Despite the Chargers finishing 7-9 and suffering another losing season for the second time in a row, there is a star being born in LA. Rookie Quarterback Justin Herbert just had one of the greatest rookie seasons for a QB ever. He did this while playing behind the 31st ranked pass-blocking offensive line (per ESPN), a head coach with serious time management issues, and throwing a total of 13 touchdowns to Undrafted Free Agent receivers and running backs. Head coach Anthony Lynn was fired this past Monday after finishing the year with another losing record even after closing the year with 4 straight wins. Lynn is one of the best leaders and motivational coaches in the league by far. Before his firing, he earned praise and approval from star players like Herbert, Derwin James, and Chris Harris in press conferences. However, his inability to manage the clock and his conservative nature cost the Chargers a couple of wins this year.
Now, the Chargers are in the running for a new head coach. Out of the 6 HC openings, the Chargers are arguably the most attractive: A great QB on a rookie deal, 3 players who are top 10 players at their positions when healthy (Keenan Allen, Joey Bosa, Derwin James), and the location of the team in LA will help ease the new coach into his job. Simply put, the Chargers cannot mess this decision up. Chairman Dean Spanos will also be more involved (per Jim Trotter), as he even understands how important finding the right coach for this team is. Luckily, the Chargers have 3 more years on Herbert’s contract, with most of their offensive starters locked up for next year.
Herbert being on his rookie deal is very important for the Chargers Super Bowl window:
- 2019: The Chiefs won with Mahomes in the 3rd year of his rookie contract.
- 2018: the Rams made it to the Superbowl as Goff was in the 3rd year of his rookie contract.
- 2017: Carson Wentz was putting up an MVP season, before he tore his ACL, and he was only in the 2nd year of his rookie contract.
This year is the same story as 2 of the top 3 teams in Super Bowl odds have quarterbacks in rookie as both Mahomes and Allen are making under $6 million this year. Why is this important? Well, the Chiefs were able to lock up stars on both sides of the ball because of the low cap hit from Mahomes rookie contract. They signed guys like Frank Clark, Chris Jones, and Tyrann Mathieu to long term contracts on the defensive side of the ball the past 2 offseasons. They also locked up offensive weapons like Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Mitchell Schwartz, and Eric Fisher to long term deals as well. Again, the Chargers have a 3 year window to make the Superbowl, and after that everything will become much harder.
So which coach this year will be the one to lead them to the promise land? The Chargers said they plan to interview 10-12 candidates, but in my opinion, there are only 3 main options they should consider. Additionally, everything must be done with the consideration of developing Justin Herbert and everyone around him. The three candidates, in order, are: Brian Daboll, Arthur Smith, and Robert Saleh.
Daboll is arguably the hottest name on the Head Coach market right now. He has helped to transform the Bills offense into a Super Bowl caliber offense behind the stellar play of Josh Allen. It seems as if Allen is a completely different player this year compared to last year, and has the potential to even garner a couple MVP votes. The thing that makes Daboll the best candidate for the Chargers is his willingness to pass on early downs. Daboll recognized that the Bills offense was much better through the air than the ground and he used that to his advantage. Taking a look at this graph, you can see that the Bills are the most pass heavy team in the NFL on early downs. They throw the ball 64.5% of the time on first and second downs. The one thing that caused the Chargers to lose so many close games was Anthony Lynn’s determination to “establish the run” and keep a balanced offense. Lynn failed to realize that the offensive line has a lot more control in the run game than in the pass game and by being run-heavy he was hurting his team. Daboll put the offense in Allen’s hands and he produced a 0.284 dropback EPA (Expected Points Added) over the entire season. This play is my favorite play from any team this entire year. The Bills are winning 35-13, the defense just forced a three-and-out, and the Bills scored a TD on their last possession. Daboll dials up a shot play to the Bills best receiver, and it turns into a 55 yard gain.
Additionally, one thing that Daboll can bring to the Chargers is scoring in the red zone, and taking care of the ball. The Bills scored a TD on 61.8% of their red zone trips this year which is a step up from the Chargers 57.1%. On top of that, ever since Allen entered the league in 2018 and Daboll became his OC, Allen has never thrown an INT in the red zone which is an impressive feat.
It really is incredible how much the Bills offense grew from 2019 to this year. Obviously giving Allen a bona fide #1 WR in Stefon Diggs helps, but for them to have the 4th best EPA/play this year after being 20th last year is a huge step up and Daboll must be given credit for that.
I included this to show how Allen has actually had a season comparable to Aaron Rodgers and Mahomes. Allen will finish 2020 with the 2nd best EPA + CPOE (Completion percentage over expected), score of all eligible QBs. Again, Allen going from 22nd last year to 2nd this year is a huge jump. I also included this graph to talk about Ken Dorsey who is the Bills QB coach. If Daboll joins the Chargers, I could easily see him bringing Dorsey as his OC which I wouldn’t mind seeing how well Allen developed. However, it has been reported that Herbert really likes the current Chargers OC Shane Steichen, so maybe Daboll will keep him and current QB coach Pep Hamilton to give Herbert some continuity going into next year.
Arthur Smith may not receive as much attention as some of the other big name candidates like Daboll, Saleh, and Joe Brady, but he has been a really good OC for the Titans. Yes, he runs the ball more than any team in the league. But when you have a RB that is 6’3, weighs 240 lbs, and averages 3.94 yards after contract, you play to your strengths. The only question with Smith is can he lead a passing attack in LA after being in a run-heavy offense for so long. I believe he can. He worked as the TE coach under Matt LaFleur who has orchestrated the top ranked offense this year after being in a run-heavy scheme in Tennessee in 2018. The Titans rank 2nd in EPA/play and are 1 of only 5 teams with a positive EPA/rush. This is impressive considering the Titans lost their best run blocker in Taylor Lewan early in the season to a torn ACL, Jack Conklin left in free agency, and their first round pick (Isaiah Wilson) has yet to play more than 3 snaps this year. Another positive with Smith has to be the development of Ryan Tannehill. Yes, Tannehill has had the ability to play with Henry should be in the OPOY conversation. But Tannehill was never considered an elite QB before coming to Tennessee. Going back to the idea of passing on early downs, the Titans are ranked first in EPA/dropback this year. While Smith may only call up passing plays on 41.7% of early downs, he has produced the highest EPA/dropback on those playcalls. In comparison, the Chargers are ranked 10th in EPA/dropback on early downs, yet they have a 52.7% pass rate on early downs which is 20th in the league. I believe Smith has the ability to develop a scheme to fit his offensive, and plays to their strengths.
Another reason Smith has been so appealing is his ability to get the most out of the players he has. Outside of Tannehill, Henry, and AJ Brown, guys like Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith have had career years in 2020 going into free agency. Davis had 984 receiving yards this year and easily could’ve passed 1,000 if he didn’t miss 2 games due to COVID protocols. Jonnu Smith doubled his receiving TD number from 2019, and became a bigger part of the offensive in the red zone. Another reason Smith would be a great hire is the Titans belief to invest in the trenches. While Smith is an OC and doesn’t get much say in drafting and free agent decisions, he has been a part of the organization for 10 years, and would know a bit or two about investing in an offensive line. He has been with the Titans since they drafted Michigan’s very own Taylor Lewan, Jack Conklin, and Isaiah Wilson. They also spent big money on Rodger Saffold 2 years ago to improve their interior offensive line. After Herbert played behind the 31st ranked pass-block win rated offensive line in the league, it would be a welcoming sight to see a HC that wants to invest in protecting Herbert.
I really am surprised that Saleh didn’t get a HC job last year, but I think he will definitely get one this year. While I do want an offensive head coach to develop Herbert into an elite QB, I wouldn’t mind getting Saleh. His infectious personality is the type of leadership any team should covet, and he is truly a very good defensive coach. I don’t want to name all the injuries that the 49ers have suffered, but here’s a few: Nick Bosa, Richard Sherman, Dee Ford, Jimmie Ward. Despite losing tons of starters, and rolling backups out at almost every position every week, Saleh has kept this defense above water. In fact, the 49ers are still a top 10 defensive unit which speaks volumes about Saleh’s ability to make something out of nothing. The 49ers will have finished the season with the 8th best EPA/play allowed which is outstanding considering how many players were hurt this year. Saleh comes from the legendary Seattle cover 3 scheme from their Super Bowl run which has allowed many of those staff members to get HC jobs elsewhere such as Dan Quinn and Gus Bradley. Bradley has also been the Chargers DC for 4 years, but it is likely that the Chargers will move on from him this offseason. The thing that separates Saleh cover 3 scheme from Bradley’s cover 3 scheme is Saleh knows how to generate pressure outside of rushing 4 defenders. Saleh has done an exceptional job in manufacturing pressure by using different blitz packages and stunts to generate pressure on the opposing QB. Credit goes out to Ryan for this graph, go check him out on twitter @ryanweisman12.
The 49ers are slightly above the league average when it comes to blitz rate despite using a cover 3 shell. The Chargers are well below the league average when it comes to blitzing while also using a cover 3 shell. Spot any differences? The 49ers blitz more and have a lower EPA/blitz when they do blitz than the Chargers. Saleh had to deal with the loss of 3 of his top 5 defensive lineman, (Bosa, Ford, Solomon Thomas), so he blitzed more to make up for the lack of pressure. Chargers lost pass rushers like Melvin Ingram, Uchenna Nwosu, and Joey Bosa, yet never found the need to generate pressure another way. Hopefully, if Saleh becomes the Chargers new HC, he can add the extra pressure needed for the Chargers to become an elite defense. Luckily for Saleh, he will get the ultimate chess piece in Derwin James back and healthy next year, who had 3.5 sacks his rookie year.
Additionally, the Chargers roster is constructed to be a cover 3 team, especially since many of its defensive starters are under contract next year. Both Casey Heyward and Chris Harris Jr. are getting older and no longer are able to play man and keep up with speedy receivers. Richard Sherman had a career turnaround playing under Saleh in 2019, and hopefully Saleh would be able to do the same with Heyward who regressed in a big way this year on top of all the nagging injuries he had.
Saleh’s work with the 49ers LB’s has been remarkable as well. Fred Warner turned in an all-pro worthy season this year, and guys like Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaiir have stepped up following the Kwon Alexander trade. Keeping the same cover 3 defense would also help younger LB’s like Kenneth Murray and Drue Tranquill as they wouldn’t have to learn a completely new defense and would be able to keep practicing and playing in the cover 3 shell. This is also the reason I am not completely sold on other DC’s like Matt Eberflus or Brandon Staley who both rank among the top 10 in 2-high safety looks this year. Keeping continuity for this young defense is key for next year.
Finally, with hiring a DC in Saleh, Steichen and Hamilton may get to keep their roles as OC and QB coach respectively. If Steichen has to go, Mike McDaniels has emerged as a possible OC for Saleh to use as he is currently the run-game coordinator under Kyle Shanahan. I wouldn’t mind this hiring either, but it might not be smart to bring a wide zone scheme where you need athletic offensive lineman to a team where the offensive line is not the strong suit. Pep Hamilton could also be promoted to OC after the tremendous job he did this year developing Herbert.