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LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JANUARY 09: Head coach Brandon Staley of the Los Angeles Chargers watches players during warmups before a game against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium on January 09, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images)

LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. — To Brandon Staley, Sunday’s showdown between the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals at SoFi Stadium feels anything but super. It’s almost as though the football gods are taunting the Chargers’ 39-year-old coach with this matchup between the team he left a little more than a year ago and an opponent he dominated two months ago.

As Staley, the coach of the other L.A. team, reflects on a rookie season that ended excruciatingly close to a playoff berth, he’s excited about the way his Chargers competed and the tone-setting bravado that was instilled. He’s also gutted by the fact that they didn’t get to compete for a spot in Super Bowl LVI, thanks to a 35-32 overtime defeat to the Las Vegas Raiders on the final play of the final regular-season game — a nationally televised heartbreak that cemented his stigma as, in his words, “Fourth Down Go For It Guy.”

“These last (few) weeks have been really, really tough — like, as challenging as any in my lifetime — and I’m a cancer patient and all that,” Staley said between sips of a Spanish latte at a Laguna Beach cafe on a recent morning. “Because there’s that feeling of emptiness and that fire at the same time. You can’t look back. Everything’s about what’s in front of you. But to (watch the AFC championship game) and know that you beat both of those teams, I think it shows you, ‘Hey, we’re coming.’”

The Chargers went to Cincinnati and pummeled the Bengals 41-22 on Dec. 5, 11 days before hosting the Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday Night Football. The Chargers, who had defeated the Chiefs 30-24 in Week 3, were going for a season sweep that might have given them control of the AFC West, but they suffered a 34-28 defeat in overtime.

On that night, as with the Chargers’ loss to the Raiders in the season finale, Staley saw his aggressive decision-making scrutinized by many media members and a massive audience of social-media skeptics. Chided both for recklessness and a perceived overreliance on analytics, Staley, who rode a stellar performance as the Rams’ first-year defensive coordinator in 2020 (when they had the league’s top-ranked defense) to his first career head-coaching gig, finished his maiden campaign with no regrets.

For one thing, Staley believes that, by repeatedly placing second-year quarterback Justin Herbert into high-stress, convert-or-else situations, he was preparing the Chargers’ most important player for bigger and better things.

“The analytics thing is funny to me, because what I’m doing is putting our team in an advantage situation,” Staley said. “The strength of our football team is our quarterback and our offense, and to decrease his opportunities would decrease our chances of winning. And when you talk about his growth and development, what I really wanted to do was push it so that he’s used to being in crunch time. Winning time? He’s used to it. He’s there.

“There are a lot of motivating factors for doing this. It’s not analytics; it’s a fabric of who we were. I know the pressure that it puts on people on the other side, and I also know that it’s playing to the strengths of our team. And the other thing that I think people really have to get used to is I’m really not afraid of losing. I’m not afraid of failure. But what I am afraid of is not doing what’s best for our team.”

As Staley also knows, perhaps even more acutely than he did going in: Risky, unorthodox decisions are typically judged through the lens of outcome. Earlier in the season, Staley’s successful fourth-down gambles were widely heralded as cutting edge. When they failed in high-profile situations, such as the ones in the defeats to the Chiefs and Raiders, Staley’s choices were largely derided as heedless and ill-advised.

In the rematch with Kansas City, the Chargers failed on three fourth-down attempts while in field-goal range, including a fourth-and-goal pass from the 1 on the final play of the half that was deflected by Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen. To Staley, one factor was that his team’s struggling defense — the Chargers would give up more points than all but three teams in 2021 — was missing standout rookie cornerback Asante Samuel Jr., while star safety Derwin James was hobbled by a hamstring injury that would eventually force him from the game.

With a 14-10 lead and one play remaining in the half, Staley felt he had good reason to be greedy.

“That’s the one that people are pretty critical of,” Staley said. “They’re like, ‘Why wouldn’t you just take the easy three and go up 7?’ Well in my mind, in the moment, I was like, ‘This is our chance to separate. … It’s either (gonna be) 21-10, 17-10 or 14-10. Which one would I prefer? And then if we go 14-10, how much different is that than 17-10? We can separate here. And, I’m not gonna hold this guy (Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes) down forever. The data says this guy scores.’

“I do know this: If you had Herbert and you sent that kicker out there, do you know what that would do to your sideline? Our players know how good (Herbert) is. Do you know what that would do to the morale of our team? When in the biggest game of our season — ‘cause if we win that game, we’re probably gonna win the division — (if) I send the kicker out there, three times? When in the first game, we won the game with four fourth-down decisions?

“All of a sudden, you’re gonna chicken out because of a little bit of scrutiny? Are you kidding me?”

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Dec 16, 2021; Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley reacts against the Kansas City Chiefs during the second half at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

To be fair, there were moments when Staley chose to be more conservative — such as in the Chargers’ Jan. 2 road victory over the Denver Broncos, whose offense was struggling with backup quarterback Drew Lock pressed into service. That’s part of his coaching philosophy: Rather than adhering to hard and fast rules, Staley believes in evaluating each decision on its own merits.

“I said it from the beginning of my first press conference one year ago, till now: Each decision has a life of its own,” Staley said. “And just because something went well doesn’t mean that you’re playing with house money, and just because it doesn’t go well doesn’t mean you’re gonna be more careful. Each of ‘em has a life of its own, and I’ve been studying it my whole life: behavioral economics, psychology, decision-making. … I just got (the book ‘Noise: A Flaw In Human Judgment’ by Daniel Kahneman). I’ve been studying this my entire life. But it goes back to what my father and mother (instilled): You know your team.

“I’m not the Analytics Guy. What I am is the Bruce and Linda Staley Guy that’s following what’s best for the team.”

Being that guy means seeing high-pressure football settings from a different perspective. Linda Staley died from breast cancer in 2004, when Brandon was a University of Dayton quarterback. Both he and Bruce are cancer survivors, with Brandon having gone through chemotherapy and radiation after being diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in 2007.

Now, after having made the jump from Division III defensive coordinator (at John Carroll University) to NFL head coach in fewer than five years, Staley isn’t shying away from the specter of being second-guessed on the big stage. That was never more apparent than in the season finale in Las Vegas.

First, Staley’s failed fourth-down gamble from his own 18-yard line in the third quarter set up a Raiders field goal that increased their lead to 20-14. Later, after the Chargers sent the game into overtime on the final play of regulation — and became the first team in at least 30 years to convert six fourth downs in a game — Staley called a highly controversial timeout with 38 seconds remaining.

The Raiders faced a third-and-4 from the L.A. 39, and some viewers believed Las Vegas would have been content to drain the clock, punt the ball and play for a tie, which would have put both the Raiders and Chargers into the playoff field (at the expense of the Pittsburgh Steelers), rather than just the winner. Staley, however, believed the Raiders might successfully kick a field goal even after a short gain and wanted to get the right personnel on the field to stop the run.

“That timeout was because I knew they were going to run the ball,” he explained. “They have a second-team All-Pro kicker (Daniel Carlson) who had made a 56-yarder, and we were playing in a dome. What I was trying to do was keep them out of field-goal range by putting our best one-back run defense in there.

“It was the smart decision. And if we execute it properly, they punt it to us, we tie and we’re out of there. But it was the smart call. Would you rather have nine guys in the box or eight guys in the box? Would you rather have five on the line or four on the line? What I was doing was giving our team the best chance to win, and it didn’t go down.”

The Chargers gave up a 10-yard run to Josh Jacobs, setting up Carlson’s 47-yard field goal that ended their season — and began a chorus of criticism of a coach who insists he can handle it.

“It was heartbreak central, now. I mean, Heartbreak Hotel,” he said. “But we also had some great moments. We were in 15 fourth-quarter games this year. We beat five playoff teams. We showed our toughness and our competitive spirit in the fourth quarter. We showed teams that we’re not afraid of the moment, that we’re gonna go for it — literally. Not just on fourth down, but we’re gonna go for it, and that we’re gonna be comfortable in that space.”

As for this space — well, this is the final time we’ll present you with these sublime queries until next season, when there will be a whole new pecking order that the Chargers hope to ascend.

For now, here’s how we see things heading into Super Bowl LVI, with one disclaimer: We haven’t yet made our game prediction, and it’s possible that the plucky underdogs will compel us to pick them to prevail over the ensemble we currently regard as stronger overall.

Two Questions

1. Los Angeles Rams (15-5): Which quarterback had the most dramatic Super Bowl triumph in franchise history — Kurt Warner or Joe Pendleton/Tom Jarrett — and how could Matthew Stafford possibly top either/any of them?

2. Cincinnati Bengals (13-7): Back in August, was Joe Burrow’s future so bright that I had to wear shades … or was I just trying to look cool before serving as the sideline reporter for this Washington Football Team preseason broadcast?

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