JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Seven months ago, on a quiet offseason day in early June, I was sitting on a couch in Brandon Staley’s office at the Chargers facility in Orange County. I was there to interview the head coach about fourth-down decision-making and analytics, but early on in the conversation, Staley’s words drifted to something broader, something more deep-seated — something that might seem intangible but has left real, permanent wounds for anyone associated with this franchise.
“The history of this team when I got here, it was like, someone’s going to get hurt, they’re going to blow a lead, something catastrophic is going to happen,” Staley said then. “There’s this Chargering, and there’s all these external factors that I know in my life, they’re just all excuses. They’re just all excuses. And so, all right, well, how do you change that? Well, you have to do things different. You have to have a different approach.”
Staley has tried his hardest to eradicate the black cloud — “Chargering” — that hangs over this organization. He has tried to take that different approach. In 2021, he hired an additional analytics staffer and leaned into more aggressive math-based decision-making, attempting to establish a killer mindset among his players in his first year on the job. He brought in a new director of sports performance and implemented a more forward-thinking process for recovery and injury maintenance, like a mandatory activation period at the beginning of practices to allow players additional time to roll out their muscles and stretch individually. Staley has been refreshingly candid and open with the media, revealing the type of schematic details few, if any, NFL coaches are willing to share.
And yet, despite Staley’s best efforts to be different, the Chargers 2022 season ended in viciously familiar fashion. Someone got hurt. The Chargers blew a lead. And something catastrophic happened.
The Chargers fell to the Jaguars, 31-30, on Saturday night at TIAA Bank Stadium in the wild-card round of the playoffs. They led 27-0 in the first half. They carried a 27-7 into halftime. They won the turnover margin 5-0.
They still lost.
Frankly, catastrophic does not even feel like a strong enough word for what happened Saturday night.
Since 2000, teams who won the turnover margin by five or more were 142-4-1 heading into this game, according to TruMedia. The Chargers are now the fifth team to lose, joining the 2000 and 2010 Browns, the 2012 Cardinals and the 2007 Buffalo Bills.
“You can only preach so much,” said tight end Gerald Everett, who led the Chargers with 109 receiving yards on six receptions. “It just comes down to what you actually do in the moment and what you don’t allow in the moment.”
Staley tried to fly full speed through that black cloud at 500 mph. It split, but only briefly. The cloud re-coalesced, bigger and darker and even more ominous, raining down acid on the hopes and dreams for something better, something more.
I don’t know if Chargering is real, but it damn sure felt real Saturday night.
“We choked,” edge rusher Kyle Van Noy said.
This debacle tops them all. It was the Chargers’ biggest blown lead in franchise history, according to Pro Football Reference — 27 points.
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How did it happen?
Well, it started late in the first half. The Chargers led 27-0 when they got the ball back at their own 18-yard line with 3:11 left in the second quarter. Quarterback Justin Herbert’s first-down pass was batted at the line. On second down, Herbert responded with a completion to receiver Keenan Allen, who made a diving catch on a well-placed throw. That brought up a third-and-1.
Herbert said after the game that offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi called an interior run with a “kill” built in for this third down. The kill, or audible, was a jet sweep end around. All week, the Chargers had been practicing that jet sweep play with receiver DeAndre Carter as the handoff man, according to Herbert. Carter was already filling in for Mike Williams, who suffered a back fracture in the Chargers’ meaningless Week 18 loss at the Broncos. At this stage of the second quarter, though, Carter was out of the game with an ankle injury, so Michael Bandy, a former undrafted free agent who started the season on the practice squad, was in at Carter’s spot.
Herbert got to the line and saw a Jaguars front aligned to stop an interior run. Based on this look, Herbert killed the initial play, checking to the jet sweep. Herbert took the snap and turned to hand off to Bandy, who was running in motion from right to left. Bandy was not even looking for a handoff. He was not aware of the kill, Herbert said. They fumbled the exchange. Bandy recovered, but the Chargers were forced to punt. And Trevor Lawrence engineered a 53-yard touchdown drive on the ensuing possession to put the Jaguars on the scoreboard heading into the break.
“I could have done a better job of going to him and telling him exactly what we needed to do,” Herbert said.
But this was not Herbert’s fault.
The jet sweep handoff call from Lombardi was an asinine decision in the first place, even if Carter had been in the game. The Chargers have run four jet sweeps to Carter this season. He has gained a combined -21 yards — note the negative sign in front of that number — on those four touches.
Beyond that, Bandy playing meaningful snaps in a playoff game is an indictment of this entire organization. Bandy earned his practice squad spot with a fine training camp. And my intention is not to pile on a hard-working player who has made some meaningful contributions this season. But a team trying to win a Super Bowl has to do better. Williams would have been on the field if Staley had just rested his starters in Week 18. And general manager Tom Telesco should have added more receiving talent this past offseason. Perhaps a speed threat who, you know, could thrive in that type of lateral rushing concept.
This was the pivot point in the game. And it unraveled in the second half. The Chargers had a 20-point lead and should have been able to run the clock out offensively. They mustered just 7 rushing yards on seven designed carries over the final two quarters. That is not a typo. Seven.
The Chargers did not trail in this game until Riley Patterson’s 36-yard field goal sailed through the uprights as time expired, and they had 55 rushing yards on 20 designed carries in the game. Blame the blocking. Blame the running backs. Blame Lombardi and his offensive staff. Blame Staley. Blame everyone.
The Chargers had a clear path to winning this game. Staley has always maintained that he wants to be a physical “line of scrimmage team.” When they needed to be that team the most, they failed. Epically.
“Certainly when you have that type of lead, if you can possess the ball effectively enough, then there won’t be enough time (for a comeback),” Staley said. “And we just didn’t do that.”
The defense had flummoxed Lawrence in the first half with disguised coverages and blitzes. Jaguars coach Doug Pederson adjusted in the second half and upped the tempo for his offense. The Chargers were not prepared for the wrinkle, and Staley’s unit fell flat.
The Jags ran 15 no-huddle plays in the game, according to TruMedia. Twelve of those came in the second half. On those 12, the Jaguars averaged 10.5 yards per play. Lawrence had three passes of 20 or more yards in the second half. All of them came out of no-huddle snaps, including Zay Jones’ 39-yard touchdown that cut the Chargers’ lead to 30-20 in the third quarter. That was a busted coverage, and Jones ran wide open into the end zone. The Chargers scored their only points of the second half on a Cameron Dicker 50-yard field goal on the previous possession.
“We got to be better in tempo situations,” linebacker Drue Tranquill said. “We got to be in better conditioning, all across the board.”
The Chargers committed a series of devastating defensive penalties in the second half.
Joey Bosa was flagged for lining up in the neutral zone on a third down in the third quarter, negating a Bryce Callahan sack. The Jaguars scored a touchdown on that drive to cut the Chargers’ lead to 27-14. Bosa was also called for two unsportsmanlike penalties, one for complaining to officials and the other for slamming his helmet near the Chargers sideline after what he seemed to view as another missed call in the fourth quarter. The second unsportsmanlike moved the Jaguars’ two-point attempt from 2-yard line to the 1 yard, and Lawrence converted on a sneak to make it 30-28.
“We can’t lose our composure like that,” Staley said.
“I’m not going to speak my mind and get fined more than I already am,” Bosa said in the locker room after the loss.
Rookie cornerback Ja’Sir Taylor — playing in place of the injured Michael Davis — committed a pass interference penalty on a second-and-19 in the fourth quarter that gave the Jaguars a fresh set of downs. The Jaguars scored a touchdown and converted that two-point sneak late in the drive. Dicker had missed a 40-yard field goal — just his second missed kick of the season — to give the Jaguars the ball for that possession. The Chargers faced a fourth-and-3 on Dicker’s attempt, but Staley opted not to go for it in a continued deviation from his 2021 process.
Davis suffered a pectoral injury in the third quarter and had to leave the game. Taylor has a future in this league, but he is still young, and he made some critical mistakes down the stretch of this game.
“We had far too many penalties in the second half that really hurt us,” Staley said.
And then, with the game in the balance, the Chargers, well, Chargered, in the two-minute drill. The Jaguars faced a fourth-and-1 from the Los Angeles 41-yard line. Pederson schemed up a run to running back Travis Etienne Jr. that got him one-on-one on the edge against Asante Samuel Jr., who had three interceptions in the game. Etienne beat Samuel to the edge and set up Patterson’s winning field goal.
Perimeter run defense has been an issue for the Chargers all season. And that issue popped up again in the biggest moment of the game.
“Twenty-two years of playing football in my life,” safety Derwin James Jr. said. “This one probably hurts the most.”
In the locker room after the loss, Herbert sat at his locker, still in full uniform, staring straight ahead. The pain was evident in the emptiness of his gaze. Teammates around him got back from the showers, dressed and packed their bags. As Van Noy was on his way out of the locker room, he stopped at Herbert’s locker, gave him a long embrace and murmured a few words into his ear.
The hug ended, and Herbert nodded to Van Noy. Then he sat back down. Staring. Longing for something better, something more.
He was still wearing his black cleats. All the Chargers had worn black cleats for this game.
Toward the end of a team meeting on Wednesday, according to players, Staley had shown a picture of the late 1990s Bulls — Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc and Ron Harper — all walking off the court in black sneakers. He told the team he wanted everyone to wear black cleats on Saturday night as an homage to that team.
Staley’s message in the meeting, according to one player: “We look the same. We stand for something. We’re all going to do this together.”
Players rallied around the idea. Another motivational tactic from a coach trying to do it differently. Football guys do not channel basketball ideas. But Staley did.
It worked. Until it all fell apart.
It was not until 12:06 a.m. ET — nearly 40 minutes after the clock at TIAA Bank Stadium had hit triple zeroes — that Herbert started to take his uniform off.
He took off his cleats, the black ones, then slumped back into his seat.
Gifted with the rocket arm that was supposed to lead this organization to a new era, Herbert sat, and stared, and felt the weight of a dark cloud that might never dissipate.
(Top photo: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)