Chargers’ horrid end to last season just the latest disappointment

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Hannah Lucca)

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Hannah Lucca)

When the Los Angeles Chargers got aggressive last offseason, taking advantage of cap flexibility with Justin Herbert still on his rookie deal, they weren’t aiming for a wild-card spot. But the Kansas City Chiefs wouldn’t let them get more than that, and at least the Chargers were going to win that wild-card playoff game.

The Chargers led 27-0 in the playoffs against the Jacksonville Jaguars. In more than 100 years of NFL football before that Saturday night, only four times had a team blown a lead of 27 points or more and lost. That includes the regular season and playoffs.

Everyone remembers what happened next. It was peak Chargering. The Chargers lost, and in regulation. Three of those four comebacks that covered 27 points or more finished in overtime. Los Angeles couldn’t even get the game to the extra period. A lot needs to go wrong to give up a 31-3 run in a playoff game, but if any franchise was going to do it, it was the Chargers. Even for the Chargers the loss was remarkable: It was the biggest blown lead in franchise history. It was also the first time in playoff history that a team finished +5 in turnover margin and lost. It all happened after coach Brandon Staley played his key players with nothing on the line in Week 18 and a few got hurt, including receiver Mike Williams, who missed the wild-card game.

It isn’t just one game. It’s years of weird losses and disappointment. The Chargers aren’t one of those franchises that hasn’t acquired enough talent. They were lucky enough to go from Philip Rivers to Herbert at quarterback. There have been other Hall of Fame level players to come through the organization. Seemingly every year we hear about how good the Chargers are on paper, and they’re a popular chic Super Bowl pick. They haven’t won a division title since 2009, with just two wild-card playoff wins since then. They have been past the divisional round once since 1994.

This is who the Chargers are. Why would 2023 be any different?

Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers had their 2022 season end in a disappointing way. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers had their 2022 season end in a disappointing way. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

There’s still talent. Herbert wasn’t great last season but he’s a high-level quarterback and hiring Kellen Moore as the team’s new offensive coordinator should help. Maybe Moore can figure out why the Chargers’ deep passing game dried up last season despite a quarterback with one of the best arms in the league. Offensive skill players like Austin Ekeler, Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are fantastic, and the team added first-round receiver Quentin Johnston in this year’s draft. Defenders like Joey Bosa, Khalil Mack and Derwin James are superstars. Someone, somewhere is looking at the Chargers’ depth chart and talking themselves into Los Angeles being a Super Bowl contender. It happens every year.

It’s a key year for Staley, who has made some controversial decisions the past couple seasons and seemed to be on shaky ground after that Jaguars loss. Staley wasn’t fired but it’s safe to assume he’s on the hot seat. Many of the Chargers’ stars aren’t necessarily old, but edge rushers Mack and Bosa, receivers Allen and Williams, Ekeler, center Corey Linsley, defensive tackle Austin Johnson and cornerbacks J.C. Jackson and Michael Davis will all be past age 27 by the end of the season. It’s not a young core anymore, and they don’t have much team success on their resumes yet.

Maybe this season is when it all hits, with Herbert getting in the MVP conversation, Bosa making a run at NFL Defensive Player of the Year and all the other blue-chip players staying healthy and putting up big seasons. But we’ve heard that before.

Offseason grade

It was a quiet offseason for the Chargers. They made most of their big moves last season. The only notable coming and going happened at linebacker. Drue Tranquill left for the Chiefs and he was replaced by longtime Minnesota Viking Eric Kendricks. That’s about it. The Chargers’ biggest move was resigning offensive tackle Trey Pipkins to a three-year, $21.75 million deal. The draft was fine, with first-round receiver Quentin Johnston headlining the class. Unlike last offseason, this was a boring one for the Chargers.

Grade: C

Quarterback report

Justin Herbert’s extension is coming up soon. There hasn’t been much news about it, which is probably a good thing. At some point Herbert is going to become the NFL’s highest-paid quarterback, or close. Then Joe Burrow will probably sign a deal with the Cincinnati Bengals that will beat Herbert’s contract. Jalen Hurts signed a deal worth $51 million per season and then Lamar Jackson topped that at $52 million, and you can expect Herbert to be in that neighborhood. Herbert did slip a little from a phenomenal 2021 season (5,014 yards and 38 TDs in 2021; 4,739 yards and 25 TDs last season) but his status among the NFL’s best quarterbacks is pretty clear. He’s going to get paid soon and probably keep putting up very good seasons, though his huge salary cap numbers will be challenging for the Chargers to navigate in years to come.

BetMGM odds breakdown

The Chargers aren’t buried in the rankings, because they were a 10-win playoff team and have a talented roster led by a good quarterback. But I’m not optimistic about them taking a positive step forward. Their win total is 9.5 at BetMGM and I’d lean under, but I’d rather bet on the Chargers to not make the playoffs at -105 odds. Even if the Chargers do win 10 games, I can’t pick them to win the division and the competition for wild-card spots in the AFC will be fierce. There are more than seven playoff-quality teams in the conference. Take the Chargers to miss the playoffs.

Yahoo’s fantasy take

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “There’s nothing wrong with a Keenan Allen pick, I suppose. It’s just a floor selection.

“Allen hasn’t played a full season since 2019. He’s never scored more than eight touchdowns in a year. He’s entering his age-31 campaign, and the Chargers have beefed up their wide receiver room.

“If I’m going to justify this type of pick, I want my other above-the-fold selections to be glittering with upside. Phrased a different way, Allen is more reactive pick than proactive pick for me this draft season. I prefer my early selections to be mostly players still on the up escalator.”

Stat to remember

Austin Ekeler wasn’t happy with his contract, and given the dying market for running backs, it’s easy to understand why he wanted a new deal. The Chargers added $1.75 million in incentives to the last year of Ekeler’s deal, and he said he isn’t mad at the situation. That’s good because the Chargers rely heavily on Ekeler. His 38 total touchdowns over the last two seasons lead the NFL. He has 177 receptions the last two seasons, including 107 last season. Ekeler will be 28 this season and should be able to produce another great season, and then he can see what awaits in free agency. If Ekeler misses any time this season, the Chargers will find out quickly how valuable he is.

Burning question

Can the defense take a big step?

The Chargers were supposed to be good on defense last season. They were mediocre at best. Joey Bosa missed most of the season with a groin injury. Cornerback J.C. Jackson, a huge free-agent addition, struggled and then his season ended with a ruptured patellar tendon. Khalil Mack wasn’t bad but he didn’t look like a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year. The Chargers were decent against the pass and couldn’t stop the run at all. Defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill left to join the Miami Dolphins’ staff, and he was replaced by secondary coach Derrick Ansley. There’s a lot of work to do. It starts with getting healthy seasons from the team’s stars. Maybe if that happens, and the Bosa/Mack pass-rushing duo lives up to last year’s hype, Jackson returns and plays like an $82.5 million cornerback, and a change at linebacker is a positive, perhaps it can be a top-10 unit.

Best-case scenario

There’s some alternate universe in which the Chargers don’t have terrible injury luck, don’t blow games in mind-numbing ways and actually become one of the NFL’s best teams. Justin Herbert has MVP upside. There’s more than enough talent around him to have a top-five offense and the defense should be better under Brandon Staley. It could come together. If it does, and you really want to get optimistic, maybe there’s a way for the Chargers to win the AFC West. It’s not like the roster doesn’t have that capability.

Nightmare scenario

Brandon Staley was overly reckless at times his first season. Then he seemed to get conservative at the wrong times last season. He ended last season with two fiascos: letting his starters play (and get injured) in a meaningless Week 18 game, and a historic collapse at Jacksonville in the playoffs. You don’t often hear hot-seat speculation for coaches who won 10 games and made the playoffs, but there was some for Staley after last season. If the offense doesn’t improve much with new coordinator Kellen Moore and the continued lack of a deep passing game holds Justin Herbert back, and the defense fails to make any progress, the Chargers could miss the playoffs. If Staley was in trouble after last season, he certainly would be again if there’s no postseason for the Chargers.

The crystal ball says …

I can’t trust the Chargers. I’ve gone down that road too many times, and it always ends up in anguish. They won’t be bad but they’ll leave everyone wanting more. I can’t get the Chargers ahead of the Chiefs in the AFC West, and the wild-card race will be rough. The Chargers will be on the playoff bubble late in the season. Given their history, I’ll figure on a few confounding losses keeping them out. If that happens they’ll have to consider a change at head coach.

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