The Chargers looked like a fearless team on Sunday. They outplayed the Raiders for most of three and a half quarters, then withstood a late rally to win by five points. It’s not hard to imagine the Chargers losing that kind of game a year ago. That has been the knock on this franchise for years — that it has a knack for finding a way to screw up a great opportunity sooner or later.
The Chargers spent most of this year doing everything possible to ensure that success does not evade them as it did last January, when a Week 18 loss to the Raiders kept them out of the playoffs. A defense that disappointed in Staley’s first season received a major injection of veteran talent, including the arrival of cornerback JC Jackson and outside linebacker Khalil Mack. The cast surrounding star quarterback Justin Herbert has improved and the expectation is that the offense will be one of the league’s most dangerous. Staley has grown, as well.
The head coach acknowledges that some of his fourth-down strategies last year resulted from unforeseen circumstances. There were issues with the kicking and punting, and injuries took a toll on the defense.
“There are a lot of things that might be different but the approach isn’t going to change and it’s important for the team to see that,” Staley said. “Fifteen of our 17 games were (decided in the) fourth quarter. The two games that people will reference down the stretch (losses to Houston and Las Vegas), they didn’t go our way but the way our guys played, you could ‘t ask for anything more as a coach. There were five or six games that we won because of that. You have to have acceptance either way.”
This is going to be the most significant season for the Chargers in well over a decade. The Chiefs have won the last six AFC West titles and the Broncos won five straight before that. The Chargers haven’t claimed the division crown since 2009. They’ve only made the playoffs twice since that year and if that wasn’t frustrating enough, they currently share a city (and stadium) with the defending Super Bowl champion Rams.
So this can’t be another year when the Chargers fade or fall apart or simply fail to live up to expectations. This has to be a year where they break through and start dispelling the notion that they don’t know what to do with all that talent. Staley can see subtle indications of that evolution, saying, “There are little things. The way the guys are in stretch lines or meetings or at team functions. I can see it in the way our defense takes the field and sprints to the football. I have Khalil Mack and I saw what he brought to us in Chicago (when Staley was an assistant with the Bears). Now they’re all trying to follow him to the football at the beginning of a drill — because he’s racing onto the field — and Joey Bosa is chasing him with nine other guys.”
Staley stressed that he has not put an emphasis on what two divisional wins to start the year could do for his team. He’s trying to build the Chargers in a manner where they “can take anybody on” and be known more as “a team than a roster.” The reality is that it would be impossible for the Chargers not to understand the gravity of this situation, especially with star wide receiver Keenan Allen nursing a hamstring injury heading into Thursday’s game in Kansas City and Jackson having a 50-50 shot to play in the contest after missing Week 1 as he recovers from ankle surgery. Like the Buffalo Bills did in whipping the Rams last Thursday night, this is the Chargers’ opportunity to tell the league what they’re all about this year.
Staley knew the Raiders would be a difficult opener. The Chiefs — who just watched star quarterback Patrick Mahomes throw five touchdown passes in a 44-21 win over Arizona — present an even tougher challenge. However, these are the kinds of moments that will tell the second-year head coach precisely how far his team has come since last season. If he’s lucky, he’ll come away with greater clarity about where his squad is heading in the not so distant future.