After playoff loss to Jaguars, pressure mounts on Chargers’ Brandon Staley

After playoff loss to Jaguars, pressure mounts on Chargers’ Brandon Staley

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Three minutes after midnight in a silent visitors’ locker room, more than half an hour after the latest debacle in his franchise’s tortured history, Justin Herbert sat at his locker, facing shocked teammates. He wore a thousand-yard stare and was still dressed in shoulder pads and a full Los Angeles Chargers uniform down to his bare feet. He thought about the game that had just happened, a dream that had dissolved into a nightmare. He was just beginning to reckon with the consequences of an unlikely collapse.

Across the room, teammates packed their bags and hugged goodbye. The equipment workers brought out the wheelchairs. They muttered expressions in hushed tones. One Charger told a teammate, “This is something we have to answer for the rest of our f—— lives.”

The Chargers have endured playoff heartbreak so ingrained that it only takes one image to open the wounds: Nate Kaeding’s throat, Marlon McCree’s concussion, Philip Rivers’ torn ACL. Saturday night at TIAA Bank Field may have topped them all. The Chargers lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars, 31-30, despite building a 27-0 halftime lead as they intercepted Trevor Lawrence four times. Blessed with Herbert’s ballistic center back, they scored just three points in the final 34 minutes. Equipped with the pass rush of Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack, they gave up 24 points after halftime.

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The Chargers immediately melted and folded under the weight of their history. They committed a number of undisciplined penalties, including bumping Bosa’s helmet. They defended Jacksonville’s rushing attack as if the Jaguars had performed alchemy. They missed a 40-yard field goal. They put together a final drive, highlighted by Travis Etienne’s 25-yard run on fourth down that set up Riley Patterson’s 36-yard, game-winning field goal. In the spoken language that sticks to them now more than ever, they Karikuan.

“I’ve seen this movie many times,” said Gerald Everett.

The future, now, becomes the question for Los Angeles. Coach Brandon Staley entered the game under fire for his decision to play his starters in a non-ranking Week 18 game that left star wideout Mike Williams with a broken bone in his back and ruled out for game against the Jaguars. That decision, combined with Saturday night’s disaster, could convince Los Angeles to look for a new coach, with the ability to dangle Herbert’s coaching opportunity to top candidates, starting with Sean Payton.

Getting rid of Staley would be easier said than done, especially for a franchise that is a tenant in its home stadium and building a new practice facility. Staley has two years left on his contract. Securing Payton would require not only draft compensation for the New Orleans Saints’ haul, but also a contract that would likely reset the coaching salary market. What the Chargers ownership wants to do is one thing. What he can afford may be another.

If Staley survives, he will enter the 2023 season under tremendous pressure. Herbert’s gift, a free-agent quarterback who can make shots that his peers only dream of, has gone unfulfilled. He is only in his third season. But centre-backs of his background, when properly supported, thrive at that stage. Patrick Mahomes won the Super Bowl in his third season. Draft classmate Joe Burrow made the Super Bowl in his second. Herbert has a disastrous loss in his only playoff appearance. It stands as an organizational failure, from team owner Dean Spanos to general manager Tom Telesco to Staley.

“That’s the hardest way you can lose in the playoffs,” Staley said. “Certainly, with the way we started the game, this is the team we know we’re capable of being. We just didn’t finish the game.”

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The Chargers’ litany of self-inflicted damage can be repurposed as an instruction manual on how to waste a season. The Chargers should have built a bigger lead to begin with — they kicked two first-half field goals from inside the Jaguars’ 5-yard line, including one after Herbert lost Keenan Allen in the zone. And popping that bullet started with what seemed like an innocuous gaffe.

At the end of the second quarter, leading 27-0, the Chargers had a chance to control the ball in the first half. On third-and-one, they called a play that included a “kill” for another play: They would run up the middle unless Herbert saw a specific defensive stretch at the line, in which case he would pass on the play. second – a bottom. -about a moving receiver.

There was one problem and it made the choice of game surprising. All week, the Chargers had practiced playing with veteran DeAndre Carter on waivers. But Carter was sidelined midway through the game with an injury. So the Chargers instead tried to land Michael Bandy, a 5-foot-10, 190-pound wide receiver from the University of San Diego who had never caught a career handoff his two years in the NFL.

Here were the Chargers in a nutshell: a bad coaching decision built on a lack of depth at a premium position. Bandy collided with Herbert and blocked the delivery, diving the ball five meters behind the line. The resulting punt allowed the Jaguars a possession with enough time before the half, which they used to score their first touchdown.

On the Jaguars’ first possession of the second half that followed the Chargers’ blocked drive, Bosa lined up in the neutral zone on what would have been a drive-killing sack by Mack. Etienne picked up a first down reception on the next play and Lawrence hit wide receiver Marvin Jones Jr. three parts later. A blowout had suddenly become a two-possession game.

“That’s the first half swing right there,” Jones said. “It was everything.”

The Chargers seemed to stabilize with a drive nearly seven minutes into the fourth quarter while holding a 30-20 lead. Staley fended off his fourth down aggression and opted for a 40-yard field goal that Cameron Dicker punched left of the goal posts.

“Time just freezes,” Everett said. “They start to gather, they come back, they are building their morale. Their faith is growing. All we could do was sit back and watch.”

The Jaguars ran back down the field, using a game-changing rush until Lawrence found Christian Kirk for a nine-yard touchdown. Bosa bumped 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 crossed the line from the 1, which meant Patterson’s field goal would have won it instead of sending the game into overtime.

The Chargers got five yards on a three and away in response. The Jaguars used Etienne’s burst around the right end as the backbone of their game-winning drive. By the end, the Chargers had no answer for the Jaguars’ rushing attack, which challenged Staley’s reputation as a defensive guru. Safety Drue Tranquill said it exposed Los Angeles’ subpar conditioning and handling.

“We have to be able to get our wheels in the grass and not have any crashes,” Tranquill said. “We gave them some explosive plays just at the breakdown. Coach Staley was saying earlier in the week, ‘We’ve got to make them beat us.’ We beat ourselves up.

“When it’s 27-0, you fully expect to win the game on defense. It shouldn’t matter what the offense does. When you’re up 27-0, you’ve got to win the game defensively.”

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The Chargers’ failures collided with Lawrence, a 23-year-old study of balance, resilience and the virtues of quality hair conditioner. He completed four of his first 16 passes and threw four interceptions, three of them to cornerback Asante Samuel Jr., becoming the first quarterback since Craig Morton in the 1978 Super Bowl to throw four picks in a half. first of a playoff game. After his fourth interception, Lawrence completed 24 of his final 31 passes for 258 yards and four touchdowns.

“I knew he was fine regardless because that’s the type of guy he is,” Jones said. “Whether he throws four picks or if he shoots for 500 yards, he’s the same guy. He has that calmness about him. So it’s easy to rally behind him.”

Triumph will probably come for Herbert, but on Saturday night he had to digest the shock and disappointment. Finally, he rose from his seat and began to sweat. He went into his post-match press conference with his head held high. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” he said.

“It’s really hard because we think so highly of our team,” Herbert said. “That’s a special group of guys in that locker room. They deserve better and it didn’t go our way. Definitely hard to process, but it has to go on.”

The Chargers must determine which coach leads them next year, whether it’s Staley or someone new. Late Saturday night, Staley tossed on a black backpack with the Chargers logo. His wife squeezed his shoulder as he walked from the locker room down the tunnel. He headed toward the team bus, past equipment trucks and an ambulance, away from another Chargers fiasco and toward an uncertain future.

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