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Brandon Staley And The Chargers Left The Door Open

Jacksonville, Florida, January 14, 2023 - Head coach Brandon Staley stands washes in stunned silence outside the locker room, waiting for all his players to leave the field after losing 32-30 to the Jacksonville Jaguars in an AFC Wild Card game at TIAA Bank Field.
Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The Chargers were up 27-0, but it should’ve been more. Heck, they could’ve avoided all of this. They had second-and-goal at the four-yard line and kicked a field goal. They won the turnover battle 5-0 in the first half, with the last one coming after a punt bounced off the head of Chris Claybrooks. But after that, they once again kicked a field goal despite recovering the ball at the Jacksonville 6. What I'm saying is this game could've easily been 35-0 in the final minutes of the second quarter.

It wasn’t. The Jaguars came back and beat Los Angeles, 31-30, on a field goal at the gun by Riley Patterson. Obviously, everyone should make their jokes about Brandon Staley playing his starters in a meaningless game last week and then losing Mike Williams to injury in the process. His ass is now fully in the jackpot. But please, don’t overlook that Staley could easily have won this game without Williams. It was 27-0! It could’ve been more! They still lost!

“It’s a special group of guys and this is the toughest way that you can lose, in the playoffs,” Staley said postgame. “The way we started the game, that’s the team I know we’re capable of being, and in the second half we just didn’t finish the game. Unfortunately, this is the tough side of things. Our season is over, but I love everybody in that locker room.” Staley was so shook after this game, he started talking about love.

Lots of things had to go wrong for the Chargers to lose this game. But when a team loses a game after being up 27 points, it’s on the coach. Let’s nitpick: The Chargers had the ball with just over three minutes to play in the half, then fumbled on a weird third-and-1 jet sweep to Michael Bandy, a wide receiver way down on the depth chart, and lost 10 yards on the play. The Jaguars, who’d only moved the ball once all day beforehand, scored a touchdown before halftime after a short punt had them starting in the Chargers half of the field. The Athletic’s Daniel Popper wrote about that jet sweep call from offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. It usually goes to DeAndre Carter, who was out with an ankle injury. But Mike Williams could’ve had the ball and it still might not have worked. From Popper:

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.

There were more curious decisions on offense. Austin Ekeler scored two touchdowns, but had just 15 touches in the game. The Chargers—up 20 at halftime—executed a paltry seven runs in the second half for 20 total rushing yards, and 13 of those came from a Herbert scramble. At least none of them were jet sweeps.

The Jaguars sped things up in the second half, and the Chargers didn’t adjust. There were some stupid penalties on defense, too. On Jacksonville's first offensive drive of the second half, Joey Bosa was offsides, erasing a huge third-down sack. The Jaguars ended up scoring a touchdown. After another Jaguars touchdown drive, Bosa took off his helmet and slammed it into the ground for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, which allowed Trevor Lawrence to score on a weird reach-over two-point conversion.

An aside: This rule is stupid. It makes no sense to me that, if a defensive player takes his helmet off on the field after the opposing team scores a touchdown, the offense gets a chance to try a two-point conversion from the one-yard line instead of the 2. How is that the rule? Anyway, the Jags going for two meant they could run the clock down for a game-winning FG attempt instead of a game-tying field goal.

“I think he was frustrated,” Staley said of Bosa. “I think he felt like there were a bunch of things that kind of accumulated throughout the game and tried to talk through it with the officials.”

It’s funny. Before the primary storyline became Staley and the Chargers losing a game they led 27-0, all anyone (or at least anyone in the stands in Jacksonville) could talk about was the officiating. The roar of the crowd carried over to TV. NBC even put Terry McAulay in a little box in the corner of the screen to tell us that Asante Samuel Jr. didn’t commit a foul at one point. Only one non-call on Samuel was really egregious; his first interception came after he manhandled Zay Jones before the ball got there.

But referees always throw fewer flags in the playoffs. In 2016, ESPN’s Jacob Nitzberg found that between 2001 and 2015, penalties “dropped 18.4 percent in the first three rounds of the playoffs and 9.8 percent in the Super Bowl compared to regular-season averages." A former ref even admitted it in the story. “You want to make the big calls and not ‘Mickey Mouse’ these guys," ex-ref Jim Daopoulos said. “Let them play football.” (I’m surprised Disney let someone disparage its intellectual property on a Disney website! Maybe they were already preparing for Mickey to hit the public domain next year.)

The refs weren’t throwing flags, and the Chargers ended up losing a game where they forced five turnovers and didn’t give it away at all. “We choked,” Kyle Van Noy told The Athletic. And Brandon Staley, once allegedly the favorite for coach of the year, lost the game 27-0. So … yeah. It would’ve been nice to have Mike Williams.

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