Chargers’ Joe Lombardi eager to build an offense around Justin Herbert
Brandon Staley observed from the back of the room while Joe Lombardi instructed the New Orleans Saints’ quarterbacks, including Drew Brees.
Nearly 12 years before Staley asked Lombardi to be his offensive coordinator with the Chargers, Lombardi invited his former quarterback turned coach to a training camp visit as the Saints embarked on their Super Bowl season of 2009.
“I’d bet you that he’s watched every single game we’ve played on offense here in New Orleans since then,” Lombardi said Tuesday about Staley, who at the time coached defensive linemen and special teams at St. Thomas, a Division III program in Minnesota. “Just (Staley’s) familiarity with me and what we’ve done here (in New Orleans), it makes it such an easier transition.”
If Lombardi’s guess about the recently-hired Chargers head coach is true, then Staley has watched more than 160 Saints games from the past decade.
On Monday, Staley hired Lombardi as the Chargers’ new offensive coordinator. Lombardi spent 12 seasons on Sean Payton’s coaching staff during two stints in New Orleans — 10 overall as the quarterbacks coach, including the past five seasons.
Lombardi, 49, said he had interest in other coaching jobs since the Detroit Lions fired him as the offensive coordinator in 2015, but he wasn’t going to jump at any opportunity. It needed to make sense and familiarity was important to him.
Staley, 38, was Lombardi’s quarterback for one season at Mercyhurst University in 2005, when Lombardi was the offensive coordinator.
“Brandon, No. 1,” Lombardi said when asked why the Chargers’ opening was the right fit. “How well I know him and I think how well he knows me. … Not to mean that we’re going to copy (the Saints’ offense), but just coming from a common background of football, to be able to get things started. As he is in the beginning of putting a staff together, what he is looking for, it all lines up with the way that I think.
“Sean Payton often says that he is more interested in compatibility first before he thinks about capability. I just think that the compatibility of what Brandon is building here is going to be second-to-none.”
Lombardi will likely incorporate some parts of the Saints’ offense to form the right scheme for quarterback Justin Herbert and the rest of the Chargers’ offense, but he knows the importance of flexibility.
Lombardi said a reason why his stint with the Lions didn’t work out was because he forced the Saints’ offensive system instead of using it as a starting point to build off players’ strengths.
The Lions finished 11-5 during Lombardi’s first season in 2014, but the offense based on short passes, timing and precision produced mixed results for quarterback Matthew Stafford and a Lions team that ranked 19th in total offense. It got worse the following season and the Lions fired Lombardi after a 1-6 start.
“The biggest thing is just being able to be more flexible,” Lombardi said about what he learned the most as a first-time play caller in Detroit. “Spending so much time in New Orleans and doing things one way, you kind of get used to that. When you’re put into a new situation where the schedule is different, and maybe you’re around coaches that weren’t used to doing things the way that you were used to, just having flexibility to adjust a little bit better maybe than we did back then.
“That’s the biggest thing, just the flexibility to adjust when things aren’t the way that you’re used to them being.”
Staley has only coached in the NFL for four seasons, but he’s had plenty of success by prioritizing players’ strengths over schemes. Lombardi said he is eager to form an offensive coaching staff with Staley.
Lombardi wants coaches from other offensive schemes to provide different perspectives, which will be vital for Herbert’s development after a dynamic rookie season.
“He’s got a skill set that’s elite,” Lombardi said about Herbert. “It appears there’s nothing that he can’t do. He’s got an incredibly strong arm, good accuracy and he’s very athletic. Sounds like he’s a real smart guy that’s a good leader. He just checks all the boxes.”
Lombardi said it’s too soon to reveal what the Chargers’ offense will look like in 2021, but he said Staley wants tempo.
With Herbert’s downfield accuracy, and Staley looking to play off his quarterbacks’ strengths, Lombardi will likely call many deep shots, but he understands what type of weapons Herbert has.
Wide receiver Keenan Allen, running back Austin Ekeler and tight end Hunter Henry thrive with up-tempo passes, a staple of the Saints’ offense since Payton took over in 2006. The Chargers’ trio had a similar style with quarterback Philip Rivers before Herbert took over in 2020.
Allen had an instant connection with Herbert, but Henry and Ekeler, one of the best pass-catching running backs in the NFL, often got lost when the rookie quarterback was looking upfield for wide receivers Mike Williams, Jalen Guyton and Tyron Johnson.
It will be up to Lombardi and Staley to find the right balance to utilize all of the Chargers’ skill players.
Lombardi has shown he’s able to evolve around his Saints quarterbacks in recent years. He’s worked with quick passers Brees and Teddy Bridgewater, aggressive quarterback Jameis Winston and athletic quarterback Taysom Hill.
Watching how Payton changed the Saints’ offense from Brees as the focal point to wide receiver Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara as the centerpieces, will likely help Lombardi in his second opportunity as an offensive coordinator.
Lombardi said it’s important to have a balanced offense, which scared some Chargers fans on social media, but he reiterated the importance of using Herbert’s strengths as a passer.
“I think it’s important to have some balance,” Lombardi said. “But when you have a quarterback as talented as Justin, you want to let him throw the ball when it’s appropriate. That’s for sure.”
Herbert had a historic rookie season under prior head coach Anthony Lynn, but the coaching staff was often criticized for conservative play calling and not taking enough chances on fourth down.
Lombardi wasn’t as cautious in his response when asked about possibly going for it more on fourth downs.
“I’m a big fan of going for it on fourth down,” Lombardi said. “I know all the data analysis says that we are probably not aggressive enough as NFL coaches. I’m in favor of moving in that direction.”