How interim coach Giff Smith won over the Chargers locker room

Los Angeles Chargers interim coach Giff Smith has been with the franchise since 2016, coaching under Mike McCoy, Anthony Lynn and Brandon Staley AP Photo/Ryan Su

LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James Jr. grinned ear to ear as a reporter asked about the Chargers' interim head coach Giff Smith.

"I like Giff out there," James said, still grinning wide. "He's straightforward. He's not trying to be one way or be your friend; he's straightforward with who he is. I think that a lot of guys gravitate toward that."

Following one of the most embarrassing losses in team history, a 63-21 drubbing by the Las Vegas Raiders on "Thursday Night Football," the Chargers fired coach Brandon Staley and general manager Tom Telesco. Smith, then the Chargers' outside linebackers coach and longest-tenured coach on staff, was tapped to lead the team for the final three games of the season.

Smith, 55, has been with the Chargers since 2016. He was hired during Mike McCoy's tenure as head coach and remained on staff under Anthony Lynn and Staley.

Already, Smith has a much different approach from his predecessor. Staley represented the modern NFL, a coach who leaned into analytics and was willing to take risks. Chargers players describe Smith, however, as "old school," a sentiment he embraces.

"That's probably because I'm 55," Smith said. "It's still a tough man's game. It's a physical game. You have to have your brother's back when you go out there. If that makes me old school, then I'm definitely old school."

In two weeks, Smith's approach has brought renewed energy to a Chargers team that appeared to be coasting into the offseason.

Multiple team sources described a culture where players felt alienated by Staley, who one team source said created a culture that felt like a "fraternity."Smith has shifted the energy of this team and won players over, largely because of his commitment to holding every player accountable.

"He'll obviously hold you accountable to what you got to do, but at the same time, he's going to let you know that he also believes in you," safety Alohi Gilman said. "Building confidence is, I think, as a coach is so underrated. I think that's what his superpower is -- that he's able to build confidence in guys regardless of the circumstances, and that elevates players."

Smith's first game as head coach came last Saturday, a 24-22 loss to the Buffalo Bills at home.

The Chargers kicked five field goals, something they hadn't done since 2012. Staley had earned the nickname "Fourth-and-Staley '' for his willingness to attempt conversions on fourth downs, but Smith took the opposite approach.

While Smith's decisions to kick field goals kept the Chargers in the game, his lack of aggressiveness on a few of those fourth downs may have ultimately hurt the Chargers in the end.

On the Chargers' opening drive, for example, the offense was stopped on third-and-goal at the Bills' 2-yard line. Smith elected to kick on fourth down instead of attempting to score a touchdown. According to ESPN Analytics, a conversion there would have increased the Chargers' chance of winning by 3.7%. Smith said Wednesday that he didn't regret the decision.

"It was such a great drive; we felt like we needed to get points on the board," Smith said. "Especially with the way we've been operating, they needed something positive out of that."

Another notable adjustment in Smith's first game was how the Chargers employed James.

James, who has emerged as one of the best safeties in the NFL since the Chargers drafted him in 2018, played 40 snaps in the loss, the fewest of his career in a game where he wasn't injured or ejected. His two snaps at safety were tied for the second-fewest in his career, and both came on the Bills' final offensive drive in the fourth quarter.

The Chargers played James in the nickel cornerback spot Saturday, while Jaylinn Hawkins and Dean Marlowe covered James' typical spot at strong safety. There were times, however, when the Chargers left James off the field in favor of Essang Bassey as the nickelback, such as on the Bills' final drive of the game.

With the Chargers leading 22-21 and the Bills facing third-and-8, James watched from the sidelines as Buffalo converted. He eventually joined the defense a few plays later.

Smith said James' role was by design, dismissing any idea of a demotion. He said the Chargers wanted James close to the line of scrimmage to combat Buffalo's offense, but the defense ended up playing more formations than expected in their base defense -- which doesn't feature a nickelback -- which kept James off of the field.

"Sometimes it goes that way," Smith said after the game. "If we would have known that, we would have maybe done some things a little different. But that was the plan moving in so that he could be close to the line, and we needed him. He played physical."

With two games remaining in the season, the odds that Smith remains head coach of this team into next season seem far-fetched, though team president John Spanos said they would consider all options in their search for their next coach. Whatever Smith's future is with the Chargers -- or elsewhere -- he appears to be the right leader for this moment.

"The key thing is he's just real and he's genuine," Gilman said. "People who have that genuine connection, that's leadership -- that's real -- that people can actually connect to. And in a team setting, that's how you build a culture. That's how you win over a locker room of grown men. You need that. You need someone to also to hold you accountable, at the same time be like, 'Hey bro, I got your back.'"