Brandon Staley has leaned on analytics throughout the season to support his decisions to go for it on fourth down. The Chargers’ head coach again followed the numbers Sunday night, but this time made a decision that has plenty of NFL fans scratching their heads.
Staley opted to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Chargers’ 18 with his team trailing by three points and 9:41 remaining in the third quarter. The decision backfired, though perhaps not as badly as some expected, as running back Austin Ekeler was tackled for a 2-yard loss to force a turnover on downs.
The Raiders only managed a field goal on the following drive to move ahead 20-14.
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After the game, Staley explained that he believed the play could help to jump start the offense.
“I just felt like we, that was going to be a drive starter for us, you know generate some steam for our offense, felt like we would get it, felt like we had a good play call with the duo run and they just knifed in there and made a good play,” Staley said.
The Chargers’ head coach also faced questions as to why the team handed the ball off to Ekeler instead of passing it with quarterback Justin Herbert, who had found success through the air throughout the game.
“I understand the criticism. We felt like we could get the run. We felt like the personnel grouping that they had out there, they weren’t in the goal line defense we felt like we had a plenty good enough play call for that and they took away the advantage look and it just didn’t go down for us tonight,” Staley said. “We had a great stop on defense. Force them to kick three and we went right back out there and had a chance. It was a one possession game. I understand that that decision will be questioned, but in my mindset that’s a yard that we can get.”
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The conventional wisdom would, of course, be that going for it on fourth down that deep in a team’s territory is a questionable call, especially with so much time remaining.
But do the numbers back up Staley’s decision? Of course they do.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Chargers’ projected winning percentage went up slightly with them deciding to go for it, while a decision to punt would have slightly reduced the team’s chances.
The Chargers decision to go for it on 4th-and-1 from their own 18-yard line was the optimal call according to the NGS Decision Guide powered by @awscloud.
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 10, 2022
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The Chargers and Raiders were playing in a game with heavy playoff implications. The winner would go to the AFC playoffs while the loser would go home, although a tie would send both to the postseason over the Steelers. Staley said leading up to the game that his team would not kneel down for the entire game to ensure a tie.
Los Angeles eventually came back to force overtime, scoring a touchdown and kicking the extra point with no time remaining in regulation to make the score 29-29. But Las Vegas won the game 35-32 on a Daniel Carlson field goal with no time left in OT after the teams traded field goals earlier in the period.
The Raiders will go to Cincinnati next weekend to face the Bengals in the wild-card round. The Steelers will go to Kansas City to face the No. 2-seed Chiefs.
This article has been updated with the final score.