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The DC Report: Should Rams give Brandon Staley a second chance?

Should the Rams be the team that gives Brandon Staley a second chance?

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NFL: Detroit Lions at Los Angeles Chargers Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Rams are currently in search for a new defensive coordinator. It will be Sean McVay’s fourth defensive coordinator hire in four seasons following Raheem Morris’ departure. One popular name that will get brought up in the Rams coordinator search is former Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Staley has “drawn interest from the Rams about being a potential Raheem Morris replacement.”

It’s a connection that makes sense. Staley was with the Rams in 2020 and had success. The Rams led the NFL in defense EPA, DVOA, yards, and other statistical categories. However, a lot has changed since then. While the Rams have kept elements of Staley’s scheme, Morris moved it forward. Despite just one year of coordinator experience, Staley was hired as the Chargers head coach and to say it was a disaster would be an understatement.

As described by Chris Rhim of ESPN,

“He leaves behind what multiple team sources described as a disconnected locker room — created, in part, by a coach who often got in his own way...Over Staley’s tenure, tension mounted between players who team sources described as “Staley’s guys,” and others who predated Staley or had fallen out of his favor. Staley alienated some players, according to team sources...That disconnect in the locker room often extended to the coach and team and was sometimes on display on the field”

The fact that Staley is a potential candidate and has drawn interest from the Rams shouldn’t be a surprise. However, in no way should he be considered the favorite for the role. McVay’s last hire was a familiar one with Morris as the two had a history. Not many would blink an eye if Staley were brought in for a second time. With that said, he should come with a buyer beware warning.

Staley’s rise is one of the fastest that we’ve seen in the NFL. He went from position coach to head coach in a five year period and spent just one of those seasons as a coordinator for NFL team. His rise was a product of not just every team wanting part of the Fangio scheme, but it was also a time in which if you had shared coffee with Sean McVay, you were getting head coach interviews.

There’s something to be said about a coordinator who simply isn't fit to be a head coach. Look no further than a former Rams head coach who is currently having success as a coordinator with the Kansas City Chiefs. Steve Spagnuolo deserves credit for shutting down the high-powered and undefeated New England Patriots in the Super Bowl in 2007. It’s because of that he was hired as the head coach of the Rams, spending three years in St. Louis. Under Spagnuolo, the Rams went 10-38.

After that experience, it took time for Spagnuolo to find his footing again and re-gain his confidence as a defensive play-caller. In 2012 as the New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator, Spagnuolo’s defense allowed the most yards for a season of any defense in NFL history.

The former defensive genius who shut down arguably the best offense in NFL history had to essentially start at the bottom and re-find himself. He wouldn’t become a coordinator again until 2015. It got to the point where Spagnuolo spent a year out of football in 2018 after he was let go with Ben McAdoo and the Giants. Said Spagnuolo later, “I think we all learn a lot when we take a break. If I had to do it over again, I think would’ve done this after the St. Louis job.”

It’s true that Staley created the number one defense with the Rams in his lone season in 2020. However, it’s also true in the lone game with a less than 100 percent Aaron Donald in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs, the Rams gave up 32 points to the Packers who punted just twice the entire game.

It’s fair to blame the organizational culture that Dean Spanos has created within the Chargers. It’s possible that it was just a bad fit for a coach taking his first head coaching job. However, the issues ran deeper and some of it was within Staley’s control.

Issues ran farther than just the environment that Staley created in the locker room. It was his defense. He called the plays. They were his players. The Chargers traded for Khalil Mack who Staley coached in Chicago. Players like Sebastian Joseph-Day and Morgan Fox were brought in from the Rams. The Chargers invested in players like Asante Samuel Jr. and Tuli Tuipulotu in the first two rounds of the draft. Derwin James was extended prior to the 2022 season. They paid JC Jackson as a free agent.

Despite investing and adding talent on the defensive side of the ball, the Chargers ranked 24th, 19th, and 24th in defense EPA in Staley’s three seasons. Staley’s defense ranked 29th in EPA per drive this season. They ranked 31st in EPA per drive over his entire stint as head coach and defensive play caller.

Yes, it was a defense that dealt with injuries. However, does that also speak to Staley’s ability to coach up replacement level depth players? That’s currently what the Rams defense is made up of at this point in time. It’s what made what Morris accomplished this season so impressive.

There’s more evidence of Staley’s defenses being below average or bad than his defenses being good. As Daniel Popper from The Athletic who covers the Chargers noted,

“Staley was hired to produce an elite defense. He had done so in his lone season as an NFL coordinator, with the Los Angeles Rams in 2020. He failed to come close to that with the Chargers in three seasons...Staley is a brilliant schematic coach. He can develop a game plan on the whiteboard capable of stopping any offense. The only problem is the game is not played on a whiteboard...More often, the scheme and plans were too layered and complex for the players to grasp and execute consistently. Players detailed how Staley and his defensive staff would try to build in answers and rules for every minute facet of opposing offenses — every route, every motion. At times, players said, this bogged down the unit as a whole...Staley’s inexperience was exposed in this stubborn commitment to a defensive vision that simply was not working. There was a disconnect between how some players wanted to play and how Staley wanted to play.”

The Rams are a young defense that needs things simplified. Forcing players to think and over-complicate certain elements may not be what the Rams need currently. This isn't the same group that Staley coached in 2020. Jalen Ramsey has been traded to the Miami Dolphins. Leonard Floyd, Darious Williams, and John Johnson III are all either no longer on the team or in Johnson’s case, not the player that he once was. Similar to other offensive and defensive genius’, he consistently got in his own way. What started promising became a head coach that lacked self-awareness of what was happening. Said Rhim,

“Staley runs a pattern match zone defensive scheme, where the defense often looks like a zone to start before switching to coverages that operate as man. But against the Kansas City Chiefs on Oct. 22, the Chargers began the game playing more standard zone than they had all season. In the first half, quarterback Patrick Mahomes completed 20 of 23 passes for 321 yards and three touchdowns. The Chargers switched to man defense in the second half and held Mahomes to 103 passing yards, but lost 31-17.”

That part sounds familiar. In Staley’s lone season with the Rams, they ranked 15th in first-half points allowed. It’s one thing to be good with second-half adjustments as Staley was in Los Angeles. But there’s also something to be said about the game-plan not making sense to begin with.

Staley’s defense with the Chargers was often undisciplined and had miscommunications. That was all on display in the Chargers’ loss to the Green Bay Packers this season. Those elements are a product of coaching. Staley may end up being a coach that’s better as coordinator than as a head coach. There’s no questioning his knowledge of defensive scheme. That’s a reason why the Rams were as successful as they were in his first season as a coordinator.

Throughout the 2022 season, Staley still showed that he was one of the best game-planning defensive coaches in the NFL. As Ted Nguyen of the Athletic wrote, “He (was) masterful at identifying tendencies and taking away what opponents do best with whatever he’s had left in his cupboard.”

In Week 10 against the San Francisco 49ers in 2022, Staley mixed up his defensive fronts and held Christian McCaffrey to 2.7 yards per carry. Despite being outmatched upfront by one of the best running teams in the NFL, they held the 49ers to 13 points through three quarters. Staley put his best players in position to do what they do best. Those elements of his defensive game-planning and schematic mastermind is still there in some aspects. However, there’s a Chip Kelly level of arrogance when it comes to him and his system.

As Popper put it,

“There is a fine line between conviction and arrogance, between confidence and hubris. At times, Staley toed that line with an admirable deftness. Too often, however, he crossed it, both publicly and privately.”

It would make sense that the Rams would want him back if they want to stay with the same scheme with their new coordinator. It’s the system that Staley created. The major question right now is whether or not Staley and the Rams are fit for each other at this given point in time. After how things ended with the Chargers, is Staley of the right mindset to jump into a coordinator role? The Rams do have the culture and type of environment that would allow Staley to re-invent or find himself again as a coach. It’s the same type of revelation that McVay experienced this season.

Staley also has interest from the Packers and Dolphins. However, his past relationship with McVay will make him a top candidate to remain in Los Angeles and re-join the Rams. How the former Chargers head coach responds, learns, and grows from his first taste of failure in the NFL will determine his future success. For the first time, Staley is dealing with adversity. NFL teams found success against his defense. It will be imperative that he adapts his scheme and adjusts going forward. Staley will get a second chance because of the reputation that he’s built. The question is, should that second chance come with the Rams?