The Los Angeles Chargers move on from head coach Anthony Lynn after four seasons, and that included the coordinators. Shane Steichen had one season running the offense and Gus Bradley ended his three-year stint directing the defense. The amount of change in the roster was already significant in 2020 with a new rookie quarterback and compensating for the loss of Philip Rivers and Melvin Gordon.
Lynn topped out with his 12-4 record in 2018 when the Chargers lost in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. That was the only season with January games and after posting 5-11 in 2019, the franchise only managed 7-9 last year. Lynn was there for all four years that the Chargers have played in Los Angeles. They won their final four games but that wasn’t enough to let Lynn return.
The Chargers offense still ranked No. 12 overall last year with Top-10 marks in all passing categories thanks to the rookie phenom Justin Herbert. They ranked below average in most defensive categories, however, and that influenced the selection of a head coach. The Chiefs’ offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy was the only serious interview with an offensive-minded resume’. They interviewed defensive coordinators in the Colt’s Matt Eberflus, Bills’ Brian Daboll, and Rams’ Brandon Staley. They opted for Staley fresh from directing the Rams defense to a No. 1 ranking against quarterbacks and tight ends, and Top 5 in most other categories.
Head Coach Brandon Staley – The entirety of Staley’s 14 years in coaching was on the defense. That recently featured being the Bears’ outside linebackers coach (2017-18), the Broncos’ outside linebacker coach (2019), and the Rams defensive coordinator (2020). Staley spent four years as the defensive coordinator at both John Carroll University and James Madison University, but had only been a position coach in the NFL until the one year with the Rams when he kept Wade Phillip’s aggressive base 3-4 defense.
Defensive Coordinator Renaldo Hill – The Chargers brought on ex-NFL safety Hill to help install Staley’s defense. Hill spent the last ten seasons as a position coach on defense including as the defensive backs coach for the Steelers (2015-2017), Dolphins (2018), and Broncos (2019-2020). He brings in a background that should mesh well with Staley’s forte – the secondary.
The Chargers were roughly Top-10 in all passing categories in 2020 thanks to solid play from cornerbacks Casey Hayward, Michael Davis and Chris Harris. Staley comes over from the Rams where they owned the No. 1 ranking against the pass with elite play from Jalen Ramsey, Troy Hill and Darious Williams. Bringing in the 3-4 will address the coverages first, even if it comes at some expense versus the run. Better play from the safeties can overcome any shortcomings against the run.
While Staley enjoyed stellar players with the Rams defense, the cupboards are not bare for the Chargers and there is an expectation that the draft will further mine for defensive backs, if only after spending the first pick on a top lineman to protect Justin Herbert.
There will be adjustments and new assignments to learn shifting from three years with Gus Bradley who used more Cover-3 and far fewer split-safety coverages. Staley inherits safety Derwin James and Joey Bosa can help any move towards a 3-4 defense. There is enough talent here that even learning a new scheme shouldn’t see any real drop in production and sooner than later, improved play from the defense.
The focus on the secondary makes more sense considering the success of the passing game last year using a rookie quarterback. The Chargers were only 7-9, but they lost several close games and blew four big leads. Any improvement in the secondary will spell more wins considering the offensive firepower already on the team.
Offensive Coordinator Joe Lombardi – The grandson of Vince Lombardi takes over as the offensive coordinator and he’ll be in charge of the new scheme. Joe Staley will have input, but since he’s a defensive guy turned head coach, Lombardi will control the offense. Lombardi has coached on both sides of the ball, but primarily has been on offense.
He was the Saints offensive assistant (2007-2008), then their quarterback coach (2009-2013). He became the Lion’s offensive coordinator (2014-2015) before returning to the Saints again as the quarterback coach (2016-2020). That’s two years with the Lions and then a total of nine as the quarterback coach under the Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael.
Lombardi is a good selection, having spent a great deal of time with Drew Brees and now coaching Justin Herbert who is yet another hard-working, cerebral quarterback with elite passing skills. Herbert turned in a tremendous rookie season after being almost immediately thrown into the fire with the injury to Tyrod Taylor.
Herbert should easily adapt to playing in more no-huddle situations with spread formations. Lombardi will seek to optimize how smart of a quarterback he has in Herbert who already set the NFL rookie record with 31 passing touchdowns and just missed setting the rookie passing yardage mark.
While Lombardi won’t import the exact same offense of Pete Carmichael, he heads to a team with similarities in talent to the Saints and spent the better part of the last decade in New Orleans. The only potential negative is that Lombardi tried to adapt the Saints-style of offense in Detroit with marginal success but that was impacted by the personnel. His two seasons there had the top running backs of Joique Bell and Ameer Abdullah. He had Calvin Johnson but only in his final two seasons when he slowed down.
Lombardi inherits a formidable set of players with Justin Herbert, Keenan Allen, and Austin Ekeler. Hunter Henry is a free agent but he’s never been more than a 650-yard, five-TD receiver that gets dinged up every season. The offense that Lombardi leaves behind in New Orleans never used that position for more than moderate production anyway.
The expectation is that the Chargers spend their draft picks shoring up the offensive line and defensive secondary. Henry is the only notable skill player that becomes a free agent. Kalen Ballage was signed only for last year and also could leave but the Chargers will get back a healthy Ekeler who missed half of last season and forced the backfield to spin through six different running backs during the season.
The offense will remain nearly intact from last year and improve if Ekeler can last a full season. No. 2 running back Joshua Kelley should be better after a rookie season that saw him decline in the second half of the season.
Fantasy football takeaway
The offense exceeded all expectations last year when they passed, thanks to Justin Herbert’s impressive debut. The Chargers passed for around 4,600 yards as they had in 2019 but increased from 24 to 31 passing touchdowns. The backfield was a disappointment with Austin Ekeler injured much of the season.
There is some concern that Hebert won’t take as many downfield shots with the installation of the Saints offense since Alvin Kamara feasted on those short passes. And that would be great for Ekeler. But that’s as much about the declining arm of Drew Brees than an offensive direction. Herbert threw a 50-yard completion in half of his games. Lombardi isn’t going to ask him to check down unless everyone is covered.
Keenan Allen has already proven to be an elite wideout and would have turned in his fourth-straight 1,000-yard season had he not missed two games. The new offense won’t look that much different than the old. The Saints passing scheme went shorter with Brees less able to connect deeply. But Lombardi and Staley have already spoken to how much they want to help Herbert become an even better quarterback in his second season, and there’s every reason to expect 2020 was just the start of an impressive career.