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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Three minutes previous midnight within the hushed guests locker room, greater than half an hour after the most recent debacle of his franchise’s tortured historical past, Justin Herbert sat at his locker, dealing with shellshocked teammates. He wore a thousand-yard stare and was nonetheless wearing shoulder pads and full Los Angeles Chargers uniform all the way down to his naked toes. He thought in regards to the sport that had simply transpired, a dream that had dissolved right into a nightmare. He had solely begun to reckon with the fallout of an unimaginable collapse.
Throughout the room, teammates packed baggage and hugged farewell. Tools staffers wheeled out carts. They muttered expletives in quiet tones. One Charger blurted to a teammate, “That’s one thing we obtained to reply for for the remainder of our f—— lives.”
The Chargers have endured playoff heartbreaks so ingrained they require just one picture to open the injuries: Nate Kaeding’s shank, Marlon McCree’s fumble, Philip Rivers’s torn ACL. Saturday night time at TIAA Financial institution Subject might have topped all of them. The Chargers misplaced to the Jacksonville Jaguars, 31-30, regardless of constructing a 27-0 lead within the first half as they intercepted Trevor Lawrence 4 occasions. Blessed with Herbert’s ballistic quarterbacking, they scored solely three factors within the closing 34 minutes. Geared up with the cross speeding may of Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack, they yielded 24 factors after halftime.
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The Chargers without delay melted down and folded below the load of their very own historical past. They dedicated a rash of undisciplined penalties, together with Bosa’s game-flipping helmet slam. They defended Jacksonville’s up-tempo assault as if the Jaguars had carried out alchemy. They missed a 40-yard subject aim. They yielded one closing drive, highlighted by Travis Etienne’s 25-yard run on fourth down that arrange Riley Patterson’s 36-yard, game-winning subject aim. Within the parlance that sticks to them now greater than ever, they Chargered.
“I’ve seen this film too many occasions,” Chargers tight finish Gerald Everett mentioned.
The long run, now, turns into the query for Los Angeles. Coach Brandon Staley entered the sport below hearth for his choice to play his starters in a Week 18 sport irrelevant to the standings, which led to star wideout Mike Williams struggling a fractured bone in his again and being dominated out for the sport towards the Jaguars. That call, mixed with Saturday night time’s catastrophe, might persuade Los Angeles to hunt a brand new coach, with the power to dangle the opportunity of teaching Herbert to the highest candidates, beginning with Sean Payton.
Firing Staley can be simpler mentioned than paid for, particularly for a franchise that could be a tenant in its dwelling stadium and is constructing a brand new follow facility. Staley nonetheless has two years remaining on his contract. Securing Payton would require not solely transport draft compensation to the New Orleans Saints, but additionally a contract prone to reset the teaching wage market. What Chargers possession desires to do is one factor. What it may afford could be one other.
If Staley survives, he’ll enter the 2023 season below immense stress. The present of Herbert, a quarterback on an affordable contract who could make throws even friends solely dream of, has gone unfulfilled. He’s solely in his third season. However quarterbacks of his pedigree, when correctly supported, flourish by that stage. Patrick Mahomes gained the Tremendous Bowl in his third season. Draft classmate Joe Burrow made the Tremendous Bowl in his second. Herbert has one catastrophic loss in his lone playoff look. It stands as an organizational failure, from staff proprietor Dean Spanos to Common Supervisor Tom Telesco to Staley.
“That is the hardest method that you could lose within the playoffs,” Staley mentioned. “Actually, with the best way we began the sport, that’s the staff I do know we’re able to being. We simply didn’t end the sport.”
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The Chargers’ litany of self-inflicted harm might be repurposed as an instruction handbook for easy methods to squander a season. The Chargers ought to have constructed a bigger result in start with — they kicked two subject objectives within the first half from contained in the Jaguars’ 5-yard line, together with one after Herbert missed Keenan Allen wide-open within the zone. And blowing that lead started with what appeared like an innocuous gaffe.
Late within the second quarter, main 27-0, the Chargers had an opportunity to manage the ball into halftime. On third and one, they known as a play that included a “kill” to a distinct play: They might run up the center except Herbert noticed a particular defensive alignment on the line, by which case he would swap to the second play — an end-around to a receiver streaking in movement.
There was an issue, and it made the play alternative baffling. All week, the Chargers had practiced the play with veteran wideout DeAndre Carter taking the handoff. However Carter had been sidelined midgame with an damage. So the Chargers as a substitute tried an end-around to Michael Bandy, a 5-foot-10, 190-pound extensive receiver out the College of San Diego who had by no means taken a handoff in his two-year NFL profession.
Right here was the Chargers in a nutshell: a misguided teaching choice constructed atop a scarcity of depth at a premium place. Bandy collided with Herbert and muffed the handoff, diving on the ball 5 yards behind the road. The ensuing punt allowed the Jaguars a possession with ample time remaining earlier than half, which they used to attain their first landing.
On the Jaguars’ first possession of the second half, which adopted the Chargers’s stalled drive, Bosa lined up within the impartial zone on what would have been a drive-killing sack by Mack. Etienne hauled in a first-down reception the subsequent play, and Lawrence hit extensive receiver Marvin Jones Jr. three performs later. A blowout had immediately grow to be a two-possession sport.
“That’s the halftime swing proper there,” Jones mentioned. “It was every thing.”
The Chargers appeared to stabilize themselves with a virtually seven-minute drive within the fourth quarter whereas holding a 30-20 lead. Staley eschewed his trademark fourth down aggression and opted for a 40-yard subject aim, which Cameron Dicker hooked left of the aim posts.
“Time simply freezes,” Everett mentioned. “They begin rallying, coming again, they’re constructing their morale. Their confidence is rising. All we might do is simply sit again and watch.”
The Jaguars raced down the sector once more, utilizing the quick tempo that modified the sport till Lawrence discovered Christian Kirk for a nine-yard landing. Bosa slammed his helmet as he left the sector, drawing his second private foul of the sport. The penalty satisfied Coach Doug Pederson to go for 2. Lawrence leaped over the road from the 1, which meant Patterson’s subject aim would win it somewhat sending the sport to additional time.
The Chargers managed 5 yards on a 3 and out in response. The Jaguars used Etienne’s burst round the appropriate finish because the linchpin of their game-winning drive. To the top, the Chargers had no reply for the Jaguars’ fast-paced assault, which challenged Staley’s popularity as a defensive guru. Security Drue Tranquill mentioned it uncovered Los Angeles’s subpar conditioning and tackling.
“We obtained to have the ability to get our cleats within the grass and never have breakdowns,” Tranquill mentioned. “We gave them a number of explosive performs simply on breakdowns. Coach Staley was saying early within the week, ‘We’ve to make them beat us.’ We beat ourselves.
“When it’s 27-0, you totally anticipate to win the sport on protection. It shouldn’t matter what the offense does. Once you’re up 27-0, you must win the sport defensively.”
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The Chargers’ failings ran headlong into Lawrence, a 23-year examine in poise, resilience and the virtues of high quality hair conditioner. He accomplished 4 of his first 16 passes and threw 4 interceptions, three of them to cornerback Asante Samuel Jr., changing into the primary quarterback since Craig Morton within the 1978 Tremendous Bowl to throw 4 picks within the first half of a playoff sport. After his fourth interception, Lawrence accomplished 24 of his closing 31 passes for 258 yards and 4 touchdowns.
“I knew he was advantageous regardless, as a result of that’s the kind of man he’s,” Jones mentioned. “If he throws 4 picks or if he’s throwing for 500 yards, he’s the identical man. He has that calm about him. So it’s simple to rally behind him.”
Triumph will most likely come for Herbert, however Saturday night time he needed to digest shock and disappointment. Finally, he rose from his seat and turned into sweats. He paced into his postgame information convention together with his head up. “Sorry to maintain you guys ready,” he mentioned.
“It’s actually powerful, as a result of we predict actually extremely of our staff,” Herbert mentioned. “That’s a particular group of fellows in that locker room. They deserve higher, and it didn’t go our method. Positively powerful to course of, however obtained to maintain it going.”
The Chargers should decide which coach leads them subsequent 12 months, whether or not it’s Staley or someone new. Late Saturday night time, Staley slung on a black backpack with the Chargers brand. His spouse squeezed his shoulder as he walked from the locker room down the tunnel. He headed to the staff bus, previous gear vans and an ambulance, out of one other Chargers fiasco and towards an unsure future.