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Brandon Staley Lost His Chargers Team. Now He’s Lost His Job.

Staley’s Chargers teams were defined by their meltdowns, none bigger than their Thursday night loss to the Raiders. Now that he’s out, the Chargers are looking at a full reset for quarterback Justin Herbert.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Not even a month ago, then–Chargers head coach Brandon Staley stood in front of reporters after his team’s third consecutive loss and was resolute that he still had command of his team, that no one in the locker room was giving up even as their season circled the drain. He said they’d get “blown out of the stadium” if his messaging was no longer getting through to the players. And he wasn’t wrong. The Los Angeles Chargers were blown out of Allegiant Stadium on Thursday night, losing 63-21 to the Las Vegas Raiders in a game that wasn’t even as close as the 42-point differential.

By Friday morning, Staley was fired, along with general manager Tom Telesco, a disappointing end to a once-promising tenure in Los Angeles. The official announcement of the dual firings was not surprising to anyone who has closely followed the Chargers since Staley was hired in 2021—and certainly not after Thursday night’s debacle. Perhaps the only surprising thing was that Chargers owner Dean Spanos and his son, John, the team’s president of football operations, didn’t fire Staley at halftime when his team was trailing 42-0.

The energy was abysmal, and the execution was worse. Staley said after the game that he doesn’t question the effort of his guys. But he didn’t have to—it was clear as day. Here’s just a few of the ways in which the Chargers hit rock bottom Thursday night:

  • The offense, led by backup quarterback Easton Stick after the team placed Justin Herbert on injured reserve earlier this week, failed to convert on a third or fourth down until the second half and fumbled the ball away on two of their first three possessions.
  • Trailing 35-0 and coming out of the two-minute warning, running back Austin Ekeler was stuffed behind the line of scrimmage on fourth-and-1. Tight end Gerald Everett was called for offensive offside on the same play.
  • Staley’s supposedly vaunted defense allowed six first-half touchdowns to a Raiders team that lost 3-0 in the same stadium four days earlier. Only three teams since 2000 have faced a 42-point deficit at halftime. No team in NFL history has scored more first-half points coming off a shutout than the Raiders did Thursday; the second-place team is the Frankford Yellow Jackets from 1927.
  • Raiders running back Brandon Bolden, a 33-year-old special-teamer with zero offensive snaps prior to Thursday night, scored a 26-yard touchdown from the wildcat. It was his longest carry in more than five years.
  • Raiders defensive tackle John Jenkins, who is 34 years old and nearly 330 pounds, topped out at almost 15 miles per hour on a 44-yard fumble return for a Raiders touchdown. He ran Chargers players out of the frame of Amazon’s cameras.
  • Raiders defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, a failed first-round pick from Telesco’s 2019 draft with the Chargers, recovered a fumble and recorded a sack in the game.

On the Amazon broadcast, Al Michaels and Kirk Herbstreit described the Los Angeles players as “defeated,” and cameras lingered on shots of players on the sideline, their blank stares and miserable body language saying plenty. But Raiders defensive end Maxx Crosby probably summed it up best when he told his teammates in the locker room after the game that the Chargers simply “didn’t want that shit.”

Each detail was more embarrassing than the last, yet Staley was adamant that “games like this happen in the NFL to every coach.” The issue is that they don’t. Games like this happen to the Chargers, and, perhaps more accurately, games like this happen to Staley.

The Chargers had an opportunity to make the playoffs in Staley’s debut season in 2021 if they could beat or tie the Raiders on the road in Week 18. They ultimately lost in overtime after Staley called a bizarre timeout to sub in better run defenders, only to give up a 10-yard rush to Josh Jacobs that would set up a game-winning Daniel Carlson field goal. It felt like Chargering at its peak, yet it somehow got worse.

Staley played his starters in a meaningless Week 18 game in 2022 and the team lost starting wideout Mike Williams to an injury ahead of the Chargers’ matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars in the wild-card round. Staley’s team lost that playoff game 31-30 despite leading 27-0 midway through the second quarter. It was the third-largest comeback in NFL playoff history. Chargering redefined.

But it wasn’t just the gut-punch losses that did Staley in. His patented fourth-down aggressiveness, with which he won over football nerds as a rookie head coach in 2021, was inconsistent, and he rarely proved to be the defensive mastermind the Chargers figured they were getting after an impressive one-year stint as Rams defensive coordinator. The Chargers rank 31st in offensive points allowed per game since Staley took the reins in 2021. No other run defense has been worse. In that high-stakes Week 18 game against the Raiders at the end of the 2021 season, Las Vegas knew all it had to do was run right up the gut—because that’s simply what you do against a Staley defense. Staley’s unit allowed six opposing offenses to rush for at least 200 yards, and five others topped 180 rushing yards. The defense wasn’t reimagined or improved at all under Staley; it was a failure.

And Telesco, who had a long career as a scout before he was hired to be the Chargers general manager in 2013, is equally at fault here. The Chargers’ roster-building efforts over the three years they’ve had Staley and Herbert on a cost-controlled rookie contract have been nothing short of a disaster.

They first tried to rebuild the defense overnight, trading second- and sixth-round picks for defensive end Khalil Mack and signing cornerback J.C. Jackson to a monster multiyear contract. They also signed veteran defensive tackles Sebastian Joseph-Day, who previously played under Staley with the Rams, and Austin Johnson, as well as linebacker Kyle Van Noy.

“All those guys that we acquired through trade or free agency, those guys are proven NFL players,” Staley said that summer. “As it relates to what I expect from them, I expect us to play team defense. Last year, that was a weakness of our football team. And I don’t expect that to be the case [this year]. That’s why all of those guys are here.”

Nothing changed. The defense underwhelmed in 2022 and has continued to do so with a lot of those same faces in 2023, though they’re now paying Jackson more than $11.6 million this year and another $18.9 million next year to play for the New England Patriots after trading him away in October. (Telesco reportedly told the team that signing Jackson had been a mistake, and apologized.)

The offense hasn’t struggled nearly to the same degree because Herbert is one of the league’s premier quarterback talents, but there have been plenty of obvious missteps. They’ve missed on essentially every swing they’ve taken on a skill player in each of the past three drafts, and their change at offensive coordinator this offseason, from Joe Lombardi to Kellen Moore, a move intended to open up the Chargers’ vertical passing game, hasn’t made much of a difference for the offense’s overall performance.

The offense ranked 14th in EPA per drive and 10th in points per game under Lombardi in 2022; Moore’s version of the offense—in the 13 weeks when Herbert was healthy—ranked 10th in EPA per drive and tied for 11th in points per game. Herbert’s dropback EPA on throws of 15 or more air yards in Weeks 1-13 last season was 52.6. That figure this season was 53.3.

Whiffing in free agency with big-money contracts on low-impact players while failing to consistently add or develop any talent at premium positions in the draft has left the Chargers with a middle-of-the-pack roster and negative $45 million in projected cap space in 2024. Oh, and a new quarterback contract that starting next year will get only more expensive.

Dean Spanos said in his official statement following the announcement of the firings that the Chargers “need a new vision.” That starts with pointing fingers inward and evaluating ownership’s process that led to hiring Telesco and three failed head coaches in Mike McCoy, Anthony Lynn, and now Staley. Whatever new vision the Chargers’ next head coach and GM bring, they can’t lose locker rooms and get blown out of stadiums. They’ll have to redefine Chargering.