- He covered the Rams for the Los Angeles Times for two years.
- Previously handled by Sokolov
- Beats the NBA, college football and basketball.
Editor’s note: A version of this story was originally published on the 7th. January 2021 published. The 17th. In January 2021, the Los Angeles Chargers hired Brandon Staley as head coach.
SOAND OAKS, CA. — A black Range Rover arrived at the Four Seasons at 4:58 a.m., and Brandon Staley got in.
The driver was Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay, and he was there to interview the relatively unnamed Denver Broncos coach to become his defensive coordinator to replace the legendary Wade Phillips.
The interview began immediately after a ten-mile drive to the Rams’ training facility, where Staley – who came from McVay’s inner circle – really took the plunge.
Speaking of football… I’d like to think I love football as much as anyone ….. You sit down and you think: That guy can do more damage than me, McVay said of Staley.
Staley, who turned 38 last month, loves two things in particular: Family and football. He and his father survived cancer, but he watched as the disease took his mother away after nine years. He has taken an unconventional path to the NFL, but each of his stopovers – from quarterback at Dayton and Mercyhurst to coach at Hutchinson Community College to being an NFL coach for three seasons – has served to shape him and the best defense in the NFL.
Since McVay came to Los Angeles four years ago, the Rams’ identity has been linked to his high-level crime. But this season is different. And that difference began as early as the 12-hour marathon interview, which McVay and Staley admitted they had flown through and could have lasted longer.
Staley reflected on his plans to defend the Rams, drawing inspiration from a plan he developed at John Carroll University, a Division III school in Ohio, where he coordinated the Blue Streaks’ defense four seasons ago and fielded a first-rate unit.
Staley brought in Frank Pines, a Blue Streaks line player of short duration, whom he described as a force of nature who can play anywhere on the defensive front.
The role of the Pins will be played by Aaron Donald, two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Then came Jovon Dawson, an athletic defender who knew how to play safety, corner and nickel, a skill set so great that an entire defense could be built around him.
Rams cornerback Jaylen Ramsey would be Dawson’s All-Pro equivalent.
They’re not household names in the NFL, Staley said, but they’re household names to me.
Staley knows that approaching his only official interview as an NFL coordinator and mentioning D-III players – guys who were paid to play in college that no one had ever heard of – sounds like hyperbole.
Even his former players laughed when they heard their names being called.
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I couldn’t keep Jalen Ramsey’s belt! said Dawson, who is 25 and works in the family business.
It’s just crazy that he said that, said Pines, 27, who is now in charge of the U.S. food zone. That’s an odd comparison to the best quarterback in the NFL.
But for Staley, the analogy worked perfectly.
The biggest benefit is that we are going to benefit from our employees, he said. I was able to articulate this clear vision because I have done so before.
Today Staley, whose defense is capable of dominating any quarterback, creating turnovers and scoring regularly, crosses town to become head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers.
He’s a great coach, one of the best I’ve ever had, Ramsey said. I feel like he’s a genius.
As smooth as chocolate milk
John Carroll is still undefeated in 2013 and is preparing for a big game in November against a Heidelberg University physical team that destroyed it the year before.
The tension in the room was palpable, and Staley – a typically serious and focused first-year student – knew the moment required a different approach.
He looks at us, remembers Pines, and says You know what song really cheers me up?
A soft melody filled the room, Royals by Lorde played, and a rather stiff Staley began to groove rhythmically.
That’s him: That’s how you’re supposed to be, baby! As soft as chocolate milk! the pines said and giggled. Just thinking about it gives me the creeps.
This is definitely the moment I’ve always loved where John Carroll’s defense has changed,? said Chris Rizzo, another Blue Streak veteran. It was that moment in that room.
Brandon Staley was the defensive coordinator for Division III John Carroll on the outskirts of Cleveland in 2016. Courtesy of KRCope Art and Designs.
John Carroll is a relatively unknown small Catholic university, 23 miles east of Cleveland. But it has become an NFL factory that has produced Hall of Fame coach Don Shulu, Los Angeles Chargers general manager Tom Telesco, New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Houston Texans general manager Nick Caserio and Rams outdoor linebacker coach Chris Shulu, among others.
In John Carroll, Staley got a reputation for liking hot-fooded onion rings, humming coffee, and twisting a wedding ring on his ring finger when his mind was overworked.
He demanded a lot from the players, but they respected him. In his first season, he set up a defense that matched the strengths of the players and made Keller a top defense among 250 Division III teams. In their final season in 2016, the Blue Streaks became conference champions.
John Carroll’s former coach Tom Art, now head coach of Akron, knew minutes after meeting Staley that he would hire him. Staley completed a one-year internship as an assistant at Tennessee, preceded by a two-year stint at Hutchinson Community College, where he served as defensive coordinator.
The first minute after he started talking about football, I knew he was different, Art said. After meeting Brandon, there are no more candidates.
Brandon Staley is not the first Division III coach to make John Carroll an unlikely source of coaches, staff and players. Here are some Blue Streaks alumni.
Don Shula, Hall of Fame Coach, Baltimore Colts and Miami Dolphins
Josh McDaniels, Offensive Coordinator, New England Patriots
Greg Roman, Offensive Coordinator, Baltimore Ravens
Tom Telesco, general manager, Los Angeles Chargers
Nick Caserio, general manager, Houston Texans
Dave Caldwell, former general manager, Jacksonville Jaguars
Chris Polian, director of player affairs, Jaguars
Pat Moriarty, senior vice president of football operations, Ravens
David Ziegler, director of human resources, Patriots
London Fletcher, LB for St. John’s, NL Louis Rams, Buffalo Bills and Washington from 1998 to 2013.
Staley embodied everything art wanted: Passion combined with the ability to communicate, teach and gain trust quickly. And as a former college quarterback, Staley sees the game from a 22-man perspective and knows exactly how each side of the ball works.
Brandon is the same monster with two different heads, Rizzo said. He has the face of a coach and then his personality, his personal face.
Staley understood how to reach each player, meaning he had to find ways to connect and communicate with each person – a trait that made Dawson smile this year as he listened to Ramsey address reporters.
Dawson said it was one of his quirks. I was a super emotional player, I didn’t like being spoken to aggressively, so he always pulled me aside. … The other boys] had to shout because it was the only way to do the exercise.
Blue Streak veteran Brody Zangaro recalled that Staley had told players who missed their assignments that he would put them on the list of those who were dispensed with.
There are no exceptions in third division football, Zangaro said with a laugh. It’s kind of a testament that he knew he was coming into the NFL.
He’s over the ball
Jalen Ramsey is not an easy man to beat. When the cornerback gets praise from the All-Pro, it means something.
The way he opened up the defense and built it around the A.D., as it should be, is all you would consider common sense, Ramsey said, but the way he does it is extraordinary.
Staley retained the 3-4 defense Phillips set up, but added elements he learned from Bronco coach Vic Fangio and elements of his own style. The goal is to create face-to-face situations in the running game and face-to-face situations in the passing game. He does this by capitalizing on the individual strengths of his players.
When Brandon arrived, all of our players had a clear idea of how he could showcase their skills, McVay said.
After finishing the season ranked ninth in terms of defensive effectiveness, the Rams made a leap forward in several defensive categories. They rank first in defensive efficiency, yards allowed per game (281.9) and points allowed per game (18.5) and lead the NFL with four defensive touchdowns.
But perhaps most important to Staley is the production of players not named Donald or Ramsey, but who are still expected to produce at a high level.
When I came here I really wanted to put down that we were a defensive team, said Staley, who rebuilt a defense without an OTA or traditional preseason. I think so.
Aaron Donald dominated Brandon Staley’s defense, but the emergence of players like Morgan Fox (right) is something Staley is proud of. Harry Howe/Getty Images
Staley breathed new life into the career of linebacker Leonard Floyd, whose production had stalled for four seasons in Chicago, but he began a new life in Los Angeles with 10.5 sacks. In addition to Ramsey – who averaged 23.9 yards per game as the tightest defender – former free agents Troy Hill and Darious Williams excelled. Hill is the best in the NFL with three defensive touchdowns and Williams intercepted four passes.
This guy is a genius, Williams said.
Rookie Jordan Fuller, a sixth-round pick, did well with three interceptions, while Staley Johnson III defender was chosen to be his caller.
He’s still learning, Johnson said of Staley. He texts me at all hours of the day to tell me about something unimportant – just football, something he saw.
Donald had another performance, with a record of 13.5 sacks, while defensive lineman Michael Brockers recorded his best score since 2013 with five sacks and former free agent Morgan Fox recorded a record six sacks. Sebastian Joseph-Day has also become a major sponsor.
We play consistent football in his defense, Donald said.
And like John Carroll, Staley continues to manipulate his engagement ring as the wheels turn and contact players in a season darkened by the COWID-19 pandemic, when meaningful connections can be difficult.
I told him he lit me up the first time we were on Zoom’s call, ready to go, Brockers said. The call to Zoom made me want to put my helmet on because it was driving me crazy.
He’s only interested in the ball, Ramsey said, but he also coaches the players.
Staley is the owner of the Salty Dog Café, Johnson said, and you officially become a Salty Dog when you cheat (another popular Staley saying) to cover up to create an opportunity for another defensive player who didn’t expect offense to be a factor in the game.
But he wasn’t trying to play his old line in John Carroll, smooth as chocolate milk, because…. Well, uh… it’s the NFL. Professional players are tough, Staley said, laughing. It’s hard to impress them.
He makes a few jokes here and there, Donald said. But he undoubtedly brings a lot of enthusiasm and passion.
Floating Head Coach
Recently, Fangio’s phone rang with a unique request.
I got a call from a potential head coach for next season, Fangio said. He asked me if I still had Brandon Stalis as defensive coordinator.
After three seasons at John Carroll and a year as defensive coordinator at James Madison, Fangio brought Staley into his defensive team with the Chicago Bears. The defensive guru wanted a coach he could train for the outside defenders – a group that would soon include Khalil Mack – and Staley came highly recommended.
I asked a lot of questions, Staley talked about his three seasons under Fangio, one with the Bears and two in Denver where he worked with Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. And he gave me a lot of answers.
Sayid Fangio: He is an expert on football because he loves the game, the historical aspect of the game. He loves to explore and wants to keep up to date with anything new.
Make your pick in the playoffs and compete for $30,000! Make your choice
Now, after just one season as defensive coordinator in the NFL, Staley has a chance to become head coach.
It’s defensive end Sean McVay, said Broncos defensive coordinator Ed Donatel, who coached Staley for three seasons between Chicago and Denver. It is this young and brilliant mind that sees everything, that can communicate with people.
The path to becoming an NFL head coach is through one of the former players.
Last year, Chubb signed a t-shirt for Staley at the request of Staley’s wife, Amy, who was collecting souvenirs to build a den for her husband.
Next to his signature, Chubb wrote: I can’t wait for you to be head coach someday.
Chubb said it was just the energy he brought to the meetings when he approached her. We can only talk about his aura. One of the best guys I know personally.
Since 2012, five coaches have advanced to the NFL as head coaches after their first season as defensive coordinators, including Titans coach Mike Vrabel, who went from 28 to 19 in three seasons, and Steve Wilks, who was fired after his only 3-13 season with the Cardinals in 2018.
Staley’s NFL resume may be short – one season as coordinator, three as outside linebacker coach – but he doesn’t think so.
I felt like I was double trained, Staley said. I was coaching in college, but I felt like I was coaching professionals at the same time because I was learning.
Selfishly, of course, I wish Coach Staley was here for the rest of this year and next year and for my career, Ramsey said. But, I mean, he would be a great head coach and there are a lot of teams in the league that could use him right now.
Jeff Legwold of ESPN contributed to this story.
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