The NFL has been changing and evolving over the years, as it has become more of a pass-friendly league through the past decade or two.
Part of that evolution has been the offensive philosophy on fourth down, which was, until recently, strictly a punt-only situation.
But now, more and more teams are going for it on fourth downs, and Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley is one of the men who is leading the way in that department.
Last season, his team went for it on fourth down 34 times, which was third in the NFL.
But the Chargers went for it on 31.5 percent of their fourth downs, the highest percentage in the league.
Staley explained his mindset regarding such situations in an interview with Daniel Popper of The Athletic.
“There has to be a fearlessness to play in this game, and what I wanted to establish was that,” Staley says. “The history of this team when I got here, it was like someone’s going to get hurt, they’re going to blow a lead, something catastrophic is going to happen. There’s this ‘Chargering’ thing. There’s all of these external factors that I know in my life, they’re just all excuses. They’re just all excuses.
“And so, how do you change that? Well, you have to do things different, you have to have a different approach. … Our mindset’s going to be on us, it’s not going to be on the opponent. It’s going to be on us. So creating that fearless mindset of, we are going to be aggressive, we’re going to put the ball in our hands, we’re going to trust our guys to make plays.
“If we lose, we’re going to do it on our terms, not someone else’s terms.”
There is certainly an argument to be made for leaving your offense on the field during a fourth down, but some feel the Chargers overdid it last season, and in doing so, possibly cost themselves a playoff berth.
Live By The Sword, Die By The Sword?
For most of the NFL’s century-plus history, teams usually only went for it on fourth down if it was in a desperate situation at the end of a game where it was down to its last chance.
But over the last several years, that has been changing, as fourth-down attempts have been rising, as have fourth-down conversion rates.
Analytics, which have taken over multiple team sports over the past decade-plus, has been a big factor in this change in philosophy.
Staley is absolutely right when he says that fearlessness must be present in order to win in the NFL, even more than in baseball, basketball, hockey or any other team sport.
But sometimes, one’s aggressiveness can go from his greatest asset to his greatest flaw, as it can be a double-edged sword.
With quarterback Justin Herbert running and gunning his way to a Pro Bowl appearance in just his second pro season, L.A. forged an 8-5 record and had a real shot at finishing first in the AFC West.
Its next contest in Week 15 versus the Kansas City Chiefs was billed as the that would likely decide the division winner.
But in the first half, the Chargers failed to convert on two fourth-down situations inside the Kansas City 10-yard line, and they trailed 14-10 at intermission.
They failed on another fourth-down conversion attempt in the second half, and given that they lost 34-28 in overtime after leading 21-13 in the fourth quarter at one point, those failed attempts look bad in retrospect.
Then came the season-finale versus the Las Vegas Raiders, which was a doozy.
The Chargers converted six of seven fourth-down attempts, but the one they failed on was one even Staley may have wanted to take back.
— NFL (@NFL) January 10, 2022
The argument in his favor is that Herbert is an MVP-caliber QB who is turning into a clutch signal-caller, as evidenced in that contest against the Raiders.
Drive 2: 19 plays, 83 yds, 2:06
🔸7 (!) QB pressures
🔸Missed play by Ekeler
🔸4 drops pic.twitter.com/JCJL3Xqcz0
— Dan W. (@DanWSports) January 11, 2022
But even with someone as talented as Herbert on your side, sometimes a bit of caution is a good thing.