“We Choked” – Unpacking the Chargers Epic Wild Card Meltdown

Just hours after the Chargers Wild Card collapse in Jacksonville, defensive end Joey Bosa came to the defense of his head coach Brandon Staley, stating that the Chargers are better off with Staley than without.

“It takes time. It’s two years. It takes time to build something. He’s a fresh head coach in this league, and to expect that he’s going to know everything right away is kind of silly.”

That may be true. Expecting Staley to know everything might be a little unfair. Maybe Staley is the right guy for the job in Los Angeles. Still, there’s no denying that his playoff debut as an NFL head coach leaves plenty to be desired.

Staley was not good on Saturday. Plain and simple. Yes, the players share a degree of responsibility in the Chargers’ 27-point lead evaporating, but Staley has to be much better moving forward if Bosa’s assessment is to hold.

Let’s examine how the meltdown happened, and where Staley and the Chargers go next.

How Did it Happen?

Let’s start with the drive that allowed Jacksonville to creep back into this game.

Giving Jacksonville Life

With a 27-0 lead with 3:11 to play in the first half, the Chargers got the ball back with a chance to bury Jacksonville before halftime. Staley, who prides himself on being different, could have just run the clock out and taken a four-score lead into the locker room.

Instead, he dialed up back-to-back passing plays on first and second down. Then came a head-scratcher of a call on 3rd & 1. This call can be pinpointed as the moment when the tides began to turn against Staley and the Chargers. The play was a jet sweep to Michael Bandy as the handoff man. Bandy was playing for the injured DeAndre Carter and hadn’t run this play once in practice that week. Herbert and Bandy fumbled the exchange but recovered the ball. That forced a Chargers punt.

Justin Hebert said after the game that offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi called an interior run with the jet sweep as the built-in kill play. So when Herbert got to the line of scrimmage and saw Jacksonville aligned to stop the interior run, he killed the play. Herbert did the right thing, but Lombardi’s calls were flawed, and Staley should have known that.

That punt allowed Jacksonville to take the ball down the field and score a touchdown before the half, giving them life.

Play Calling Disparity

That failed drive near the end of the first half was a failure on the coaching staff. They simply misevaluated their available personnel and shouldn’t have waited until third down to try to run the ball anyway.

The worst part is that they went into the locker room with that drive fresh in their minds and did nothing to change it.

Staley and the Chargers called seven designed running plays over the game’s final two quarters. Seven. That’s it. Staley said after the game that controlling the clock was a path to victory for Los Angeles:

“Certainly when you have that type of lead, if you can possess the ball effectively enough, then there won’t be enough time (for a comeback),” Staley said. “And we just didn’t do that.”

Well, shame on you, coach.

Doug Pederson Masterclass

For as bad as Brandon Staley was on Saturday, Doug Pederson was equally good. Staley’s initial game plan for Trevor Lawrence worked to perfection. But Doug Pederson had an answer for the coverages and blitzes that forced Trevor Lawrence to throw four first-half interceptions.

Pederson came out with a high-tempo look in the second half. Jacksonville ran 12 no-huddle plays, and the Chargers defense was not ready for it, nor did Brandon Staley have an answer.

Pederson reminded everyone why he won a Super Bowl on Saturday. He also exposed the inexperience on the Chargers sideline in a significant way.

Penalties and a Lack of Discipline

No, Brandon Staley didn’t commit a penalty on the field. But his team did, and when they did, they were costly.

On a third down play in the third quarter, Joey Bosa was flagged for a neutral zone infraction that wiped away a Bryce Callahan sack. The Jaguars would score a touchdown on that drive, one kept alive by the Bosa blunder, cutting the Los Angeles lead down to 13.

Bosa would again cost the Chargers when his second unsportsmanlike conduct penalty of the game moved the Jaguars up to the one-yard line on a two point conversion attempt. On the next snap, Trevor Lawrence lept over the line for two points. That play pulled the Jags to within two points at 30-28, setting up their shot at an eventual game-winning field goal.

On that same drive, the Jags were bailed out of a 2nd & 19 by a Ja’Sir Taylor pass interference penalty. The penalty gave Jacksonville a fresh set of downs, and they took advantage with a touchdown drive.

“We had far too many penalties in the second half that really hurt us,” Staley said.

So, What Now?

We learned this morning that Joe Lombardi is out in Los Angeles. Despite having a quarterback with nearly 10,000 passing yards in the last two seasons, the Chargers ranked 13th in scoring and 19th in offensive DVOA.

I expected someone to fall on the sword for the Chargers blowing a 27-point against the Jaguars. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Brandon Staley was fired. But, instead, it was Lombardi who was searching for work, and Staley getting another shot.

Now it’s up to Staley to find a new offensive coordinator who can maximize Justin Herbert’s talent and, more importantly, those around Herbert.

But more importantly, Staley has to prove that this catastrophic playoff debut was one that he learned from. Staley failed from the play-calling disparity to the lack of adjustments and discipline of his star players last weekend.

Everyone is entitled to their mistakes and learning curves, even if they are historically bad ones, but next season will be a make-or-break season for Brandon Staley.

How does he bounce back? What did he learn?

Those will be important questions for the Chargers next season because I don’t think the front office and ownership will be much more patient with the cheap years of a generational talent under center ticking away.

written by

Patrick grew up in Chicago's Bridgeport and Garfield Ridge neighborhoods before moving to the Western Suburbs of Chicago before eventually relocating to the Las Vegas area with his family in 2023. He started with Bleacher Nation in 2021 and has spent time as a Staff Writer and on the Chicago Blackhawks beat. He is currently a writer and editor at Bleacher Nation covering the Chicago Bears and the NFL at large and the author of the Bleacher Nation Newsletter. Patrick is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA).

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