Brandon Staley was born 10 days before I was. I want to say we’re on similar career trajectories. I do.
As you may be aware, I started writing about the Rams on Turf Show Times this month, and Staley was hired as the defensive coordinator of the Rams at virtually the same time. Same team. Same city. Same trajectory, right? While my origin story will remain a mystery until I expand into the MCU and get my spin-off franchise in 2038, Staley’s is mostly available on Wikipedia. Kind of. There is only one sentence on it as of today:
“Brandon Staley (born December 10, 1982) is an American football coach who is the defensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams.”
Ralph Waldo couldn’t have said it better himself. There is however a career history as well, with all 9.5 stops listed on his way to being an NFL defensive coordinator who is replacing a man who entered the league the same year that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks did. Six years before me and Brandon (if you’re born within a fortnight of someone you’re legally obligated to be on a first name basis) were born.
Our lives have gone differently since.
Staley played both football and basketball at Perry High School in Ohio, earning city, county, and state honors for his play on the field and court. (Whereas I got hurt in football practices before Week 1 and opted to quit instead and was so embarrassed by my play on the sophomore basketball team that I told my mom to not come watch.) As the star quarterback in high school, Staley did enough to earn a shot at the same position with Dayton in 2001.
During his junior and senior seasons of college, Staley went 168-of-293 for 2,609 yards, scoring 25 total touchdowns between both the air and ground game. According to his profile at James Madison University, Staley transferred to Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania for one year and played under offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi with his twin brother Jason Staley.
Me: Have heard of the Lombardi trophy at this point as well as Jason Statham*, which sounds like Jason Staley for 75% of the name.
Following the conclusion of his college career, Staley landed a job as an assistant at Northern Illinois under Joe Novak, who is literally twice as old as us. Novak took a Northern Illinois team that went 0-11 in its first season in the MAC (1997) to one that went 10-2 and was ranked as high as 12th in the country by 2003, so there was probably some good coaching going on. Staley was hired to work with the secondary, but after his first season as an NIU coach was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He underwent chemotherapy in 2007 and came out cancer-free, but the disease would never not be a part of his life; Staley’s father survived cancer a couple decades earlier, but his mother passed away in 2004 after a nine-year battle.
Staley worked with the secondary for the first two years under Novak, then moved to linebackers when Novak retired in 2007 and was replaced by Jerry Kill**.
After one year under Kill, Staley moved on to be an assistant at Division-III University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. He worked with the defensive line and was an assistant on special teams, which is also a unit he worked with for all three years at NIU. St. Thomas went 11-2 and reached the NCAA quarterfinals.
Me: My parents are from Minnesota and I hate the cold.
Staley quickly moved on again and for the second time in a row, the move almost seems to be going backwards. Depending on your view. He spent the next two years as a defensive coordinator and assistant head coach for the first time in his career, but it was at Hutchinson Community College. His jobs were getting better but his schools seemed to be getting “smaller,” at least in the sense of being nationally recognized football colleges.
However, we were still only 27 years old at the time, Brandon and I, so it is of course actually impressive that he was a defensive coordinator for guys who were maybe only a handful of grades below him at one point.
Hutchinson went 19-5 in his two seasons, finishing ranked in the top 10 both years. Among the players he coached was a special teams standout who’d transfer to Division I and eventually become an NFL first round pick: Cordarrelle Patterson.
And in 2011 I started writing for SB Nation. We were on our way.
In fact, Patterson and Staley traveled together to Tennessee for one year under head coach Derek Dooley. Patterson had over 1,000 yards of total offense and scored both a kick and punt return touchdown despite only returning four punts all year. Staley coached inside linebackers and was an assistant on special teams; inside linebacker A.J. Johnson led the SEC in tackles. Though they had some decent showings vs ranked teams, Dooley was fired after a 41-18 loss to Vanderbilt with one week left to go.
This essentially made Staley a free agent again and now his career would really take off — thanks in part due to an unintentional assist from a former St. Louis Rams assistant***: Josh McDaniels.
John Carroll University is low-key one of the most influential schools over the NFL’s last 25 years. Why? It has a lot to do with their 1995 football team and the seasons around ‘95. Among the players who were on that team:
- London Fletcher, one of the best linebackers in the league for a long time
- McDaniels, Bill Belichick’s offensive coordinator for 11 years now with the New England Patriots, as well as his most famous NFL job: being the OC for the Rams for one year in 2011.
- Greg Roman, the offensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens who just helped them produce the best offensive season of 2019. He previously guided the pistol career of Colin Kaepernick.
- Tom Telesco, the current general manager of the LA Chargers.
- Dave Caldwell, the current general manager of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Yes, he’s still current believe it or not.
- Nick Caserio, a Patriots front office exec since the first Super Bowl season in 2001. He also was wide receivers coach in 2007 when they went 16-0 with Randy Moss and Wes Welker added to the offense.
- Chris Polian, the current Director of Player Personnel in Jacksonville and the former GM of the Colts who got fired because Peyton Manning had a neck issue in 2011. Of course, a part of the Polian NFL family.
Okay, that last one is a lie, but all the other ones are true. All seven of these men went to John Carroll in the mid-90s and all seven had major impacts on the NFL. Six of them are still making an impact currently. And in 2013, McDaniels made his impact on John Carroll University by hiring away defensive coordinator Jerry Schuplinski to become an assistant in New England instead, and this was before Schuplinski’s first game on the job.
John Carroll head coach Tom Arth had to scramble for a replacement, and as he recently told The Athletic, that person became Staley thanks to a recommendation from Jonathan Gannon, a childhood friend of Staley’s.
Gannon actually got his career started as a scout for the Rams in 2009 under Steve Spagnuolo, and was with the team through McDaniels’ season as OC in 2011. He is currently the defensive backs coach for the Indianapolis Colts and is rumored to be a DC candidate for McDaniels should he ever take another head coaching position.
So McDaniels stole away Schuplinski, which opened up a job to go to Staley, who was friends with Gannon, who is also friends with McDaniels. Got it? It may make your head spin, but as Arth would tell it, nothing football-related would ever make Staley’s head spin and that’s why it was such an easy and immediate hire for him once he began speaking to the then-30 year old coach.
As told from Arth to The Athletic:
I called Brandon, I interviewed him. It was as big of a no-brainer as you can possibly imagine. Within 30 seconds of the interview, you knew there was just something really special about Brandon, just something really different. His personality, his way, his ability to teach, his knowledge and expertise and his ability to connect, all of it is really rare and it shows through pretty instantaneously. I’m sure Sean (McVay), when he met him, I’m sure he felt similarly. I knew in that moment that we were going to hire Brandon.
Arth goes on to just shower Staley with the most amount of praise that one coach could give to another, comparing him to McVay — “You hear how people describe Sean and his football acumen. Honestly, that’s how I feel about Brandon” — and highlighting his leadership abilities, which obviously give Arth no pause in believing that a 37-year-old can tell people like Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey what they need to do in order to be even more successful.
By the time me and Staley turned 31 in December of 2013, John Carroll had gone 9-2 with a defense that allowed 9.2 points per game and forced 27 turnovers. He had won OAC Co-Assistant Coach of the Year honors and I was wondering if I was really going to commit my life to working on an IS helpdesk and blogging in my free time*$.
Deciding he didn’t want to go his whole life being a defensive coordinator at only one college with a man’s name, Staley made a somewhat parallel move by becoming the DC at James Madison in 2014. After one 9-4 season under first-time head coach Everett Withers, Staley must have missed what he had in the name “John”, as he went back to Arth and JC in 2015. And I get it, because this was also when I got my first opportunity to write for Rolling Stone and was able to finally quit my job in IS and attempt to be a writer full-time$$$.
We both had our highs and lows.
John Carroll started 8-1 in 2015, giving up 16 or less in all but one game, before losing 36-3 to Mount Union. Meanwhile, I interviewed Guy Fieri. But the best was yet to come for Staley and John Carroll. They lost 33-14 in the 2016 opener to Wisconsin-Oshkosh, but won their last nine games, giving up 16 or less in the first eight of those contests. That culminated in a 31-28 win over Mount Union, the number one team in the country, propelling JCU to a Division-III playoff appearance.
They won the first game 37-12, the second 20-17, then knocked off top-seeded Wisconsin-Whitewater 31-14. In the semifinals vs Oshkosh, the nemesis from Week 1, they allowed only 10 points.
They scored only 3.
Some notes from the game recap:
After a season during which the Blue Streaks defeated two schools who have combined for each of the last 11 NCAA Division III National Championships, John Carroll’s bid for a spot in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl fell short by one game on Saturday afternoon in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
UW-Oshkosh and John Carroll played a game for the ages at J.J. Keller Field at Titan Stadium, which finished as the lowest scoring game in NCAA Division III Championship history. The Titans clinched a spot in their first NCAA Championship game with a 10-3 win over the Blue Streaks, despite a valiant comeback attempt in the game’s final two minutes. They will play the Crusaders from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, who defeated reigning national champion Mount Union, 14-12, in the other National Semifinal.
John Carroll’s senior class graduates as the most successful class in school history. The Blue Streaks are 40-8 since the beginning of 2013 with three trips to the NCAA post-season, two berths in the NCAA Quarterfinal and one berth in the NCAA Semifinal.
As had been the case for most of John Carroll’s run through the post-season, their defense completely shut down the Titans’ offense in the first half.
Staley’s defense held a school that has won 13 national championships since 1993 to 10 points despite John Carroll’s freshman QB throwing three interceptions that day. They held Whitewater — winners of six national championships from 2007-2014 — to 14 points.
Arth, who played at John Carroll from 1999-2002, nearly crossing paths with the historic team listed above, helped the school finish third in the country that year and took the same job at Chattanooga. He was expecting Staley to join him, but Staley too saw his football resume shining brighter than ever and he was offered a job to coach the linebackers for the Chicago Bears under John Fox and Vic Fangio, a coach whose defenses he’d already been studying while at John Carroll.
Imagine that, a Staley back in Chicago again like it’s 1921*@!.
While Fangio does not have a direct connection to John Carroll, he does have a fairly strong indirect one: Fangio was Jim Harbaugh’s defensive coordinator from 2011 to 2014, which is the same run that Greg Roman had as Harbaugh’s offensive coordinator. It’s undeniable that Roman was aware of what was happening at John Carroll in 2016 and now Staley was coaching under Fangio, his former half-boss under the full-boss in San Francisco.
As Arth said to The Athletic:
Vic was the coordinator for the 49ers at that time. I remember studying the 49ers structurally, very similar to what we were doing. I think the great thing about Brandon’s defense is that it’s multiple. It’s driven by matchups, which is the NFL game. It can be what it needs to be, when it needs to be that. Brandon is smart enough to understand that and understand what his players do, what they do well and what their strengths and weaknesses are.
In 2017, the Bears defense improved from bottom-10 in points and yards allowed to top-10, and from 23rd in DVOA to 14th. After acquiring a linebacker in 2018 for Staley to coach — Khalil Mack — Chicago’s defense improved again, now ranking first in points allowed, third in yards, first in interceptions, first in net yards per pass attempt allowed, first in rushing yards allowed, first in rushing touchdowns allowed, first in turnovers, and first in DVOA.
The 2018 Bears had one of the best defenses of the decade and were led by linebackers:
Mack, an All-Pro with 12.5 sacks and 18 QB hits. Roquan Smith, the eighth overall pick who led the team in tackles and had five sacks and an interception. Danny Trevathan, second in tackles, two sacks, two interceptions, one forced fumble. Leonard Floyd, the former ninth overall pick with four sacks, 11 QB hits, and an interception. Even Aaron Lynch chimed in three sacks and a pick.
Chicago allowed just 16 points in their wild card game vs the Eagles, giving up 65 yards on 18 carries and picking off Nick Foles two times.
But they scored only 15.
So be it.
Fangio had an earlier availability to be hired away than he may have had if Mitchell Trubisky were better or if 12-4 got you a first round bye as it does in many years, and the Denver Broncos took their shot. Fangio became the Broncos next head coach and he took just two assistants with him away from Chicago:
Ed Donatell, who is 62 and has spent seven seasons as an NFL defensive coordinator~ and who Fangio tabbed to be his DC in Denver after coaching DBs for the Bears.
The other was Staley.
Fangio brought him to the Broncos to coach outside linebackers, just as he was doing in Chicago. Now consider that during Staley’s first three seasons in the NFL, he’s coached Khalil Mack, Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, Roquan Smith, and Leonard Floyd. These are mostly established players who may have been teaching Staley more than he was teaching them in some ways, but consider the trust you have to have in a mid-30s person to coach quite literally your most talented and expensive players.
Meanwhile, Rolling Stone stopped covering the NFL in January of 2018 and SportsOnEarth, a site where I’d also been covering the NFL since 2014, shutdown completely a week later. Still, me and Brandon Staley are living very parallel lives.
While the Broncos had their share of struggles in 2019, including inconsistencies on defense, Staley’s resume was fairly stellar for a 37-year-old. It wasn’t even so much the results on the field or the infinite connections to people pulling strings for John Carroll alums, but the fact that Staley was consistently wanted by those who already knew him or who’d just met him. He was invited back by Arth to John Carroll after losing him to John Madison. He was stolen away by the Bears after he’d surely be a fast riser as a defensive coordinator on the college level. He was kept by Fangio after he got his first head coaching position at the age of 60.
And now the league’s most popular coaching tree root — Sean McVay — has stamped that Staley will be the next juicy apple to not fall that far from the tree. A coach who was cutting his teeth for community colleges and non-Division I programs within the last half-decade, is now going to add Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, Taylor Rapp, and potentially Dante Fowler and/or Cory Littleton to the star-studded list of defensive players under his guidance.
That’s more than just trust. That’s a belief that a coach can’t just handle an assignment, but that he can elevate it. That he can take a defense that ranked ninth in DVOA and actually make it better. Staley isn’t someone you build a program with necessarily. Like McVay, he’s someone you believe in and learn from as much as you can knowing that his NFL LinkedIn*^ profile is being headhunted to the point of him getting LinkedIn emails that contain messages of actual substance.
If the Rams defense improves under Staley, he’s not likely to be around for long. And if it doesn’t, there’s always Josh McDaniels.
For now, we’ll be here.
*Fact check: The Staleys were at Mercyhurst in 2005, whereas the first time I actually heard the name Jason Statham could have been in 2006 with the release of Crank. I had obviously seen Statham before in movies like Ghosts of Mars, Snatch, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, The Italian Job, and Collateral, but I was not a fan of The Transporter or The Transporter 2, which was also released in 2005. Not that I saw them and thought they were bad, but I just wasn’t interested for whatever reason. And I like action movies, especially when me and Brandon were both 22 at the time, but they didn’t connect so I may not have actually heard the name Jason Statham at that point. Actually the movie I connected to the most out of those was Ghosts of Mars, believe it or not. It’s also classic Statham even if he’s a bit part and way before most people knew what “classic Statham” would come to be.
**I think Jerry Kill was the name of a Jason Statham movie that got scrapped in 2010.
***Nobody else will ever refer to McDaniels’ career as being a “St. Louis Rams assistant.”
*$ During company hours.
$$$ oh the irony of using a money symbol to describe the brokest time in my life.
*@! The Decatur Staleys opened franchise history in 1920 and went 10-1-2, immediately becoming the Chicago Staleys in 1921 and winning the Super Bowl^^^ over the Chicago Cardinals, 0-0#.
~Donatell coached for Pete Carroll’s Jets in the 90s, then won two Super Bowls with Mike Shanahan in Denver, then was the DC for four years under Mike Sherman in Green Bay followed by three years under Jim Mora in Atlanta. He also spent one season as the defensive coordinator for the University of Washington in 2008 under Tyrone Willingham& before returning to the NFL and the Broncos in 2009 under ... Josh McDaniels. When McDaniels was let go, Donatell found a home coaching DBs for Fangio in San Francisco.
*^ You have an NFL LinkedIn profile too, you just don’t know it yet.
^^^more like “a game likely played in between barns and it’s over when the sun goes down or when pa gets back with rations, whichever comes first”
#this according to Pro-Football-Reference, but per Wiki, the Bears won the football championship that year because of a stupid rule that is now referred to as “The Staley Swindle.” If you don’t think “The Staley Swindle” will be the name of a trick defensive play by the Rams next year, then whose the one really being swindled?
&Denver’s Defensive Quality Control coach in 2019? Nathaniel Willingham. Nathaniel’s dad: Tyrone.