It’s Groundhog Day for the Los Angeles Chargers.
Injuries to frontline players have once again ravaged the roster for the Bolts. Defensive end Joey Bosa and top receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams have all missed significant time due to injuries this season.
However, even with those significant losses, Chargers head coach Brandon Staley still has this team at 5-4 heading into a pivotal contest against the AFC West-leading Kansas City Chiefs in a nationally televised game at SoFi Stadium on Sunday. The Bolts have won four of their last six contests.
Staley, in his second season, owns a 14-12 overall record. In his first season, the Chargers finished 9-8, failing to get into the postseason in the team’s final game of the year — a winnable contest with some questionable, late-game decisions on the road against the Las Vegas Raiders.
“We’re a work-in-progress,” Staley said about his team a few weeks ago heading into the bye week. “We haven’t played our best football, for sure. You have seen glimpses of it, but we have to bring this group together in the second half of the season.
“Everything is in front of us. It’s just going to be taking it a day at a time.”
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Three of the next five games for the Chargers are against playoff-caliber teams, including home games against the Chiefs, Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans. Sandwiched in between the Chiefs and Dolphins’ contests, the Bolts hit the road to face the Arizona Cardinals and the Raiders.
Quarterback Justin Herbert is in the third year of his rookie deal. And with veteran players like Allen, Bosa and running back Austin Ekeler not getting any younger, the window is closing on this group to take advantage of Herbert’s immense talent before the Chargers sign him to a lucrative, long-term contract extension.
The Chargers are built to win now. After missing the playoffs last year, it’s go time for Staley and the Bolts. At 7-2 this season, the Chiefs have dominated the AFC West, winning six straight division titles and appear on their way to winning a seventh. The Chargers have not won the AFC West since 2009.
Kansas City also has dominated the Chargers, with a 14-3 record in this series dating back to the 2014 season.
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However, L.A.’s top two receivers in Allen and Williams returned to practice this week. If the duo can make it on the field this weekend, they should buoy a struggling offense trying to find explosive plays and convert on third down.
Allen and Williams have only played together a total of 43 offensive snaps through nine games this season.
After finishing second in the NFL in passing yards (5,014) and earning a Pro Bowl invitation last year, some NFL observers believe Herbert has appeared to regress in his third season.
However, the University of Oregon product’s numbers are not that far off from where he was at last year at this point of the season. He’s sixth in the NFL in passing yards (2,450) and tied for 10th in passing touchdowns (14). Herbert’s 6.4 yards per pass attempt is nothing to write home about. But more importantly, the Chargers have the same 5-4 record at this point of the year as they did in 2021.
Perhaps offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi can more innovation to create chunk plays down the field, although the Chargers are limited by healthy playmakers available on game days.
“It has been more challenging with all the different pieces,” Lombardi told reporters this week. “When you get in a situation like that, you can push too hard and turn the ball over. For the most part, he has protected it well. Maybe some of the opportunities to make the big plays just haven’t been there for him and he’s just trying to play smart. I’m not worried about his regression.”
Herbert also has played through pain, not missing a game since suffering cracked rib cartilage in a Week 2 contest against Kansas City, L.A.’s opponent again this week.
“We got K.C. next week in prime time,” Derwin James said after his team’s gritty loss on the road to the San Francisco 49ers last week, in which the offense failed to score in the second half. “I’m still smiling. We’ve got to keep playing hard. Everything we’ve got is still in front of us. We’ve got to keep winning. We’ve just got to keep winning ball games.”
Speculation percolates that former New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton could be interested in a return to the league if a job becomes available for a team with a talented franchise quarterback like Herbert. Payton was recently spotted at a Chargers-Broncos game a few weeks ago at SoFi Stadium.
But as it stands now, Staley deserves a long enough runway to see if he’s the guy for the Chargers long term. Staley is in the second of a four-year deal. The rest of this season should help determine how to move forward with Staley for general manager Tom Telesco, head of football operations John Spanos and owner Dean Spanos.
Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.
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