Sports fans, by definition, are hopeless and idealistic reactionaries. We sit glued to our seats, trying to extrapolate the bigger picture of the individual decisions, games and players that we watch.
Unfortunately, I’m no different. As I sat on my couch watching the Chargers take down the Chiefs, I romanticized this Chargers victory as their official coming-out party and a profound disruption to the current balance of power that exists in the NFL. I could not help but to picture the Chargers as the Athenians challenging the dominant Spartan forces in an effort to take down the Chiefs and gain control of the AFC West.
You can see how easy it is to get carried away. In reality, the results of this Week 3 AFC West matchup in 2021 probably will not have the same global ramifications as the Peloponnesian War. Still, at the very least, this game officially opened the rivalry between quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert that will captivate us for years to come.
The game felt all but over when Mahomes got the ball with roughly two minutes left. You could close your eyes and imagine the quarterback leading a methodical touchdown drive, then summoning the ghost of Philip Rivers to throw a poorly timed interception in the fourth quarter. This is a sequence that Chargers fans have become all too familiar with. But then, safety Alohi Gilman intercepted Mahomes. Then it all came back as guard Matt Feiler was flagged for a false start on a critical 4th and 4. This simultaneously forced the Chargers out of field goal range and a tenuous 4th and 9. First-year head coach Brandon Staley stuck with his guns, as Jalen Guyton drew a pass interference and extended the drive, which ended in the go-ahead touchdown from Mike Williams.
I was not necessarily struck by the result but more so Staley’s process. Facing 4th and 9 at Arrowhead Stadium with a chance to play it safe and secure great field position, Staley showed unwavering confidence in his team and an eager willingness to directly challenge Mahomes and the Chiefs. Yes, Staley is known to lean on analytics and that data will tell you that you need to be uber-aggressive and go for a lot of 4th downs to beat the Chiefs. One way to look at this situation is that Staley trusted the numbers and made the right decision.
But let’s take a more nuanced perspective and put analytics to the side for a moment. We have seen a lot of coaches make big in-game decisions based on the desire to not lose, rather than a desire to win. It is abundantly clear that Staley and the Chargers had no interest in this game going to overtime. They wanted to win it in the fourth quarter and believed that they could. The assertion and fortitude that it took to go for it on a 4th and 9 was not only incredibly entertaining, but necessary for an ascending team like the Chargers. It’s this type of confident posture that teams will have to embrace if they want to destabilize the balance of power and propel themselves into the upper echelon of the NFL.
Sparta held its ground and defeated the rising Athenians in the Peloponnesian War. After the result on Sunday, we are left to wonder, how much longer will the Chiefs be able to stave off the Chargers?