Justin Herbert's injury caps another lost Chargers season

ByKris Rhim ESPN logo
Friday, December 15, 2023

(Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the Chargers' 63-21 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders on Thursday night.)

ONE DAY AFTER a 24-7 loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday, safety Derwin James Jr. insisted the Los Angeles Chargers still have a great team.

"We just haven't been connected all year long," he said.

The problem with James' supposition -- the same one almost every player and coach has made about this team at some point over the past three seasons -- is there isn't much proof the Chargers are a great team or have been during the past three seasons.

Outside linebacker Khalil Mack, who arrived in 2022, was honest about the state of this team after the loss. As a reporter asked if he questioned if the Chargers were still a good team, Mack interrupted before the question was finished.

"That's the point," he said. "[We're] not taking advantage of the opportunity, man."

Missed opportunities are all too familiar for Mack.

He pointed to his time with theBearsin Chicago, where he played from 2018 to 2021. That Bears defense, Mack noted, featured All-Pro cornerback Kyle Fuller, Pro Bowl defensive end Akiem Hicks and cornerback Prince Amukamara but never won a playoff game in two appearances.

"Would've, could've, should've, that s--- don't matter," Mack said. "Looking back on that, we took L's. Right now, we're taking L's."

That has been the story of these Chargers: high expectations that lead to immense let downs.

Sunday's loss to the Broncos ended with Justin Herbert, the Chargers' $262.5 million quarterback, watching from the sidelines in street clothes with his season-ending broken right index finger hidden in his sweatshirt pocket, as Chargers fans chanted for the team to fire coach Brandon Staley.

The Chargers entered this season with hopes of contending for a Super Bowl but instead are 5-9 following Thursday night's loss to the Las Vegas Raiders, who outscored Los Angeles 42-0 in the first half alone.

"Obviously frustrated," wide receiver Keenan Allen said Sunday, "season didn't go how you wanted it to."

THE CHARGERS COACHING job was supposed to be perhaps the most attractive opening of the 2021 hiring cycle largely because of Herbert, a big-armed quarterback who had just come off a season in which he broke nearly every rookie passing record but fell short of a postseason berth at 7-9.

If the Chargers could improve their defense, it seemed, they had the makings of a real contender. So they hired Staley, the defensive coordinator for the stout Los Angeles Rams in 2020, to improve a defense that had allowed the 23rd-most points per game.

But the defense in Staley's first year was third worst in points per game (27) and rushing yards allowed (138.9), and the team went 9-8 and missed the playoffs.

The Chargers went looking for stars ahead of the 2022 season and secured two former All-Pros: trading for Mack and signing cornerback J.C. Jackson, adding to a defense that already had Pro Bowlers Derwin James and Joey Bosa. They believed they were contenders.

"I feel like up until this point in my career, I've accomplished things, but ultimately, you want to get to a Super Bowl, and you want to win it," Mack said in his first training camp news conference. "And that's the only thing on my mind at this point in my career."

Instead, the Chargers finished that season with a historic playoff meltdown, surrendering a 27-point lead to the Jacksonville Jaguars -- the third-largest comeback in playoff history.

So they again made offseason changes. Their rushing offense was third worst in the NFL last season, averaging 89.6 yards per game. They fired offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and replaced him with Kellen Moore. The Chargers needed to "marry the run and pass game," Staley said.

Now, however, the Chargers are the worst they have been under Staley.

They traded Jackson after they signed him to a $82.5 million contract a season ago, prompting general manager Tom Telesco to apologize to the team's defensive backs. Staley has responded in frustration to questions about his defense and his struggling first-round receiver, Quentin Johnston. The offense, which had been the team's best unit, has struggled to score and still can't run the ball. The defense still has many of the same flaws.

The Chargers boast some of the biggest names in the NFL: Mack, Bosa, James, Allen, Herbert and Austin Ekeler. They all have individual statistics and accolades, but they have not come together to produce sustained success.

Sunday's loss was the latest example.

"It's a mixture of young guys and older guys. You see the older guys trying to push and show with our actions that we want this s---, but everybody got to want it," Mack said after the Broncos loss, "everybody got to put the work in."

THE "FIRE STALEY" chants grew loudest while the Broncos converted four straight third downs in the fourth quarter and the Chargers blew one missed tackle after another. The drive ended with a touchdown to effectively put the game away, growing the Denver lead to 17 points with just over three minutes remaining.

Outside of the special teams unit, which has been among the league's best, the Chargers have struggled everywhere else, as the offense and defense have fluctuated from impressive to abysmal.

Through the first 12 weeks, their defense ranked last in the NFL in yards allowed per game (390.6), but from Week 12 onward, the unit shot up to 12th best in that category, allowing 313.3 yards per game.

Meanwhile, after averaging the eighth-most points through the first 11 weeks (25.9), the offense has stalled, now averaging the second-fewest points per game (7.67) since Week 12.

Those struggles continued Sunday with Herbert, who left the game late in the second quarter 0-for-8 on third down, and backup Easton Stick, who added four more third-down failures. It was the Chargers' most failed third-down conversions (0-for-12) in at least the past 40 years. They were also sacked six times and lost for the fourth time in five games.

Staley called this the most challenging stretch of his career, pointing to how the Chargers have been "right there."

As for his job status, Staley, who has another year on his contract, said he's focused on himself.

"I think that every time I go out, I get better at this job. Every single day, I get better," he said. "That's what gives me the confidence."

Now the Chargers will go into Las Vegas and the final four games of the regular season with Stick, who has never started an NFL game, and Stick will be without Allen, who leads the NFL in receptions. The Chargers ruled Allen out for Week 15because of a heel injury.

Stick threw for 179 yards in relief against the Broncos. He said he had "no nerves" and pointed to his experience in college at North Dakota State University, where he became the winningest quarterback in FCS history with a 49-3 record.

"I understand North Dakota State isn't the National Football League, but I'm used to winning," Stick said. "It's the only way I know."

The Chargers will need it.

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