When the NFL is in an offensive evolutionary period like we're currently seeing, there is a feverish push to find the disciples of the most potent systems and hire them for any and every vacancy. So it’s not a surprise that over the past few years, we have seen the branches of the Andy Reid, Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan coaching trees get shaken quite vigorously.
Because of the laser focus on scoring points, for some reason there is less of a focus from owners and search firms assisting them on stopping the points from being scored. Along those same lines, there is not a stable of defensive-minded head coaches who develop similarly robust coaching trees outside of Bill Belichick (now that the Pete Carroll tree seems to have withered a bit).
One reason might be because, in this era of football, people don’t necessarily know where to look. Defensive statistics are dependent on a lot of outside factors. Very few, like Football Outsiders’ DVOA numbers, take the time to properly contextualize the situation and score units objectively. And, if you’re a team sprinting against other organizations for a hot candidate, you’re probably not going to have the time to, say, call one of the three best offensive minds in football and ask them who routinely gives them the most trouble, which would be a valuable place to start.
So, let’s do some of the legwork for those owners in need of a coach, and the expensive search firms assisting them, and talk about Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, who has quickly emerged as one of the most fascinating head coaching candidates on the market. Because if you had called those coaches there’s a good chance they’d say that Broncos head coach Vic Fangio, Staley’s mentor and schematic muse, has one of the most consistently maddening defenses in the league. Fangio's run over the last 10 years has been nothing short of phenomenal as the defensive play-caller of the 49ers, Bears and Broncos, with nine of those teams finishing in the top 12 against the pass and eight of those teams finishing in the top seven. (The 2018 Bears were the No. 1 ranked defense in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings.) Staley is one of a small number of Fangio apprentices.
Let’s look back at 2017, 2018 and 2019 to see how Shanahan, McVay, Reid and some of their descendants running versions of their offenses (I’m also including Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith there, as he employs a version of Shanahan’s wide zone scheme) have fared against Fangio defenses, with Staley on staff as an outside linebackers coach:
• 2017 (Bears):
Vs. Kyle Shanahan, 49ers
15 points allowed, 82 opposing QB rating, 278 net passing yards allowed, 3.3 yards per carry.
• 2018 (Bears):
Vs. Sean McVay, Rams
6 points allowed, 52 rushing yards allowed, 162 net passing yards allowed, 19.1 opposing QB rating.
Vs. Kyle Shanahan, 49ers
9 points allowed, 47 rushing yards allowed, 232 net passing yards allowed, 65.8 opposing QB rating.
• 2019: (Broncos)
Vs. Andy Reid, Chiefs
30 and 23 points allowed, respectively (Patrick Mahomes left with an injury in the second quarter of the first game, but played the whole second game). In both games, the Broncos’ Expected Points Added was a net positive when isolating Denver’s rushing defense.
Vs. Matt LaFleur, Packers
27 points allowed, 77 rushing yards allowed, 235 net passing yards allowed, 96.2 opposing QB rating (Aaron Rodgers), with just one passing touchdown surrendered, 22% third-down conversion rate.
Vs. Arthur Smith, Titans
0 points allowed, 39 rushing yards allowed, seven sacks, 14% third-down conversion rate, opposing QB ratings of 9.5 (Marcus Mariota before being benched) and 78.1 (Ryan Tannehill in relief).
Vs. Matt Nagy, Bears
16 points allowed, 120 net passing yards allowed, 27% third-down conversion rate allowed, 70 opposing QB rating.
The point is that Fangio has historically had a pretty good sense of how to stop, or at least significantly slow down, the systems being run by the league’s most sought after offensive coaches. And the farther down this road of offensive innovation we’ll get, the more teams will fire head coaches in search of a better option, and the more teams will theoretically be utilizing one of these three coaches' offensive playbooks when they hire someone from those respective trees.
Yet, we do not hear about a Fangio tree, mostly because of Fangio’s nomadic path to Denver. Staley is one of the few coaches who have studied the scheme over time, dating back to his days as the defensive coordinator of Hutchinson Community College back in 2010 and '11 (where, oddly, he developed two NFL draft picks, Markus Golden and De’Vondre Campbell). McVay hired Staley in Los Angeles to replace Wade Phillips specifically because Fangio had been such a thorn in his side since entering the NFL (and because Staley blew the entire staff away during the interview process).
Fast forward to this year, and Staley, 37, has not only successfully adapted Fangio’s defense, but seems to have evolved certain aspects of it. The Rams are sixth in DVOA. They are fourth in points surrendered, second in yards surrendered, fourth in turnovers and first in passing touchdowns surrendered. Most interestingly, though, as RamsWire pointed out earlier this season, Staley is nearing an NFL record for fewest second-half points allowed in modern NFL history.
The Rams allowed nine points in the second half total from Week 4 to Week 9. In their next game against the Buccaneers, they allowed 10 points in the second half after letting up 14 in the first.
Though there isn’t one isolated defensive statistic that can singularly identify a good coach, Staley is routinely shutting opponents down after being given an opportunity to make adjustments. That is a solid place to start.
The former collegiate quarterback managed to bring an offensive lens to one of the NFL’s most consistently great defensive schemes, and the Rams’ ability to consistently dictate what an offense can and cannot do over the course of the game seems to be directly related to Staley’s ability to negatively influence the opposing quarterback.
One might wonder: If a young, whip-smart offensive coordinator was well-versed in one of the most potent schemes in the league, nearing an NFL record that can almost exclusively be tied to his in-game adjustments and is leading one of the five best overall units in the league, how quickly might that person be snapped into an interview room and given a head coaching job?
So what, aside from his distinction as a defensive coach, is stopping a similar flood of attention for Staley?
From the outside looking in, it seems like either Staley is on one of the luckiest runs for a young defensive coordinator in recent history, or McVay may have identified the next McVay and hired him so no one else could. If you’re a team looking for a head coach this winter, how do you like those odds?