could make the case that Staley is perhaps the NFL’s most fortunate first-year coach, beginning his career by inheriting a talented roster stocked with a young superstar QB and All-Pro-caliber defenders in Joey Bosa and Derwin James. Through four games, the Chargers might tell you the organization is lucky to have Staley heading the ship. How many NFL coaches are lauded by analytics disciples, are considered to be at the innovative forefront of their schematic specialization, and are also seen as culture setters? Staley checks each of those boxes.
“I think [Staley’s schematic acumen] and just his ability to bring us all with him [is why] he’s a great coach,” Bosa said. “I think he’s a really genuine guy. And I just think there’s a team of guys in there that really have bought into what he’s teaching. And we feel like he’s just part of us and we’re all playing for each other. I think that that is more important than any scheme.”
A Coach of the Year favorite, Staley insists his success thus far is because of everyone around him. Everyone. On Monday, Staley credited director of sports performance Anthony Lomando for keeping the players loose during the 30-minute pregame rain delay. He pointed out assistant Dan Shamash for helping Staley win his first NFL challenge—a call that resulted in a Raiders three-and-out that set up L.A.’s third score of the game, right before halftime. Staley also shouted out his analytics team for contributing to the decisions to go for it on fourth down twice, which the offense picked up each time on a pass to Cook. He also praised all three of his coordinators—Joe Lombardi (offensive), Renaldo Hill (defensive), and Derius Swinton II (special teams)—for smooth and quick communication that enabled the Chargers to play fast and composed in all three phases.
“I think the flow of communication through four games has been really good,” Staley said. “I felt like we’ve been able to operate the way we want to, on our terms.”
Then there’s the players. The Chargers bent Monday night’s contest to their will. They built a big lead in the first half, with Herbert connecting for three touchdowns as L.A. took a 21-0 lead into halftime. Herbert completed a modest 25 of 38 passes for 222 yards, averaging 5.8 yards per attempt while registering an average depth of target of 8 yards. But Staley praised Herbert for his performance in “gotta-have-it situations.” “He’s got that cool, calm composure that affects everybody in a positive way, including me,” Staley said of Herbert. “I felt like he executed very well today.”
All three of Herbert’s TDs occurred in the red zone, an area that L.A.’s offense initially struggled in this season. It has now scored touchdowns on nine of its past 10 trips. Much of Monday’s success can be attributed to the Chargers’ rushing attack, which had its best game of the year, highlighted by Ekeler rushing for 117 yards and one TD.
Staley’s defense continued its stingy play Monday night, stifling a Raiders offense that had entered the game boasting the league’s passing yards leader in Derek Carr. He finished the game 21-for-34 for 196 yards, two TDs, and one pick (made by James in the fourth quarter to help seal the result). Carr was sacked four times and hit seven. It was even tougher sledding for Vegas in the run game, as the Chargers limited the Raiders to 48 yards on 18 carries (2.7 yards per carry). L.A. forced four three-and-outs against Vegas and two additional Raiders drives ended in turnovers on downs after just four plays.
“That’s the way we expect to play around here,” Staley said. “And that was not easy.”
Staley acknowledged that there are still areas in which the Chargers can improve, noting that success can sometimes serve as a distraction from potential flaws. Regardless, the fact that L.A. is capable of such strong performances this soon in his tenure is a testament to the job the coach has done in a short time. Herbert senses that there’s a mutual belief that’s allowed players to be confident in just about any situation where Staley is making a decision.
“I think being aggressive and using some of the data to kind of take it to our advantage, I think it’s the best of both worlds,” Herbert said. “We’ve got a good feel for him. When we’re out there, we feel comfortable. We know that we’ve got the right personnel out there, so we just have to execute.”
The Chargers have faced one of the league’s most difficult schedules to this point. It continues this week when the Browns visit Inglewood, followed by a meeting in Baltimore to play the Ravens. The tests have not been simple, but the Chargers have looked the part so far. As Cook said: Staley has picked his spots well.
“You’ve seen what Dallas is doing, you’re seeing what Kansas City’s doing,” Staley said. “These guys are real opponents. And that’s a real opponent that we just played [in the Raiders]. But I feel like our guys are coming together. I feel like we’re finding that sweet spot within the game plan of how much in the plan is getting these guys in their comfort zones. And I felt like our guys were in a comfort zone tonight. And we executed that way. And I think that was a big step for us tonight.”