Every time the Chargers win a football game, it feels like they have to overcome two teams: their opponents, and themselves. That was certainly the case Thursday night, when L.A. ultimately prevailed over the Raiders, 30-27, in a chaotic overtime game that featured a number of miscues, bad decisions, and bizarre moments that nearly swung the tide in favor of Las Vegas.
Los Angeles feels like they should be a better football team than their now 5-9 record would indicate, and that’s mostly due to the play of quarterback Justin Herbert. Herbert is having one of the best rookie seasons in league history, and he shined again tonight. Without receiver Mike Williams, and with star wideout Keenan Allen limited, Herbert had to spread the ball around more than usual. No receiver had more than five catches, though Herbert found the production he needed in Jalen Guyton (four catches, 91 yards), Hunter Henry (five catches, 65 yards, one touchdown), and Tyron Johnson (three catches, 61 yards, one touchdown). Herbert finished the game with 314 passing yards and two touchdowns, adding the game-winning score on the ground.
Yet the Chargers are reluctant to unleash Herbert. Head coach Anthony Lynn never really wanted to start the rookie, instead insisting for weeks that Tyrod Taylor would return to the job as soon as he got healthy, even as Herbert continued to tear up defenses on the field. He didn’t commit to Herbert until after Week 4. That reluctance—and questionable in-game coaching decisions all year—have combined to make Lynn’s seat warm. And despite Thursday’s win, the Chargers’ performance against the Raiders did nothing to take the temperature down.
The Chargers aren’t really cursed, they just make tons of mistakes. In this game, the errors began with a reluctance to unleash Herbert. Los Angeles carried a seven-point lead into the fourth quarter, and seemingly got complacent. Herbert had just three dropbacks in that quarter, and only got a pass off on one of them (the other two ended in a rushing attempt and a sack). L.A. missed a would-be go-ahead field goal midway through the fourth quarter, and on their next possession they … also seemingly played for a field goal, calling two runs in a row before Herbert was sacked on third down. They settled for the field goal (though not before Lynn iced his own kicker) and missed that one too. The Chargers came into tonight with the worst special teams DVOA in football by a very large margin—the team should know by now to never trust its kickers.
The second field goal miss gave the Raiders a chance to win in the fourth quarter, handing the ball back to Las Vegas with 53 seconds left. But the Raiders meandered down the field with little urgency before lining up for a would-be 65-yard attempt. Then this happened:
Os @Raiders iam tentar acertar o Field Goal mais longo da história da NFL, mas o Punter (e Holder) AJ Cole sofreu o Fumble logo no Snap e NÓS VAMOS PARA A PRORROGAÇÃO! #NFLBrasil #LACvsLV #NFLnaESPN pic.twitter.com/Pypl5XbwB1— NFL Brasil (@NFLBrasil) December 18, 2020
It was like the Raiders were trying to pull their best impression of the Chargers, who were already acting like themselves and frankly did not need the company. All in all, the fourth quarter was a masterpiece in how not to win a football game.
Overtime wasn’t much better. The Raiders started with the ball, and were able to dink and dunk their way deep into Chargers territory. After 13- and 17-yard runs from Marcus Mariota, who was filling in for the injured Derek Carr, Las Vegas found itself with first-and-goal from the Chargers’ 4-yard line. But rather than stick with the read-option plays that were gashing the L.A. defense (Mariota finished the night with 88 rushing yards), the Raiders opted to give the ball to Josh Jacobs … and he proceeded to run into a brick wall of blue-and-yellow-clad defenders. Jacobs gained negative-1 yards on two rushes, and on third-and-goal Mariota’s pass fell incomplete (during all of this, the Chargers let potentially crucial seconds tick off the clock before Lynn realized he needed to call a timeout). The Raiders kicked a 23-yard field goal and gave the ball back with more than three minutes left on the clock.
Two plays into the Chargers’ drive, the Raiders committed a pass-interference penalty that gifted L.A. 20 yards. Then Herbert found Guyton for 53:
That set up the Chargers with first-and-goal, but this game wasn’t done with the drama. The Chargers called a quarterback sweep on first down, and a questionable penalty gifted the Chargers another first. Then Herbert fumbled the football on a QB sneak that failed to find the end zone (it was recovered by a Charger in the end zone, but due to the Holy Roller rule, only the offensive player who fumbled can advance a football—as both the Raiders and Chargers know well). The next play was also a sneak, but this time Herbert found paydirt—barely.
Herbert was able to overcome the questionable in-game decisions of his head coach tonight, but the mismanagement happens regularly. The Chargers are out of playoff contention, and now the big question is whether Herbert and Co. can win enough games to save Lynn’s job. It would probably be best for the Chargers long-term if they didn’t.
In-game coaching errors happen almost every week for Los Angeles. Last week the Chargers lost track of what down it was at the end of the second half, costing them three points that could have been crucial (L.A. did go on to win, but barely):
I've never seen a team worse when it comes to clock management than this Chargers team under Anthony Lynn. This is inexcusable and happens every week. pic.twitter.com/P8B1060dvc— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) December 13, 2020
Here’s a similar error against the Bills in late November:
QB IS SNEAKING WHEN O-LINE IS DROPPING IN PASS PRO— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) November 29, 2020
FIRE EVERYONE pic.twitter.com/633syvqRNr
Yes, the Chargers were trailing by 10 with just three seconds left (so they didn’t exactly have a chance to win), but they were only in such a dire situation because of all the other errors they made on that drive. These types of blunders have cost the Chargers many games this season; including tonight, they’re now 4-7 in one-score games on the season. Tonight it took some similar blunders from the opposing team for the Chargers to emerge victorious—but L.A. shouldn’t count on teams being as incompetent as they are to win football games.
At 5-9, L.A. is out of playoff contention, but it’s not really because of a lack of talent. In fact, this Chargers squad has everything it needs to grow into a contender quickly. Herbert looks like a surefire star. Tonight he tied the rookie record for touchdown passes (with 27) and he still has two games left to play. Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are a wide receiver duo that most teams would be jealous to have, and this contest showed that the pass-catchers behind them are nothing to sneeze at either. Austin Ekeler is one of the most dynamic running backs in football, and the defense is anchored by Joey Bosa. Most importantly, Herbert is on an inexpensive rookie deal, meaning the Chargers are primed to shore up the holes on their roster (primarily the offensive line) and make an all-in push over the next few years.
Should the Chargers move on from Lynn this offseason, they will have the most attractive coaching job on the market. Should they choose to keep Lynn, they’ll be making a mistake.