During Anthony Lynn’s four seasons at the helm of the Los Angeles Chargers, few NFL teams had a more difficult time avoiding close games and the heartbreak that often resulted from them. While not the Chargers’ only issue during those years, it eventually contributed to Lynn’s demise as general manager Tom Telesco replaced him with Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley during the 2021 offseason.
Chargers brass believed that coaching change would improve the team’s ability to win decisively and avoid the coin-flip nature of games determined by a single possession. While that plan could still work, the early returns suggest some of the issues that undermined Los Angeles under Lynn remain under Staley.
Good teams don’t escape with victories; they blow out opponents
While coaches frequently preach about how a team’s performance in close games reveals character, the data doesn’t support that notion.
Over enough time, any team’s record in one-possession games will trend toward the middle. Even the New England Patriots have a roughly even record in those contests over the past four seasons (15-12). Rather, a franchise’s ability to win decisively and avoid close games tends to better predict long-term success. During that same period, no playoff team played in fewer one-possession games than the Patriots (27).
The Chargers fall at the other end of the spectrum.
Since Lynn arrived in 2017, the team has played in 40 one-possession games, fourth-most in the NFL over that span, per Stathead. The randomness of close games meant that Los Angeles sported a 6-1 record in those contests in 2018 and a losing record in Lynn’s other three seasons despite a similar roster throughout. Lynn frequently harped on his squad’s inability to finish off opponents in those years, and game management certainly played a role.
But as the NFL’s elite consistently demonstrate, the good teams blow out opponents rather than escape with victories.
Chargers exhibiting similar habits so far under Staley
Lynn’s successor has coached just two regular-season contests to date, far from a reasonable sample size. Still, the script of those games follows the Lynn pattern suspiciously close. At no point during the 120 combined minutes of play have the Chargers held a multi-score lead, though they have trailed by double digits.
During a Week 2 tilt with the Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles managed to fall behind 14-3 before the end of the first quarter. Star quarterback Justin Herbert eventually pulled his team back from the brink, equalizing the score during the third quarter. But while his individual effort deserves every plaudit, no team can constantly live on the razor’s edge and expect positive results, a notion underpinned by the Cowboys kicking the game-winning field goal in the final seconds.
Hope for improvement as the season unfolds
Even if the short-term results of the Staley era don’t suggest a transformation of the Chargers’ fortunes, few head-coaching transitions in the NFL bring immediate gratification.
Staley’s defensive system, the one that made him a hot commodity during the coaching carousel 13 months after serving as a positional assistant on the Denver Broncos, has begun to take root. As Joey Bosa, Derwin James Jr., and the other defensive field-tilters on the roster get their bearings in the new scheme, more game-changing plays will soon follow.
Likewise, the offense has room to grow. Despite the stellar play of Herbert and his cavalcade of talented skill-position players, the Chargers have turned just 30% of their red-zone trips into touchdowns, the second-worst rate in the NFL during the 2021 season. Even improving to the league average could alone reduce the frequency of one-possession games for Los Angeles.
While the Chargers have time to figure out a winning formula, finding one quickly would help them navigate a difficult upcoming schedule. They play the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 3, followed by a two-game homestead against the Las Vegas Raiders and Cleveland Browns.