It’s the spring of 2021. Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert was just handed the Offensive Rookie of the Year trophy. (This actually happened in February, but I’m setting a scene. Let me live.) The Chargers have the best thing in football: a good quarterback on a rookie contract. The Chargers have also just hired Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, a fast-rising star within league circles, to be their next head coach. The offensive nucleus is in place: Star wide receiver Keenan Allen is in the second season of a big extension; running back Austin Ekeler is in the second year of his four-year deal; Mike Williams is on his fifth-year option. The offensive line was a problem, but the team has just given big free agent contracts to center Corey Linsley and guard Matt Feiler. The Chargers are ready to go.
The Chargers were not ready to go. Well, not anywhere good. They went 9-8 and missed the playoffs (this was the year that a tie with the Raiders in Week 18 would have sent both teams to the playoffs, but the Chargers couldn’t get a stop in overtime).
But the next year—the next year, the Chargers would be ready to go. The offense had been great in 2021, and in 2022, right tackle Bryan Bulaga wouldn’t spend the entire season on injured reserve. It was time to get Staley the resources he needed to run his defense. The Chargers spent huge money in free agency on cornerback J.C. Jackson; grabbed defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day from the Rams, where he’d thrived under Staley; and traded for edge rusher Khalil Mack. The Chargers were ready to go.
The Chargers were not ready to go. They went 10-7 that time and made the playoffs, which should have felt better, but, actually, it felt worse. Jackson, linebacker Joey Bosa, star left tackle Rashawn Slater, starting defensive tackle Austin Johnson, and wideout Jalen Guyton all ended up on IR throughout the year. Still at wide receiver: Allen and Williams both missed time. All that defensive spending moved the unit from 30th in success rate to 23rd. Oh, and the Chargers gave up the third-largest comeback in playoff history in the wild-card round against the Jaguars.
I don’t need to play the summary game for a third offseason. Sure, the Chargers made some changes this year. Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi was out; Kellen Moore was in. For the most part, the Chargers personnel remained the same. And yet this year, they’re 4-7: not yet mathematically eliminated from the playoff race but functionally kaput.
Worse than the record are the vibes. The team traded Jackson last month after benching him earlier in the season. Staley is losing his cool in postgame press conferences. The Chargers receivers are dropping would-be game-winning plays. All this from a team so renowned for embarrassing failure that its name has been subject to anthimeria—that is to say, turned into a verb: “Chargering.” The Chargers, perhaps, have never Chargered more than they have this year.
Four drops for Chargers receivers today. (Could be five depending on how you read an earlier Quentin Johnston shot).— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) November 20, 2023
Each one in a crippling down/distance/area of the field. pic.twitter.com/fj6znGLk0y
And just like that: poof! The rookie quarterback contract window is gone, as Herbert’s cap hit will jump from $8.5 million this year to $19.3 million next year to $37 million in 2025 (and continue upward from there). The greatest advantage in professional football is having an objectively good quarterback on a rookie deal—even the greatest Herbert detractors can’t argue with the fact that he’s good at football—and the Chargers got one playoff appearance and no playoff wins out of it.
So much attention has been put on the in-season failures of the Chargers, and rightfully so. Staley is reaching the end of his third year on the job and has yet to produce a defense that is reliably average, let alone impactful. His defense particularly struggles when the game is on the line: The Chargers are giving up 2.86 points per drive in the fourth quarter of one-score games, which is worse than all but three teams this season. The Chargers have given up 27 first downs this year via defensive penalty—that ties for the league high.
For these reasons, Staley’s job is in jeopardy. He’s had a great impact on the game in the past few years; the job that Staley did as the defensive coordinator of the Rams in 2020 influenced defensive philosophy leaguewide, and he also made the use of analytics in fourth-down decisions more mainstream. But his team simply hasn’t been good enough.
That said, his roster hasn’t been either. And for all of the criticism that Staley rightfully gets for the Sunday product in Los Angeles, it’s worth examining just what the Chargers front office, led by general manager Tom Telesco, did with Herbert’s rookie quarterback contract window.
Here’s Los Angeles’s recent draft history (this year’s rookie class excluded for now):
Two Pro Bowl selections: Justin Herbert and Rashawn Slater, each with one appearance. In 2020, the Chargers traded a second- and a third-round pick to get back into the first round for Kenneth Murray, who has started but struggled for his entire Los Angeles career. Other day-two picks weren’t spent in trades, but on players: Asante Samuel Jr. is a fine starter, but both Josh Palmer and Tre’ McKitty (who has been cut) fail to clear the bar as day-two selections; same with JT Woods, who hasn’t played since Week 3 and spent some time on the reserved/non-football illness list. Two fourth-round picks at running back—the position at which it’s easiest to find late talent!—and neither is a good backup, let alone a starting candidate.
There isn’t a good team in the NFL that has had three below-average drafts in a row (just ask those disappointing Buffalo Bills, who have drafted one Pro Bowler since 2019). Whether you’re in a rookie quarterback contract window or not, if you consistently produce average or below-average drafts, your team will run out of steam. One great class can turn the tide, but Quentin Johnston in this year’s first round looks like another and even more damaging miss; third-rounder Daiyan Henley isn’t seeing the field.
Now, the Chargers did grab seven starters in those three years of drafting—in the same stretch, two other teams that got their star quarterbacks in 2020, the Bengals and the Eagles, drafted seven and six, respectively. But the Chargers’ starters—Palmer, Murray, Jamaree Salyer—just aren’t as good as the starters on those other teams. So why are they starting?
That brings us to free agency and trades, where the Chargers simply have not hit in ages. Like, this is an all-time bad run.
Along the offensive line: Bulaga, Linsley, Feiler. Linsley’s been good when healthy; the other two were misses. Defensive line: Joseph-Day, Johnson, Mack. Joseph-Day and Johnson have been misses; Mack has 13 sacks on the season and looks like he’s in a career year, but a six-sack game against the Raiders is pumping up his numbers. Secondary: Jackson, Bryce Callahan—misses.
Meanwhile, Telesco has been extending his home-brewed talent: Bosa and Derwin James Jr. have gotten market-setting extensions; Michael Davis and Williams got extensions to serve as starters. The Chargers haven’t gotten any bang for their buck on these extensions—not a one. Davis signed a three-year, $25.2 million deal in 2021; he was benched earlier this season. Williams signed for $60 million over three years in 2022 but is missing the 2023 season with an injury. Injuries have also plagued Bosa, who played five games last season and has only five starts this season. James, who was made the league’s highest-paid safety in 2022, is having the least productive season of his career.
You just can’t spend all of this money and all of these picks for so little return and survive. There’s no dramatic lesson to be learned from this. Everyone knows that if you miss on picks and miss on contracts, your team will start to crumble. But it’s easy to forget just how hard the Chargers tried to stock the cupboards over the past few years—and how badly they’ve missed.
The Chargers were 31st in cash spent in 2021: To build around Herbert, they jumped to eighth in 2022 and 17th in 2023. In 2024 cash spent, they’re currently third. The New Orleans Saints, the poster child for irresponsible spending, are $87 million over the 2024 cap figure, the highest number leaguewide; the Chargers are second, at $45 million. You can see them highlighted below in powder blue.
I don’t think any one decision that Telesco (and Staley, for his influence in these decisions) made has been particularly egregious. The Mike Williams contract was big at the time, but hey—Christian Kirk and Kenny Golladay had set the market. What are you supposed to do? The Jackson signing was sketchy, as Patriots defenders tend to play worse when they leave the Belichick umbrella, but his film was so good! How can you not extend Bosa at the market rate, given what you saw?
Rather, it’s the cumulative weight of miss after miss after miss that has dragged the Chargers down into this mire, this muck, from which extricating yourself is a multiyear operation. The Chargers did what teams with quarterbacks on rookie contracts are supposed to do: go all in! Now they’re left with top-tier contracts for mid-tier players. If Herbert is a top-10 quarterback and James is a top-10 safety, who are the other top-10 players at their respective positions on this roster? Slater, I’d say. Bosa is on the fringe at this stage in his career. That’s about it.
The fall of the Chargers is yet another example of why quarterback wins are an insufficient measure of quarterbacking. Sure, it plays well on sports talk shows and viral social graphics to throw up Herbert’s 29-31 career record. And because the Chargers spent so much money, it seems like they should have a roster capable of producing wins with a top-tier quarterback. But they don’t. They have a running game that is 30th in success rate, an aging Keenan Allen as their only viable receiver, and a right tackle turnstile for the third consecutive season. Teams with quarterbacks on rookie contracts are supposed to get good players on the roster; the Chargers, despite their best efforts, didn’t do that.
This isn’t about defending Herbert, though. Watch him, and you can tell he’s a good quarterback; any quibbling about seventh best or 11th best or third best is water under the bridge to me. It’s about the cautionary tale told by the Chargers: When you have your shot in the NFL, you cannot miss. You only get the good, cheap quarterback once in a blue moon. Fail to strike while the iron is hot, and you’ll have a good, expensive quarterback—you can still win with this player, but now it’s harder to do so. That’s especially true when the sins of the past still have to be unraveled.
This era of Chargers football is all but over. This offseason, a long teardown, reload, and rebuild will begin.