COSTA MESA, Calif. — The game clock inside a rocking FirstEnergy Stadium read 1:14, and Los Angeles Chargers coach Brandon Staley needed to make a decision.
Leading the Cleveland Browns, 30-28, and facing fourth-and-1 from their own 46-yard line, should the Bolts punt, and give their defense the opportunity to stop the Browns, who had no timeouts remaining.
Or should the ball remain in the hands of Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert for a final play that could seal a victory?
Staley, in a move that’s come to define his 22-game tenure as head coach, went for it.
Herbert’s pass fell incomplete. The Browns took over and advanced the ball 10 yards, but kicker Cade York — who earlier this season made a 58-yard attempt — missed a potential game-winning 54-yard field goal wide right.
The Chargers improved to 3-2 ahead of a Monday Night Football matchup against the 2-3 Denver Broncos (8:15 p.m. ESPN, ESPN+), but Staley’s late-game decision left many — including Chargers Pro Bowl wide receiver Keenan Allen — questioning the decision.
“WTF are we doing,” Allen wrote in a since-deleted tweet as he watched the game from home, nursing a nagging injury to his left hamstring.
Other Chargers players, however, weren’t shocked.
“This is no surprise,” running back Austin Ekeler said a day later. “It’s still Brandon Staley we’re talking about here.”
Last season, in Staley’s first as an NFL head coach — a job he landed five years after serving as the defensive coordinator at Division III John Carroll University — he boldly began forging his identity as a leader in what he hoped would be a new path for the struggling Bolts.
“What I’m doing is I’m trying to make the decisions that I think are going to win us the game – that are going to win us the game,” Staley said last December, with his team well on its way to leading the NFL in rate of fourth-down conversion attempts (32%). “I’m ready to live with all that smoke that comes with it.”
Despite missing the playoffs last season and finishing with a 9-8 record, Staley’s mindset hasn’t changed in Year 2.
“He’s a guy who is going to leave it all out on the line, he’s going to let his players play and he’s not going to hold anything back,” Allen said before the season.
Said Williams: “We love that. Our coach, he knows what he has here on this team.”
Bring the questions. Bring the commentary. Bring the heat. This is how the 39-year-old Staley wants his Chargers to succeed or fade again into irrelevancy.
“You just have to have conviction in what you believe in and also be transparent with your process, not feel defensive or insecure about it,” Staley said of his decision-making. “I understand that there should be scrutiny on all of the decisions that we make. It’s pro sports.”
Since his arrival in January 2021, Staley has attempted to revamp the Chargers’ culture and instilled one motto around the practice facility: “Our Way.” It’s their catch-all slogan that you won’t find plastered to the walls or printed on T-shirts, but players recite it and know the meaning.
“His thing is about relationships, communication and performance,” team captain and defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day said.
“He believes that comes from the heart and it’s more genuine and authentic,” All-Pro safety Derwin James Jr. said about Staley’s motto.
Simple enough, yet it’s a constant work in progress for a franchise that must find a way to be relevant in late January, coupled with never-ending questions about Staley’s playcalling tendencies.
“The culture has changed,” said Allen, the team’s longest-tenured player at 10 years. “We’re transitioning into a winning organization.”
The Chargers have never won a Super Bowl, can claim one AFC title from 1994 and have made one playoff appearance in the last eight seasons. And, whether it’s by luck, special teams, or last-second plays, the Chargers’ point differential has underperformed compared to their yardage differential in nine straight seasons.
Staley admits when he arrived there was a feeling the franchise lived on the cusp of impending doom — an injury, a blown lead, an inevitable collapse, a “Chargering thing,” as Staley described to The Athletic.
But the head coach has insisted he won’t subscribe to that.
“Curses are a part of the imagination. When you talk about topics like that, that’s just what someone wants you to believe,” Staley said. “The way that you change that is that you join up with the right people that don’t believe that, that aren’t affected by challenges, obstacles, adversity.”
Throughout an offseason makeover, the Chargers upgraded their offense and defense. They brought in specific players — including six who Staley had history with in three previous NFL roles.
They traded a second and sixth-round pick to the Chicago Bears to acquire All-Pro edge rusher Khalil Mack — who Staley coached as a defensive assistant for a season in Chicago and expected to assume a leadership role in L.A.
“The time we had in Chicago we were able to see each other up close for what it really was,” Mack said. “A lot of vulnerable moments, a lot of honest moments.”
“I understand that there should be scrutiny on all of the decisions that we make. It’s pro sports.”
And the Bolts signed playmakers in free agency, including cornerback J.C. Jackson, defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day and tight end Gerald Everett. They even shored up a shaky special teams unit by signing or re-signing each of their specialists.
“That’s the thing about pro football, is you need to pick who you plays for you and that’s how I know how to do it, is to join up with the right guys,” Staley said. “That’s the secret is you create something new with people who can do it and who have what it takes and who you believe in …
“Why I was so intentional about the team building thing is that to create a culture when there is none, you have to be able to do it with the right people.”
And yet, somehow, the Chargers’ old problems seem to creep back in.
Through five games they’ve dealt with a slew of injuries. They’ve lost a winnable game to the Chiefs. They’ve been embarrassed at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Pro Bowl left tackle Rashawn Slater has been placed on injured reserve and will be out for the season. Edge rusher Joey Bosa also is on injured reserve, though there’s optimism about his return late in the season. Quarterback Justin Herbert is playing through fractured rib cartilage and his top pass-catcher, Allen, has been sidelined four weeks because of his injury.
They were tied early in the fourth quarter, with a win probability of 73%, on the road at a raucous Arrowhead Stadium against the division-rival Kansas City Chiefs — until Herbert threw a pass that was intercepted and returned 99 yards for a touchdown in a 27-24 loss. And the following week, the Bolts failed to show in a 38-10 embarrassment against the Jacksonville Jaguars at home.
At 1-2 and drowning in a sea of injuries, the Chargers — billed during the preseason to be among favorites to make a deep playoff run, didn’t appear by the end of September to live up to the hype. October began with a necessary 34-24 win at the Houston Texans, which kept them afloat, but didn’t exactly produce confidence. Then it was on to Cleveland, a back-and-forth matchup that ultimately went L.A.’s way — a result overshadowed by days of debate over Staley’s decision-making.
Expect Staley’s philosophies around such decisions to continue to fuel debate.
The Chargers have gone for it 11 times this season, tied for fourth-most in the NFL. They’ve converted 45%, which is 19th-best, with a league average of 48.9%.
“We’re going to believe in what we do and how we do it,” Staley said. “That’s been my message to our team the whole time I’ve been here, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do. I just think it’s an easier way to live.”
Last Sunday, there was no sign of a curse. In fact, luck appeared to be on the Chargers’ side.
Staley went for it behind a questionable playcall to pass despite Ekeler notching a career-high 173 rushing yards.
“We were trying to seal out the game and leave no doubt by getting one yard. I liked the call,” Ekeler said. “He believes in us. I love that.”
Staley’s decision, coupled with the playcall — which offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi later expressed regret making, didn’t work out, but the Bolts escaped with a victory.
In the aftermath, despite one known loud critic, others continued to pledge their full support.
“I’m going to ride with him, regardless of whatever the decision was or the reason behind it was,” Joseph-Day said.
Even if it’s through all the smoke.