What the Los Angeles Chargers managed in the final minute of Sunday’s 27-17 loss to the Buffalo Bills has it all: conditions so straightforward that even the most casual football fan knows the correct sequence of decisions; multiple indefensible play calls; a full minute of game clock utterly squandered; and the absolute immolation of a remote but decidedly non-zero chance of a come-from-behind win. You do not need to study the annals of football to know in your bones that this is an all-time clock mismanagement screw-up, for no other reason than that it would hardly be possible to do worse without firing a rocket-propelled grenade at your own quarterback.
With a minute left on the clock, the Chargers were down 10 points and faced a daunting fourth-and-27 from near midfield. Quarterback Justin Herbert evaded the rush and arm-punted the ball down the field, hoping that one of his receivers would simply out-leap everyone else. Tyron Johnson not only made the improbable catch, but landed with enough balance and presence of mind to turn upfield and lunge for the goal line.
Holding aside, for the moment, that it is their job to plan for this scenario, it would be somewhat understandable if Anthony Lynn and the Chargers’ coaching staff did not view this outcome as likely enough to warrant mapping out in advance how to handle it. Literally anyone watching this game knew instantly what a team is supposed to do when they are down on the scoreboard, have no timeouts, and have just grabbed a chunk of yardage without stopping the clock. A go-to, low-risk quick pass would be cheeky but defensible, but the most obvious correct call in this situation would be to rush to the line and spike the football. Johnson, who’d just made the incredible catch, was signaling for a spike as he rushed to the new line of scrimmage. The absolute dumbest cud-chewing high school football coach in the land would get this right.
The Chargers did not spike the football. They did not attempt a favorite quick-hitter. They did not even attempt a dumb fade route. With a sudden chance at snatching victory from the jaws of defeat but precious seconds ticking away, the Chargers hustled to the line and called … a handoff. If this was Lynn zigging where everyone else would zag, it was the worst, most ill-advised and self-sabotaging zig in many, many moons. The only worse possible play call in this scenario would have been a kneel-down from the victory formation, an actual forfeit. Austin Ekeler smashed into the interior of the line and failed to score, and the clock continued to run.
By the time the Chargers got back to the line, the clock had run all the way down to eight seconds remaining. Over the course of one excruciatingly bad play, they went from having a good chance at a touchdown and an opportunity at an onside kick to having no real reason not to take a knee and end the game. The play call, once again, was puzzling: Herbert took the snap under center and fired a quick out to really nobody, which brought the Chargers no closer to winning but at least had the effect of stopping the clock. The Bills were flagged for roughing the passer on the play, which didn’t move the ball much but gave the Chargers a first down.
What followed was perfunctory, in terms of on-field effort, but further laid bare the absolute chaos and confusion dominating the Chargers sideline. Herbert sailed another out route with six seconds on the clock and Lynn, apparently having misunderstood entirely the consequences of the roughing-the-passer penalty, initially sent his field goal unit onto the field before noticing that his team was not facing a fourth down. Herbert and the offense returned to the line of scrimmage with three seconds remaining on the clock, where they ran whatever the hell this was supposed to be:
Herbert was extremely evasive after the game when asked about that final sequence, telling reporters that he “believes in the guys up front” and in Ekeler and that it was a matter of execution, but declining to answer the direct question of who called the two insane running plays. What is dispiriting is Herbert’s defense of the call itself, when asked point blank about why they didn’t spike the ball after Johnson’s big catch:
“That was a possibility. Um, I think, one or two yards, we believe in the guys up front, especially with the guy we’re handing the ball off to, and so, giving him a chance to go get one or two yards. We felt like we had enough time, and we felt like it was an opportunity for us to establish a mindset of ‘Hey, we’re gonna go get this.'”
Someone who is loyal to Herbert owes it to their friend to sit him down and gently explain that this endgame scenario is not really the time to work on establishing mindsets. Lynn described the first running play as “completely a miscommunication,” but would not elaborate when asked whether the call came from Herbert, offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, or from Lynn himself.
This was not even the first case of brutal clock mismanagement from the Chargers in this game. They ran a haphazard two-minute drill while preserving two timeouts at the end of the first half, down 17-6. Lynn held onto those timeouts during too-long clock runoffs following three completions over the middle, including a 15-second runoff after a completion to Ekeler on third-and-nine, with 44 seconds left in the half. The play resulted in a fourth-and-two at midfield, but before punting the ball away, Lynn finally used his third timeout, the effect of which was to preserve clock for the opponent’s offense. When asked about this curious choice after the game, Lynn reasoned that there’s “no sense in taking all three timeouts into the locker room.”
This strange first-half moment and its even stranger justification will not be long remembered, because it did not result in the Bills scoring, and because it was completely overshadowed by the debacle in the fourth quarter. But it’s more evidence that strongly suggests the people running the Chargers are completely at sea when it comes to crucial clock-management decisions, which perhaps helps explain why the team is a dismal 4-15 in one-score games since the start of 2019. It’s tough to navigate clutch scenarios when the simple flow of time itself is too much for your brain to process.