The Chargers’ horrific end to the season is 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 contract, they weren’t aiming for a wildcard 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 leading up to that Saturday night, only four times has a team lost a lead of 27 or more points and lost. This includes the regular season and the playoffs.

Everyone remembers what happened next. It was Chargering’s peak. The Chargers lost, and in regulation time. Three of those four returns that covered 27 or more points ended in overtime. Los Angeles couldn’t even get the game into overtime. A lot has to go wrong to give up a 31-3 streak in a playoff game, but if any franchise had to do it, it’s the Chargers. Even for the Chargers, the loss was remarkable: it was the biggest 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 injured, including receiver Mike Williams, who missed the wild card game.

It’s not just a game. It’s been years of strange losses and disappointments. The Chargers aren’t one of those franchises that haven’t acquired enough talent. They were lucky enough to move from Philip Rivers to Herbert at quarterback. There have been other Hall of Fame level players across the organization. Apparently, every year we hear about how good the Chargers are on paper, and they’re a popular and classy Super Bowl pick. They haven’t won a division title since 2009, with only two playoff wins since then. They have passed the divisional round once since 1994.

That’s who the Chargers are. Why would 2023 be any different?

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

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

There is still talent. Herbert wasn’t great last season, but he’s a top quarterback and the hiring of Kellen Moore as the team’s new offensive coordinator should help. Maybe Moore can understand why the Chargers’ throughput game dried up last season despite a quarterback with one of the best arms in the league. Offensive players like Austin Ekeler, Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are fantastic, and the team added first-round receiver Quentin Johnston to 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 thinking Los Angeles is a Super Bowl contender. It happens every year.

It’s been a key year for Staley, who has made controversial decisions over the past two seasons and appeared to be on shaky ground after the Jaguars loss. Staley hasn’t been fired, but presumably he’s in the hot seat. Many of the Chargers’ stars aren’t necessarily old, but rushers Mack and Bosa, receivers Allen and Williams, Ekeler, center Corey Linsley, defensive tackle Austin Johnson and cornerbacks JC Jackson and Michael Davis will all be over 27. at the end. of the season. It’s not a young core anymore, and they don’t have a lot of team success on their CV yet.

Maybe this season is when it all hits, with Herbert entering the MVP conversation, Bosa making a run for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and every other top-notch player staying healthy and having great seasons. . But we’ve heard that before.

Off-season classification

It’s been a quiet offseason for the Chargers. They made most of their big moves last season. The only notable back-and-forth occurred at linebacker. Drue Tranquill left for the Chiefs and was replaced by longtime Minnesota Viking Eric Kendricks. It is more or less that. The Chargers’ biggest decision was to resign offensive tackle Trey Pipkins for a three-year, $21.75 million deal. The draft was good, with first-round receiver Quentin Johnston topping the class. Unlike last offseason, this one was boring for the Chargers.

Grade: VS

Quarterback report

Justin Herbert’s extension is coming soon. There hasn’t been a lot of news about it, which is probably a good thing. At some point, Herbert is going to be the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL, or close. Then Joe Burrow will likely sign a deal with the Cincinnati Bengals that will beat Herbert’s contract. Jalen Hurts signed a deal worth $51 million per season, then Lamar Jackson topped that figure at $52 million, and you can expect Herbert to be in that quarter. Herbert has slipped a bit from a phenomenal 2021 season (5,014 yards and 38 touchdowns in 2021; 4,739 yards and 25 touchdowns last season) but his status as one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks is pretty clear. He’s going to be paid soon and will likely go on to have great seasons, although his huge salary caps will be difficult for the Chargers to manage in years to come.

BetMGM Odds Breakdown

The Chargers aren’t buried in the standings, as they were a 10-win playoff team and have a talented roster led by a good quarterback. But I am not optimistic that they will take a positive step forward. Their win total is 9.5 at BetMGM and I’d lean under that, but I’d rather bet the Chargers not making the playoffs at -105 odds. Even if the Chargers win 10 games, I can’t pick them to win the division and the competition for wildcard 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

From Scott Pianowski of Yahoo: “There’s nothing wrong with a Keenan Allen pick, I guess. It’s just a ground pick.

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

“If I’m going to justify that type of pick, I want my other picks above the fold to be more brilliant. Phrased differently, Allen is more of a reactive pick than a proactive pick for me this draft season. I prefer my early picks were mostly players still on the escalator.”

Stat to remember

Austin Ekeler wasn’t happy with his contract, and given the dying market for running backs, it’s easy to see why he wanted a new contract. The Chargers added $1.75 million in incentives to Ekeler’s final year of the deal, and he said he wasn’t angry about the situation. It’s good because the Chargers rely heavily on Ekeler. His 38 total touchdowns over the past two seasons lead the NFL. He has 177 receptions over the past two seasons, including 107 last season. Ekeler turns 28 this season and should be able to produce another great season and then he can see what awaits him in free agency. If Ekeler is missing at any time this season, the Chargers will quickly find out 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 has missed most of the season with a groin injury. Cornerback JC Jackson, a huge free agent addition, struggled, 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 staff of the Miami Dolphins, and he was replaced by secondary coach Derrick Ansley. There is a lot of work to do. It starts with getting healthy seasons from the stars of the team. Maybe if that happens, and the Bosa/Mack duo live up to last year’s hype, Jackson comes back and plays like an $82.5 million cornerback, and a change of linebacker is positive, maybe he can be a top 10 unit.

Best case scenario

There’s an alternate universe in which the Chargers don’t have a terrible injury chance, don’t blow games mindlessly, and in fact become one of the best teams in the NFL. Justin Herbert has the MVP advantage. 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 that’s the case and you really want to be optimistic, there might be a way for the Chargers to win the AFC West. It’s not like the list doesn’t have that capability.

nightmare scenario

Brandon Staley was sometimes too reckless in his first season. Then he seemed to turn conservative at the wrong time last season. He finished last season with two fiascos: letting his starters play (and get hurt) in a meaningless Week 18 game, and a historic collapse at Jacksonville in the playoffs. You don’t often hear speculation about hot seats for coaches who have won 10 games and made the playoffs, but there was some for Staley after last season. If the offense doesn’t improve much under new coordinator Kellen Moore, and the continued lack of a through game holds Justin Herbert back, and the defense doesn’t progress, the Chargers could miss the playoffs. If Staley was in trouble after last season, he would certainly be in trouble again if there was no postseason for the Chargers.

The crystal ball says…

I can’t trust the Chargers. I’ve been down this road too many times, and it always ends in angst. They won’t be bad but they will leave everyone wanting more. I can’t get the Chargers past the AFC West Chiefs, and the wildcard race will be tough. The Chargers will be on the playoff bubble late in the season. Given their history, I’m counting on a few disconcerting losses to keep them out. If that happens, they will have to consider a change of head coach.

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