The Los Angeles Chargers look to be something greater than the best team to miss the playoffs. That was their fate last season when a 9-8 campaign fell short in overtime of the final game, which was not enough to qualify in head coach Brandon Staley’s first season.
The Chargers are trying to win the AFC West for the first time since 2009. They split with all three division rivals last season. Justin Herbert is already one of the most prolific young quarterbacks in NFL history, becoming the first player to throw at least 30 touchdowns in each of his first two seasons. But it is going to take some better effort from the defense to make this a complete team.
The AFC West is shaping up to be the toughest division race in the league this year, if not in many years. But the Chargers are still held in high regard with an Over/Under of 10 wins at many of the top-rated sportsbooks. Is this going to be the year for Herbert to make his playoff debut?
The Notable Changes for 2022
The Chargers return much of the same offense from last year with Gerald Everett replacing Jared Cook at tight end and first-round rookie Zion Johnson taking over at right guard. The offense could be even better if third receiver Josh Palmer makes strides in his second season.
This is all good news as the Kansas City Chiefs were the only offense to average more yards and points per drive than the Chargers in 2021. The changes needed to come on defense after a disappointing effort.
Fixing the Defense
When head coach Brandon Staley was the defensive coordinator of the 2020 Rams, his unit had the top-scoring defense that season. While he was not going to have the likes of Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey leading his defense with the Chargers, the thought was better health for starters such as Derwin James, Joey Bosa, and Chris Harris would lead to better defensive results.
This did not materialize for the 2021 Chargers as only four defenses allowed more points. The Chargers were one of the worst defenses in the red zone and no defense forced a punt less often (26.1% of drives).
Bosa still made the Pro Bowl with 10.5 sacks, but he had a three-year low in pressures and quarterback hits. James also made the Pro Bowl after two injury-plagued years, but the Chargers lacked key stops late in games.
Herbert Needs a Good Defense
Perhaps most distressing was that the defense played worse than it did in 2020 before Staley arrived. Through Herbert’s 32 starts in the NFL, the Chargers have allowed at least 27 points a whopping 19 times, which is 59.4% of his starts.
Other MVP-caliber quarterbacks do not have to deal with that in their career as evident by the rate of starts their teams allowed 27-plus points for Josh Allen (19.7%), Tom Brady (24.5%), Lamar Jackson (24.5%), Russell Wilson (26.4%), Aaron Rodgers (32.2%), and Patrick Mahomes (40.5%).
Ball-Magnet Corner and Interior Run Support
Reinforcements were required, so with enough cap space to make a splash, the Chargers were aggressive in free agency.
They signed New England corner J.C. Jackson to a five-year deal worth $82 million after he made his first Pro Bowl in 2021 with eight interceptions and 23 passes defended. But Jackson was more than a one-year wonder as he also had 9 picks in 2020.
The Chargers were soft against the run last year, so they beefed up the interior line with a couple of signings. Sebastian Joseph-Day is a player Staley coached with the Rams, so he already knows the system. Austin Johnson is coming off a career season with the Giants after moving to a full-time starting role for the first time in seven seasons.
Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa: The Great Duo
Finally, the Chargers made the key move to trade a second-round pick to Chicago for All-Pro Khalil Mack, who was coached by Staley when he was with the Bears in 2018. The pass-rushing combo of Mack and Bosa should be one of the best in the league, and it will be vital to dealing with Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, and Derek Carr in this division.
While Mack is 31 years old and coming off a quiet, injury-shortened season, he should feel rejuvenated to join a new team that many consider a contender, which is not something you could say about most of the teams he’s played for. Mack has 76.5 sacks and 23 forced fumbles in a career with some serious Hall of Fame potential left.
The Chargers should be in much better shape after adding some disruptive forces up front and in the secondary. Corner Asante Samuel Jr. should also feel more comfortable in his second season. He only allowed one touchdown in his last six games in 2021.
2022 Chargers Prediction
Defensive improvements combined with one of the best, young quarterbacks in the league should lead to the best Chargers season in years. The Chargers’ schedule should also be a nice advantage to a team in need of an early confidence boost.
Looking at the Early Schedule
In the first eight games, the Chargers play four of the teams projected to be among the worst this season: Jaguars, Texans, Seahawks, and Falcons. There is also a fifth game in Cleveland in Week 5 when Deshaun Watson could still be suspended. The bulk of this team’s wins should come in the first half of the season.
While things get harder later, there is enough to like with this team that 10 wins should be close to a lock barring Herbert’s health.
Whether the Chargers win the AFC West for the first time in 13 years will come down to how they handle those tough division games. But I am trusting Staley and Herbert to figure it out in Year 2 together and put this team over 10 wins for your NFL picks.
On the Last Season of “The Chargers”: Overtime Blues
The Chargers have made a bad habit of fielding a team that is statistically and talent-wise better than the team’s final record suggests. The 2021 season was no exception as Justin Herbert passed for 5,014 yards and 38 touchdowns to lead a prolific offense built around Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and running back Austin Ekeler.
The revamped offensive line helped Herbert go from the sixth-most pressured quarterback as a rookie to the seventh-least pressured quarterback in 2021.
Herbert could have even been a dark horse MVP winner in a rough race for that award, but the Chargers ended up losing three key games on the final play while the game was tied.
First Tough Loss: Dallas
The Chargers’ first loss of the season was against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 2. Herbert had 2 touchdown passes called back by questionable penalties, and Dallas went on to win 20-17 on a 56-yard field goal with no time left.
It was the only sour point in a great 4-1 start that saw the Chargers win a dramatic game in Kansas City and win a 47-42 shootout over the Browns.
Game of the Year vs. Chiefs
In a leading candidate for the best game of the 2021 regular season, the 8-5 Chargers hosted the 9-4 Chiefs for control of the AFC West on a Thursday night in Week 15. Both teams moved the ball well, but both had multiple turnovers and the Chargers misfired on fourth down three times in a back-and-forth affair.
Herbert put the Chargers ahead 28-21 with just over two minutes left, calling on the defense to stop Patrick Mahomes to complete a season sweep of the Chiefs. But Mahomes was able to lead a 75-yard touchdown drive to tie the game. The Chargers had a chance to drive for the winning field goal in regulation, but their drive stalled out on three straight incompletions by Herbert.
In overtime, the Chiefs won the coin toss and Mahomes did what he usually does and led another long touchdown drive for the 34-28 win. Herbert never got the ball back and the Chiefs never looked back in the AFC West race.
In the three career meetings between Mahomes and Herbert, all three have gone down to the final play and the Chiefs won both games that went to overtime. This could be the top division matchup in the NFL to watch for the next several years.
Week 18: The One Time a Tie Would Have Been Great
The Chargers (9-7) still had a chance to make the playoffs in the final game of the regular season against the Raiders. They could either win the game to get in, or they could get a tie that would result in both the Chargers and Raiders making the playoffs and pushing out Pittsburgh. Some believed the teams could even come to an agreement to kneel out a tie, but the competitive juices between rivals were never going to allow for that.
Los Angeles struggled in the game and found itself behind 29-14 more than halfway through the fourth quarter. But Herbert had some magic left in him and led 2 miraculous touchdown drives that saw him convert four times on fourth down. The Chargers forced overtime where the teams exchanged field goals after yet another fourth-down conversion by Herbert with the season literally on the line.
But the Raiders had the ball last and used up the final 4:30 to set up a 47-yard field goal with no time left in overtime. If it missed, the game would have ended in a tie and both made the playoffs anyway. But the kick was good, and the Chargers were eliminated.
Herbert’s insane night on fourth down (6 total conversions) helped the Chargers set a modern NFL record with 22 fourth-down conversions last season.
Staley Was Good But Not Yet Great
There were other bad losses for the Chargers last season, including a 34-6 rout in Baltimore and a 41-29 embarrassment in Houston as an 11-point favorite. But those three losses on the final play to three playoff teams in the Cowboys, Chiefs, and Raiders really stand out as missed opportunities.
Staley’s embrace of data and thoughtful answers make him stand out among defensive-minded head coaches, but his team’s poor defensive performances and the sometimes highly questionable fourth-down decisions show he still has a long way to go to become one of the game’s top coaches.
While Staley’s rookie season was more encouraging than discouraging, he did not have that instant turnaround that his mentor Sean McVay had with the Rams in 2017.