Why a disconnected Chargers team was Brandon Staley's downfall

ByKris Rhim ESPN logo
Friday, December 22, 2023

THE UNRAVELING OF the Los Angeles Chargers began in Jacksonville, Florida, on Jan. 14.

Coach Brandon Staley had led an injury-ravaged team to wins in four of its last five games during the 2022 season, securing a playoff matchup with theJaguarson that Saturday evening. When the Chargers bolted to a 27-0 lead with just over four minutes remaining in the second quarter, it appeared the late-season surge would continue.

Staley had the upper hand on Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson, outscheming the ex-Eagles' Super Bowl winner and rendering the EverBank Stadium crowd stone silent. Staley, who called the defensive plays, watched as his defense forced four turnovers in the first 30 minutes.

Then it all fell apart.

Los Angeles' offense, powered by Pro Bowl quarterback Justin Herbert, stalled. Staley's defense, previously so opportunistic, had no answers for Trevor Lawrence and the Jags. As the unit collapsed, Staley could be heard screaming at linebackers coach Michael Wilhoite. Staley believed Wilhoite's group had made an error on a big Jacksonville play. Wilhoite countered that Staley had made a "dumbass playcall" and that the linebackers had done their job, according to team sources who witnessed the sideline exchange.

The Jaguars would defeat the Chargers 31-30 in what was the third-largest comeback in playoff history. It was the latest chapter in a book full of disappointments by this Chargers franchise.

When Staley entered the locker room -- facing a grieving team in disbelief -- he told them, in part, "games like this happen in the NFL." The message annoyed some players, especially those who had played on other teams and experienced postseason success. To some, it felt like Staley was shifting ownership of the collapse off the squad -- and himself -- as a regular occurrence, team sources said.

One team source described the Jacksonville game as reflective of Staley's lack of accountability -- and the moment he began to lose players -- pointing to the screaming match with Wilhoite, who was subsequently fired.

"Losing is terrible," team owner Dean Spanos said last March as he reflected on that playoff game. "But the way you lose sometimes is even worse."

Less than a year later, in front of a prime-time audience on "Thursday Night Football," the Chargers suffered another historic loss. The 63-21 defeat came against the Las Vegas Raiders, a team without its All-Pro running back, and led by an interim coach, general manager and a fourth-round rookie quarterback. The Chargers were without Herbert, lost for the year with a broken finger on his throwing hand, and receiver Keenan Allen.

When Staley stood before the team in the visitor's locker room at Allegiant Stadium, there was an element of déj vu. A team source said Staley repeated the "games like these happen in the NFL" line, a message he later repeated to the media.

This time, the Spanos family would not spare Staley, firing him and general manager Tom Telesco the next morning. It was the first time the organization had parted ways with a coach during the season since it dismissed Kevin Gilbride in 1998.

"At a certain point with him it just felt like words didn't matter," one team source said.

Staley's .500 record over three seasons reflects a team that flirted with success as often as it did with disaster.

He leaves behind what multiple team sources described as a disconnected locker room -- created, in part, by a coach who often got in his own way -- and a roster full of aging stars, putting the team's future in question.

"Essentially, when you fire a guy, you're saying that there's a guy out there right now who is going to set our team up with better chances to win the Super Bowl in their second or first year with a brand new team than Staley would in his third or fourth year or fifth year?" a team source said. "I'm not saying it's impossible. I just feel like it's unlikely. There are more issues here."

STALEY WAS A departure from the typical NFL head coach, according to multiple team sources. He wasn't overly strict about timeliness, didn't lose his temper and was receptive to input from the team's leadership council and assistants.

To wide receiver Quentin Johnston, Staley was the support system he needed in a tumultuous rookie season.

Johnston, the Chargers first-round pick, had his lowest moment of the season in Week 11 against the Green Bay Packers. Johnston dropped a wide-open pass that would have put the Chargers in field goal range with 23 seconds left in the game. The Packers won 23-20 and the Chargers fell to 4-6.

Johnston was visibly upset in the locker room and said there was "no excuse" for the miscue.

After the game, Staley let loose with a tirade aimed at reporters, who questioned the coach's confidence in himself and his defense. Staley called Johnston into his office the next day and pulled up examples of the criticism he'd been receiving.

Staley's message for Johnston was to "block out the noise" -- as Staley planned to do -- because the Chargers believed in him.

"That was honestly real big for me," Johnston told ESPN. "Especially just being my first year and honestly being my first time going through something like that in sports. I have always been real consistent. I never really had just a super bad game, like the ones I've been having, so for him to just come and say that as a head coach, that meant a lot to me."

Staley oftendefended players like Johnston in news conferences, giving long complimentary answers about them. He has called outside linebackerKhalil Mack a "Hall of Famer" and "one of the best edge rushers of this generation," and rookie linebackerTuli Tuipulotu a "baller."

When Johnston suffered a rib injury against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 12 and didn't return despite being cleared by trainers, Staley snapped at reporters who asked if Johnston had been benched.

"It's not because of a lack of confidence. It's not because of any other part of your imagination," Staley said. "Quentin will be out there if he's able to be out there."

Staley sought out Johnston on the practice field, often calling him a "bull" because of his 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame and ability to gain yards after the catch that was on display at TCU. Those moments were always a boost of confidence for Johnston, who says he needed it this season.

"Despite the ups and downs, I feel like all in all, he was a great person just for me to go to when I was just feeling overwhelmed," Johnston said. "And I feel like with his advice, I've been doing pretty good with blocking everything out.

"I'm not a real sentimental person. I'm not a real 'talk about my feelings' type of person, but once he started breaking down stuff to me, just the reassurance that he still believed in me as a player meant a lot to me."

But not every player inside the Chargers locker room curried Staley's favor in the same way as Johnston, who was Staley's most recent first-round pick.

OVER STALEY'S TENURE, tension mounted between players who team sources described as "Staley's guys," and others who predated Staley or had fallen out of his favor.

Staley alienated some players, according to team sources. For a few, birthday announcements were a clear indication of where they stood.

In a team meeting on Nov. 16, Staley projected birthday graphics for linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr., defensive tackle Jerrod Clark and guard Jordan McFadden on a video screen, but only said happy birthday to Murray in the meeting, according to a team source who was present. After practice two days later, Staley said happy birthday to offensive guard Zion Johnson in front of the team. Multiple players mentioned that it was also rookie linebacker Daiyan Henley's birthday, to which Staley replied, "and Daiyan, too," in a dismissive way, before quickly wrapping up practice, according to team sources.

"Guys didn't feel included; he didn't make it feel like a team," one team source said of Staley. "He kind of made it feel like a fraternity house. Certain guys are in the frat, certain guys aren't."

Last season, Mack began organizing team dinners each Friday with the defense to build fellowship, often inviting offensive players to join. Mack still holds these weekly dinners, but the togetherness hasn't extended across the team.

Team sources said that "disconnect" in the locker room as one of the main reasons this season seemed doomed. The offense and defense mostly keep to themselves, with players not intermingling, team sources said.

"That's a recipe for disaster," one team source said. "And I don't put blame on Telesco, I don't put blame on Staley or any of that. It's the players' job to do that s---."

That disconnect in the locker room often extended to the coach and team and was sometimes on display on the field.

Staley was the Chargers' defensive playcaller throughout his tenure, and the defense ranked 30th over that period in yards allowed per play (5.7), points (24.8) and rushing yards per game (134). Team sources believed those struggles were a result of the Chargers defense never having an identity, and Staley either making massive adjustments, particularly before big games, or none at all.

Staley runs a pattern match zone defensive scheme, where the defense often looks like a zone to start before switching to coverages that operate as man. But against the Kansas City Chiefs on Oct. 22, the Chargers began the game playing more standard zone than they had all season. In the first half, quarterback Patrick Mahomes completed 20 of 23 passes for 321 yards and three touchdowns. The Chargers switched to man defense in the second half and held Mahomes to 103 passing yards, but lost 31-17.

"Sometimes, Staley was just too damn smart for his own good," one team source said. "There's certain things where you got to know what's your bread and butter as a defense, and you got to master it so well that other teams got to try to adjust to you. I feel like we were always trying to adjust to other teams."

Then came last Thursday's rout, which would be Staley's final.

The Raiders scored six first-half touchdowns, including four passing scores by rookie quarterback Aidan O'Connell -- who had thrown four touchdowns in the previous seven games combined.

No one in the organization expected that kind of beatdown, but in the days leading up to it, the team felt off, according to one team source.

"You could tell," another team source said of the loss of support in Staley. "No one was laughing at [Staley's] jokes in team meetings anymore. That's how you know. A couple years ago, people were laughing, now, it was like no one was laughing."

THEIR NEXT HEAD coach and general manager, the Chargers hope, will deliver what Staley, Telesco and every other GM-head coach pairing in franchise history has failed to do: earn a Super Bowl victory.

Both jobs are considered attractive. Herbert, finishing his fourth season, is a major part of that appeal. The 25-year old raced past Andrew Luck for the most passing yards (14,089) in a quarterback's first three seasons and completed 1,316 passes, also the most in league history over that span. Herbert has the third-highest Total QBR in the NFL since 2021 among quarterbacks to start in each of the past three seasons.

There will, however, be issues. The Chargers roster is projected to be $34.8 million over the salary cap next season, according to ESPN's Roster Management System, giving the next general manager tough decisions to make about some of the highly paid stars.

In the lead-up to Staley's second season, the Chargers were aggressive in free agency and the trade market, securing top players who Staley had coached before.

They traded second- and sixth-round picks to the Chicago Bears to acquire Mack, whom Staley previously coached as an assistant in Chicago. In free agency, they signed cornerback J.C. Jackson to a five-year, $82.5 million contract -- he was traded toNew Englandin October for a swap of late-round picks -- and added defensive linemen Sebastian Joseph-Day and Morgan Fox, both of whom Staley had coached with the Los Angeles Rams.

Ahead of the 2023 season, the Chargers restructured the contracts of receivers Keenan Allenand Mike Williams, along with Mack and fellow outside linebackerJoey Bosa, to free up cap space, but in turn making their 2024 cap hits each above $30 million.

The Chargers' big moves haven't resulted in wins. Jackson's signing was among the biggest missteps of the Staley-Telesco era. Jackson was traded this season after playing seven games over two years, prompting Telesco to apologize to the team's defensive backs.

Allen and Mack are both having career-best seasons, but the 31-year-old Allen is due $18.1 million next season, while the 32-year-old Mack is due $17.5 million. Bosa and Williams, who have played a combined 12 games this season, are under contracts that total $32 million next year.

There are plenty of candidates who have been mentioned in connection to the Chargers coaching vacancy, from Bill Belichick and Jim Harbaugh, to offensive coordinators Ben Johnson (Detroit Lions) and Frank Smith (Miami Dolphins). But the Chargers are fighting a reputation of a team unwilling to invest in coaches and executives.

Anthony Lynn, who coached the Chargers from 2017 to 2020, said in a Los Angeles Times article in 2022 his position as assistant head coach and running backs coach with the San Francisco 49ers gave him a window into the way the Chargers do business.

"This organization will do whatever it takes to win," Lynn said of the 49ers. "Resources out the [ears]. That was different for me compared to what I was going through in L.A. So it's just like, man, this is what it's supposed to be like. I forgot how that felt."

Team president John Spanos attempted to dispel that idea Monday, saying "I want to know where narratives come from," and pointing to the Chargers new facility set to open in El Segundo next spring and their investment in players. He said he's "never felt any or seen any limitations because of cash or any other reason."

When asked if the franchise would be willing to spend $20 to $25 million on a coach, Spanos said, "I can tell you that there have been no discussions internally about there being a max."

Whoever succeeds Staley, at whatever price the Spanos' decide, will be tasked with keeping their name off the lengthy list of Chargers coaches who have failed before them.

"Firing a guy is interesting because it's like half of the solution," a team source said. "I don't hold any of Staley's failures against him when we've all failed."

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