Unlike many observers outside the organization, Brandon Staley said Wednesday he never felt his job as Chargers’ head coach was in jeopardy.
Staley faced significant scrutiny throughout the middle part of the season and then again following the team’s regular-season finale and subsequent wild-card playoff loss.
“I have a lot of confidence in the way we’ve done things for two years,” he said. “I have a lot of confidence in what I see on the football field. I know the type of improvement that we’ve been able to make since I’ve been here.”
The 2022-23 Chargers finished 10-7 — a one-game improvement over Staley’s first season — and secured the AFC’s top wild-card spot. The franchise hadn’t been to the playoffs since the 2018 season.
But Staley was second-guessed nationally for playing most of his starters deep into the second half of an otherwise meaningless regular-season finale at Denver.
Worse, wide receiver Mike Williams suffered a fracture in his back in the second quarter against the Broncos and was unavailable for the team’s playoff game at Jacksonville.
In that contest Saturday night, the Chargers built a 27-0 second-quarter lead only to lose to the Jaguars 31-30 on the final play.
“I was really proud of this season, especially with all the challenges that were happening throughout,” Staley said, referring to the team’s many injuries. “I felt that the way we finished the season said a lot about the guys in our locker room.”
Sitting at 6-6 in early December, the Chargers won four in a row to grab a postseason berth. All the momentum of that surge quickly disappeared with consecutive shaky performances.
On Tuesday, the fallout began when the Chargers parted ways with Joe Lombardi and Shane Day, their former offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, respectively.
Staley pointed to the team’s struggles running the ball — the Chargers finished 30th in yards rushing — as a determining factor in making changes to his offensive staff.
Since he was hired in January 2021, Staley has talked about a desire for the Chargers to be a tough, line-of-scrimmage team. In his two seasons, the team hasn’t reached that status.
“I think that there’s a different level that we need to play at offensively,” Staley said, “particularly at the line of scrimmage in the run game and having the marriage of the run and the pass, creating more explosions on early downs.
“There’s just a style of play that’s still out there for us. I think we’ve made improvements each season toward heading where I think we can ultimately go as a football team.”
The Chargers’ loss Saturday night was made possible in part because they were unable to run the ball in the second half and consume valuable time off the clock. They rushed eight times for 20 yards after halftime.
An improved running game, Staley explained, will only help quarterback Justin Herbert’s pass production and the offense’s overall ability to generate explosive plays.
“The offenses that I think are the most challenging to defend,” he said, “are the ones that put a lot of pressure on you every snap in terms of marrying the run game to the pass game.”
One of the most prominent names available as a replacement for Lombardi is Frank Reich, who was in his fifth season as Indianapolis’ head coach before being fired in early November.
Reich spent two years — 2014-15 — as the Chargers’ offensive coordinator under Mike McCoy. Along with offensive coordinator interest, Reich is a candidate for at least two open head coaching jobs.
Staley on Wednesday talked more glowingly of pursuing a coordinator from the Kyle Shanahan/Sean McVay coaching tree, explaining, “That’s the offense that I believe in.”
Those candidates could include Mike LaFleur, who most recently was offensive coordinator of the New York Jets, and two Rams assistants: Thomas Brown (assistant head coach/tight ends) and Zac Robinson (pass game coordinator/quarterbacks coach).
Whomever the Chargers hire, the emphasis will be on becoming a more complete offense that isn’t overly reliant on Herbert’s right arm.
“What you have to have is the balance,” Staley said. “You have to put pressure on the defense. You have to put the pressure on them on the perimeter, on the interior, top shelf of the coverage, level two. … That’s what it takes to become an explosive team.”
The loss at Jacksonville included the most startling moment of Staley’s head coaching tenure to date, an odd-looking exchange involving a frustrated Joey Bosa.
Mad at the officials, Bosa slammed his helmet to the turf as he was leaving the field in the fourth quarter. Staley quickly retrieved the helmet and handed it back to Bosa, who then threw it down again.
Staley was asked if the incident hinted at a program teetering on out of control, especially given that Bosa is one of the Chargers’ team captains.
“Anyone that knows our football team knows that … isn’t true,” he said. “[They know] our locker room is tight, that we made improvements in every way and that the culture of our team is as strong as it has ever been since I’ve been here.
“That’s what I saw after the game and the next day — as compared to a year ago — just how much tighter our locker room is. That’s why it was so disappointing because I know that, dissimilar to last year, this team felt like it could win a world championship.
“I think that’s a really positive thing. Now, we just have to get our minds engineered toward what’s next and making the improvements that we need to make.”