Photo Credit: All-Pro Reels, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
There are words in the NFL to describe that annoying, dependable tendency of some teams to always and emphatically find new ways to lose football games. You’re probably pretty familiar with one of them: Bungle-ing - the not-so-nice label placed on the Cincinnati Bengals of the 90s. Those teams couldn’t help themselves. The Bengals were like Buzz Lightyear - falling, not flying - except without any modicum of style.
But the Bengals aren’t the only NFL franchise to be the butt of every joke. As of this past Saturday, the Los Angeles Chargers are officially in that category. Charger-ing is now synonymous with Bungle-ing. If you’re a Chargers fan, then I’m sorry. That must be tough to read. But someone had to rip off that Band-Aid - I might as well be the one to do it.
After blowing a 27 - 0 lead to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Super Wild Card Weekend, the Chargers are the NFL’s latest laughingstock. Their head coach Brandon Staley is on the hot seat. They just fired their offensive coordinator, but it was the defense that allowed 24 second-half points. The only thing preventing the situation from becoming a complete disaster is that Justin Herbert, their outstanding 24-year-old quarterback, still exists. He alone makes the Chargers worth watching, worth coaching, and worth believing in, even if it feels silly now.
I mentioned that Staley is on the hot seat, but that doesn’t really do his predicament justice. Instead of a hot seat, imagine Staley standing on his big toe on the smallest rock in the middle of a river of lava. That’s a little closer.
Staley is still only 40-years-old, so he could obviously improve. Maybe he thrives in year three. Pressure makes diamonds, right? But the problem with Staley is there seems to be very little you can definitively point to and say, “Yup, he brings this to the table,” or “We can say for sure that we’ll be good in this area because of him.” So far, Staley’s impact has been…less than tangible.
Staley’s specialty is supposed to be defense. Though he was a QB in college, Staley cut his teeth on the other side of the ball, with various defensive positions all the way from defensive line coach with the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, to defensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams - all within the span of fourteen years! To say that Staley moved up the ranks quickly would be an understatement; he was on a getting-hired warpath.
When Staley got the Chargers job, the expectation was that Herbert and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi would handle things on that side of the ball, and Staley and his vaunted coverage schemes would handle the defense. That idyllic marriage has fallen apart more destructively than when John Edwards was cheating on his ailing wife in the middle of a presidential campaign.
Fortunately for Staley, his faults are nowhere near as egregious as Edwards’s, and that’s why there’s still hope for Staley’s future. His defense was torched by Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars in the second half on Saturday night, but they’ve still been middle of the pack statistically over the past two seasons. Yes, the run defense must be addressed. Apparently big off-season additions Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson weren’t enough to stem that particular tide, but this doesn’t have to be the end. Staley made his calling stopping the pass, and the Chargers haven’t been terrible in that department.
There’s still a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball. Derwin James is always in the conversation for best safety in the league, and though he had a major malfunction Saturday night, Joey Bosa is likewise in those conversations for best defensive end. That’s not too dissimilar to the dynamite duo Staley had with Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey when he was leading a top-shelf Rams defense in 2020. If free agent cornerback J.C Jackson can return to his ball hawking ways following a season-ending injury in Week 7, the Chargers could be in a pretty good spot starting next season.
With Herbert in place, the offense should be fine - though that was the conventional wisdom when Staley was hired in the first place. Whoever is hired at offensive coordinator to replace the outgoing Joe Lombardi is going to need a plan to maximize Herbert's talents. The dink-and-dunk stuff has to stop. Herbert has a bazooka for a right arm: let him use it.
If Staley can raise this defense's level just a teeny bit and the offense can finally be unlocked, the Chargers could be a dangerous contender. The sting of 27 - 0 will linger, but there's precedent for a team overcoming a gut-wrenching, pride-diminishing, total embarrassment of a loss.
Back in 2015, the Bengals played the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card Round. Following a 12 - 4 season and an AFC North title, the Bengals looked poised to capture their first playoff win in 25 years against their loathed rivals. After linebacker Vontaze Burfict intercepted a Landry Jones pass with 1:36 remaining, it seemed that the Bengals reckoning was finally at hand. And then it all fell apart.
Jeremy Hill fumbled, Burfict tried to take off Antonio Brown's head, and Pacman Jones made things worse. In a blink of an eye, the Steelers were knocking through a 35-yard field goal. Game, set, match. Steelers move on, the Bengals went home.
It didn't happen right away, but 2015 was a seminal moment for the Bengals franchise. Three years later, Lewis and the Bengals parted ways. In came Zac Taylor, and like Staley, he was young and inexperienced, and critically, was part of Sean McVay's staff in Los Angeles. A year after that the Bengals drafted Joe Burrow. One year after that, they were in the Super Bowl.
Now, the Bengals and the Chargers situations aren't exactly apples-to-apples. The Chargers won 11 games this year. Herbert is solidly in place. But like Taylor after two seasons, Staley's bona fides are already in question. Like the Bengals in 2015, the Chargers suffered a soul-crushing and arguably franchise-defining loss in the playoffs. It's a new low for a team with a history of low moments - similar to the Bengals just a few years ago.
Here's the good news: the Chargers don't have as much work to do as the Bengals did in 2015. They (probably) have the coach, they (likely) have the pieces on defense, and they (definitely) have the QB. Yes, 27 - 0 will go down in playoff infamy, just like Bengals - Steelers in 2015. But losses like that can become the impetus for change, and change can lead to winning. Just ask the Bengals.