White trash bags were everywhere, on the floor and on seats, stuffed full of shirts, shoes,and the contents of lockers emptied on Sunday by players who won’t need those lockers again until next season.
The day after the Chargers coughed up a 27-point lead and lost to Jacksonville in the AFC wild-card round was a day of packing and reckoning, for coming to terms with a loss that was inexplicable but also very much in character for a franchise that has become expert at falling painfully just short of success.
“I mean, you’re always gonna feel it. You’re not really going to be over it,” defensive end Morgan Fox said in the locker room of the team’s Costa Mesa practice facility. “It’s something we have to wear for the rest of our lives, and it’s always going to get brought up.”
Players’ emotions were still raw Sunday as they said goodbye to teammates they won’t see for a while — or might next see as opponents.
“That was the first time we’ve been to the playoffs in a minute, and for us to go out there and play like we did in the first half and then lose it, we just have a sick feeling because we’re like, we know we could have easily beaten that team. Not easily. We could’ve beaten that team,” running back Austin Ekeler said. “And so much goes into getting to that moment.”
Linebacker Drue Tranquill, a free agent who said he hopes to return, struggled to put his thoughts into words.
“As a competitor you train your whole life for a moment to play for a world championship and to be up 27-0 and come out on the losing end, I can’t say I’ve ever been a part of something that hurts that bad in my life,” he said. “It’s something you kind of just have to feel and feel the hurt and the pain of it and come back stronger.”
Coach Brandon Staley was in the building Sunday but didn’t speak to the media. He held exit meetings with players, a task he likely wouldn’t have taken on if controlling owner Dean Spanos intended to fire him.
Staley was outcoached Saturday, and not for the first time. But would it further the development of superstar quarterback Justin Herbert to play for a third coach in four seasons, starting with Anthony Lynn in Herbert’s rookie season? Is Sean Payton worth a salary rumored to be around $10 million a year in addition to the draft picks the Chargers would have to give up to get him out of the rest of his New Orleans Saints contract?
Payton has a track record. Staley has potential. It’s not an easy call, despite the passionate chatter pushing for Payton on social media.
It’s easy to picture the Chargers keeping Staley but dismissing offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, whose stagnant playcalling was a key reason they struggled to score in the second half of games throughout the season. Firing Lombardi also would serve notice to Staley that his time to learn from his mistakes is over, and that he must take the Chargers deep into the playoffs next season or he will be gone too.
If it were up to players, Staley would keep his job. Fox said he’s “supremely confident” in Staley for keeping them together while they went through a minefield of injuries. Safety Derwin James Jr. said he’d happily endorse Staley if asked by team executives.
“Hell, yeah. Definitely. That’s my guy,” James said. “I feel like he’s put a lot into it and a lot of guys believe in him in the locker room. I definitely believe in him and he’s going to get it right.”
Herbert harmonized with the chorus.
“We believe in coach Staley and the front office 100%. Everyone would be lucky to have a coach like Staley,” Herbert said. “He’s been an incredible leader. He’s got the respect of everyone on our team.
“He’s genuine. He’s himself and we believe in him, and he’s been the same person the past two years. It didn’t go our way this year, but we took a big step forward and we believe in this coaching staff, this team, we’ve got the right pieces, we’ve just got to put them together. We’ve got to execute better.”
Edge rusher Joey Bosa, still angry over being called for two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties that paved the way for the Jaguars to complete a two-point conversion and cut the Chargers’ lead to 30-28, also backed his coach. Staley actually retrieved Bosa’s helmet after Bosa, fuming over a non-call, slammed it on the ground for the second time in response to what he considered baiting by referee Shawn Smith. Bosa credited Staley for trying to calm him.
“Staley, he got us to the playoffs against all odds. That was a rough season and a lot of us were out, me included. I wish I could have helped more,” Bosa said.
“I get a little frustrated [when people say], ‘Why did he call this? Why did he do that?’ Because why did I slam my helmet on the floor when he picked it up for me and tried to calm me down and get me in order and I grabbed it from him and threw it on the ground again? How is that his fault? That’s my fault.
“There’s a million examples. ‘Why did you throw the ball two inches too high when the guy was open? It’s your fault. Why did we miss the tackle?’ It’s all of our faults. It’s a collective group and yeah we were talking about it [Saturday]. What happened? Well, everything happened. It wasn’t one play. Everybody had a part in giving up the huge lead that we had, and I do believe in our coaches.”
Although Herbert insisted the Chargers have the right pieces and right coaching staff to succeed, that isn’t completely true: They need to come up with a better running game and they need a better offensive coordinator. Soon enough, they’ll decide if Staley is one of those right pieces.