Across the room, teammates packed their bags and hugged goodbye. Equipment workers wheeled the carts out. They were gossiping in hushed tones. One of the Chargers insulted his teammate. “It’s something we have to answer for the rest of our lives.”
The Chargers have endured playoff heartbreak so ingrained that it only takes one image to open the wounds: Nate Kaeding’s calf, Marlon McCreary’s concussion, Philip Rivers’ torn ACL. It could have topped all of them Saturday night at TIAA Bank Field. The Chargers lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars, 31-30, despite a 27-0 first half lead with four interceptions by Trevor Lawrence. Blessed by Herbert’s ballistic defense, they managed just three points over the final 34 minutes. Armed with the pass rush power of Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack, they scored 24 points after halftime.
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The Chargers immediately melted and folded under the weight of their own history. They committed a series of foul penalties, including a hit on Bosa’s helmet. They defended Jacksonville’s up-tempo offense like the Jaguars had made alchemy. They missed a 40-yard field goal. They gave up one final drive, highlighted by Travis Etienne’s 25-yard run in the fourth that set up Riley Patterson’s 36-yard, game-winning field goal. With a word that sticks to them now more than ever, they Charged.
“I’ve seen this movie so many times,” said Gerald Everett.
The future now becomes a question for Los Angeles. Coach Brandon Staley was criticized for his decision to play his starters in an unrelated game in Week 18 that resulted in star wide receiver Mike Williams suffering a broken back bone and being sidelined against the Jaguars. That decision, combined with Saturday night’s disaster, could convince Los Angeles to look for a new coach, leaving the chance to coach Herbert up to top candidates, starting with Sean Payton.
Firing Staley would be easier said than done, especially for a franchise that is a tenant in its home stadium and building a new practice. Staley has two years left on his contract. Payton’s safety would require not only compensation for shipping to the New Orleans Saints, but also a contract that would likely reset the coaching salary market. What Chargers ownership wants to do is one thing. What one can afford, another can afford.
If Staley survives, he will be under tremendous pressure heading into the 2023 season. Herbert’s gift of a cheap contract defenseman who can make throws even peers only dream of has gone unfulfilled. He is only in his third season. But the backs of his pedigrees, when properly supported, flourish at that stage. Patrick Mahomes won a Super Bowl in his third season. Draft classmate Joe Burrow made his second Super Bowl appearance. Herbert has one disastrous loss in his lone playoff appearance. It is considered an organizational failure, from team owner Dean Spanos to general manager Tom Telesco and Staley.
“That’s the hardest way you can lose in the playoffs,” Staley said. “Certainly the way we started the game, that’s the team I know we can be. We just didn’t finish the game.”
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The damage the Chargers inflicted on themselves can be re-read as an instruction manual on how to waste a season. Initially, the Chargers should have created a bigger advantage. they had two first-half possessions from the Jaguars’ 5-yard line, including one after Herbert dropped Keenan Allen in a wide-open zone. And blowing that lead started with an innocent gaffe.
Leading 27-0 at the end of the second quarter, the Chargers had a chance to hold the ball until halftime. On third-and-one, they called a play that included a “kill” for another play; they’d run up the middle unless Herbert saw a special defensive layup at the line, in which case he’d go for the second play, and that’s it. – Around the receiver in motion.
There was a problem, and it confused the play selection. All week, the Chargers played veteran DeAndre Carter, a pass rusher. But Carter was sidelined with an injury. So the Chargers instead tried to end Michael Bandy, a 5-foot-10, 190-pound wide receiver from the University of San Diego who never threw a touchdown during his two-year NFL career.
Here’s the Chargers in a nutshell. a poor coaching decision built on a lack of depth at a premium position. Bendy collided with Herbert and muffed the pass, diving on the ball five yards behind the line. The resulting punt allowed the Jaguars to gain possession with plenty of time left in the half, which they used to score their first touchdown.
On the Jaguars’ first possession of the second half, which followed a Chargers interception, Bosa lined up in the neutral zone on what would have killed Mack. Etienne hauled in the next play on a first-down reception, and Lawrence hit wide receiver Marvin Jones Jr. three plays later. The snap had turned into a two-possession game.
“It’s right there at halftime,” Jones said. “That was everything.”
In the fourth quarter, the Chargers seemed to stabilize for nearly a seven-minute drive, holding a 30-20 lead. Staley avoided the aggression on his fourth down and opted for a 40-yard field goal that Cameron Dicker hooked wide left of the goal post.
“Time just freezes,” Everett said. “They start a rally, come back, build morale and psychological spirit. Their confidence is growing. All we could do was just sit back and watch.”
The Jaguars ran down the field again, using a game-changing rush until Lawrence found Christian Kirk for a nine-yard touchdown. Bosa took a hit on his helmet as he left the field, committing his second personal foul of the game. The penalty convinced coach Doug Pederson to go for two. Lawrence jumped over the line from the 1, meaning Patterson’s layup would have won it, sooner rather than later, to send the game into overtime.
The Chargers gained five yards on three and punted. The Jaguars used Etienne’s burst around right end as the linchpin of their game-winning drive. By the end, the Chargers had no answer for the Jaguars’ fast-paced offense, which challenged Staley’s reputation as a defensive guru. Safety Drue Tranquill said it exposed Los Angeles’ poor conditioning and struggles.
“We have to be able to get our studs together in the grass and not have a breakdown,” Tranquil said. “We gave them some explosive plays right at the breakdown. Coach Staley said earlier in the week. “We have to make them beat us.” We beat ourselves up.
“When it’s 27-0, you fully expect to win the game on defense. It doesn’t matter what the offense does. “When you’re up 27-0, you’ve got to win the game with defense.”
The Chargers’ setbacks hit Lawrence, a 23-year study on the merits of dedication, resilience and quality hair conditioner. He completed four of his first 16 passes and threw four interceptions, including three to cornerback Asante Samuel Jr., becoming the first quarterback since Craig Morton in the 1978 Super Bowl to throw four touchdowns in the first half of a playoff game. After the fourth interception, Lawrence completed 24 of his final 31 passes for 258 yards and four touchdowns.
“I knew he was good regardless because that’s the kind of guy he is,” Jones said. “If he throws for four picks or if he throws for 500 yards, he’s the same guy. He has that calmness in him. So rallying behind him is easy.”
Victory will probably come for Herbert, but he had to digest the shock and disappointment on Saturday night. Eventually, he stood up and turned into a sweat. He walked into his postgame press conference with his head held high. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” he said.
“It’s really tough because we think really highly of our team,” Herbert said. “It’s a special group of guys in that locker room. They deserve better and it didn’t go our way. It’s definitely hard to process, but you have to keep going.”
The Chargers will have to decide which coach will lead them next year, whether it’s Staley or a rookie. Staley hung on to a black backpack with the Chargers logo late Saturday night. His wife squeezed his shoulder as he walked down the tunnel from the locker room. He headed for the team bus, past equipment trucks and an ambulance, out of yet another Chargers fiasco and into an uncertain future.