Week 15 of the NFL seasson was a wild week. Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor made another strong case for the NFL MVP race. In the Colts’ win against the first-place New England Patriots, Taylor finished with carries for 170 yards and a touchdown. However, even though Taylor’s play this season has been nothing short of incredible, his chances of winning MVP are nearly zero. After all, Tennessee Titans’ running back Derrick Henry didn’t win last season, even though he ran for over 2,000 yards.
The highlight of the week was the 1-11-1 Detroit Lions against the 10-3 Arizona Cardinals. The Lions, who were 13-point underdogs, completely embarrassed the Cardinals, with a score of 30-12. Lions quarterback Jared Goff went off, throwing for 216 yards and 3 touchdowns on 21 completions. The Lions showed the NFL world that though their record is bad, the team itself still has heart.
Week 15 opened on Thursday Night Football with the Los Angeles Chargers hosting the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chargers lost in a nail-biter in overtime 34-28. There were many takeaways to make from this game, so here are the Chargers-Chiefs takeaways.
Advanced Analytics and the Risk of Going For It
One of the hottest topics in the NFL right now, aside from the spike in COVID-19 cases, is advanced analytics. A growing trend among NFL coaches is going for it on fourth down instead of settling for field goals or punts. That is because advanced analytics suggest that going for it has a statistically higher chance of converting in a specific scenario than opting for a field goal.
Chargers head coach Brandon Staley, along with Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski and Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, are some of the main proponents of advanced analytics among NFL coaches. The Browns and Chargers are two of the most likely teams to opt for advanced analytics’ most preferable decisions.
Staley and Criticism
However, sometimes it just doesn’t work out. The Chargers went for it on five different fourth-down situations, converting on two of them. That means that the Chargers turned the ball over on downs three times. Staley caught a massive amount of criticism for this aggressiveness, with many Chargers fans arguing he should’ve just gone for at least one or two field goals.
The main issue with this criticism is this: it relies entirely on hindsight. Sure, after the game is already over, it’s easy to just look at how the game went to overtime, and one field goal would have secured a win in regulation. But here’s the thing: no one, not even Staley, knew this game would go into overtime. What Staley (and anyone with access to advanced analytics) did know is that the Chiefs are a team that should never be underestimated. The Chiefs currently boast one of the league’s highest Drive Success Rates (DSR) in the NFL, at 24.3%. That means that on any given drive for the Chiefs, there is around a 24% chance that drive will end in a touchdown (if the drive starts with a touchback).
The Staley Thought Experiment
So, imagine an NFL coach going against one of the most efficient offenses in the league. They score a touchdown on almost a quarter of all their drives, one of the best rates in the league. Now, also imagine that during this game, that team has been playing at their best. No slumps, no sloppy play, just moving the ball effectively. This coach has no foresight, so he can’t tell the game will go into overtime if his team doesn’t score any field goals. Should the coach go for the risky moves and go for it on fourth down? Yes, obviously. All he knows is that if he settles for field goals, the Chiefs have very high odds of steamrolling the Chargers.
Here is a great video breaking down Staley’s bold decisions.
So How Could the Chargers Have Done Better?
Execution. Staley’s decisions, on most of those fourth-down calls, were not the wrong decisions. However, the playcalling and actual play needed to be better. Four of the five situations in which Staley went for it on fourth down, the situation was screaming for a 4th-down attempt, according to advanced analytics. The offense needed to actually convert the plays, and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi needed to call better plays. They should be the ones catching criticism, honestly, not Staley.
At the end of the day, the Chargers lost against one of the top teams not just in the AFC, but in the entire NFL. Sure, it may be frustrating that the Chargers were on the cusp of winning, but the Chargers stayed competitive through the entire game. Lombardi needs to do better, and the receivers need to catch Justin Herbert‘s passes. A positive note about the Chargers playing on Thursday is that they have an extended week before their next game. That means extra time for the Chargers’ receivers to hit the Jugs machines.
The Chargers travel to Houston next Sunday to play the 3-11 Texans. The Chargers have a manageable rest of their season, so a wildcard spot is still squarely on the table. These have been the Chargers-Chiefs takeaways.