Brandon Staley, Chargers coach? Those who know him know why he 'skyrocketed' to top

Jeff Miller
·5 min read
Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley watches warmups before a game against the Miami Dolphins on Nov. 1.
Brandon Staley, the former Rams defensive coordinator who was hired as the Chargers coach on Sunday, has had a meteoric rise in the NFL coaching ranks. (Doug Murray / Associated Press)

To understand how quickly Brandon Staley reached the status of Chargers coach, consider this:

The team has been in Los Angeles longer than he has been in the NFL.

Staley joins the Chargers after only four years in the league and one season as a coordinator. He coached outside linebackers in Chicago and Denver before overseeing the Rams’ No. 1-ranked defense this season under Sean McVay.

“I knew that he could be a D-coordinator,” said cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who played in Denver until joining the Chargers this season. “I knew that he should be a D-coordinator. But just to see how fast he’s skyrocketed, I mean, that’s pretty amazing.”

Harris spent nine years with the Broncos, including 2019 when Staley was on Denver’s staff. He praised Staley’s football knowledge, willingness to listen to players and ability to build relationships. He predicted that teammates will love their new coach and called the situation “a great fit.”

“I’m so happy, so excited for him,” Harris said. “He’s a guy who’s very smart, knows the game of football. He took it to another level this year with the Rams. I’m excited to see what he can do with us.”

Harris said he and Staley already have spoken, their discussion even going into detail about expected defensive scheme changes. With the Rams, Staley ran a 3-4 as opposed to the 4-3 the Chargers have been employing.

This is the first head coaching job at any level for Staley, 38, who spent 11 years as a college assistant before going to work for the Chicago Bears in February 2017. Six weeks earlier, the Chargers had relocated from San Diego.

During his first season as coach of the Rams, McVay was seven years younger than Staley is today. But by that point, McVay had been in the NFL as an assistant for eight years.

The man who gave Staley his first coaching job said he knew “from the word go” that Staley would be a success. But Joe Novak said no one on that 2006 Northern Illinois staff could have envisioned Staley becoming an NFL coach just 15 years later.

Even less likely, Staley’s stops en route to the Chargers were rooted in anything but Power Five football conferences. Among other places, he worked at a Division III school in Minnesota and a community college in Kansas.

Staley established himself as a defensive coordinator with one season at James Madison, a Football Championship Subdivision school, and three at John Carroll, another Division III university.

“I knew he could be good,” said Novak, who is retired. “I thought he had all the traits you’re looking for. But to go from John Carroll to the Chargers in five years is pretty darn hard to do. I don’t think you’ll find anybody else who did that.”

Brandon Staley, second from right, instructs Rams players during a practice session in September.
Brandon Staley, second from right, instructs Rams players during a practice session in September. (Greg Beacham / Associated Press)

John Carroll is the school where Chargers general manager Tom Telesco played in the 1990s. Telesco and the Chargers selected Staley from a group of candidates with much more NFL experience, mostly as coordinators. The team also interviewed Jason Garrett, who spent 9½ years as Dallas’ coach.

In the end, the Chargers opted for the choice they must believe has more of an NFL future than an NFL past.

The move to hire Staley on Sunday night was met with surprise around the league, in part because Buffalo offensive coordinator Brian Daboll was believed to be a favorite for the position, but also given Staley’s relative inexperience. He was a candidate for the openings that remain in Philadelphia and Houston but instead landed a job considered to be one of the most attractive of this hiring cycle.

Staley spent his first three seasons in coaching as a graduate assistant working with the Northern Illinois defense. As a player, he was a quarterback, first at Dayton and then at Division II Mercyhurst University in Pennsylvania.

That combination of knowledge on both sides of the ball is expected to be vital for Staley as he moves into the unfamiliar position of overseeing an entire team.

“He’s going to be so easy to work with,” Novak said. “The players will love him. And he can coach too. That’s a nice combination. He knew back at NIU where he was headed. You don’t always find that in people that age.”

With the Rams, Staley was armed with All-Pros in lineman Aaron Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey. His defense finished first in the NFL in points and yards allowed.

Harris explained that the more impressive thing Staley did this season could be seen in the performances of the other Rams, those defenders who emerged unexpectedly.

“They have a lot of talent over there,” Harris said. “You know what you’re going to get out of Ramsey and Donald. But you have a lot of no-name players, guys that you’ve never even heard of, who made a lot of plays on that team too.”

Staley is scheduled to meet with the media Thursday for the first time since accepting the job. Along with reaching out to his new players, he is assembling his staff, one that could include current offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, though no announcement has been made.

Multiple reports Monday indicated Staley would be hiring Las Vegas’ Frank Smith to be his run game coordinator. Smith has been the tight ends coach for the Raiders the last three years.

Novak said Staley’s lack of ego will allow him to bring in assistants who can best supplement his skill-set. He said Staley’s personality and energy will be infectious and effective.

“You spend a half-hour with him and you’ll know what I’m talking about,” Novak said. “You just know. With that kid — he’s still a kid to me — you just know. He’s got all the qualities.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.