TIAA BANK STADIUM in Jacksonville, Florida, erupted in celebration, but the visitors sideline froze in disbelief.
An anguished look flashed across coach Brandon Staley’s face, as quarterback Justin Herbert stared blankly into the night. Owner Dean Spanos, from a stadium suite, couldn’t believe his eyes.
The Los Angeles Chargers could only watch as Jaguars kicker Riley Patterson drilled a 36-yard field goal to mount the third largest come-from-behind victory in NFL playoff history as time expired in a wild-card playoff on Jan. 14.
Jubilation rang out amid Jags players who stormed the field as the Chargers retreated to the locker room, their season coming to an abrupt end after surrendering a 27-point lead to lose 31-30 on the last-second kick.
“That’s not a bad memory,” Spanos said as he recalled feelings from that chilly January night. “That’s a nightmare.”
Consider it a recurring nightmare the 63-year-old franchise can’t seem to wake up from, a feat that’s spawned its own adverb: “Chargering.”
“I would define that as choking a game away,” Staley said of the term. “Where you collapsed. You crumbled.”
It’s missed kicks at inopportune times. It’s blown leads and getting blown out. It’s botched kneel downs. It’s injuries at the most critical moments. It’s mental mistakes that cause forced turnovers into opponent’s big gains. It’s underachieving.
“It was kind of one of those heartbreaking things where in the last seconds you lose a game that you thought for sure the whole entire game you had won,” said Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who could be referring to any number of games, including the wild-card loss, but was actually referencing a 2006 playoff disaster.
“Chargering” lives in an organization that, despite boasting many talent-rich rosters, has won one AFC Championship that led to a single Super Bowl appearance and zero world championships.
The Chargers aren’t alone in never hoisting a Lombardi Trophy; 11 other NFL organizations have yet to win a title. And they’re far from the only team to blow games. That happens every Sunday. But it’s how they lose that’s become synonymous with their brand and that’s created a new term.
“At the end of the day, we’ve had a history of things not falling our way,” former All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates said. “And in the sports world, you get a stigma and it’s up to you to overcome it at one point…
“It’s like a guy who misses free throws in the clutch all the time. Until you start making them, people are going to say that’s the guy that chokes.”
A day after the loss to Jacksonville, edge rusher Joey Bosa didn’t name what he felt, but his description sure seemed a form of “Chargering” — a pending sense something bad was about to happen.
It first crept into Bosa’s mind when up 27-0 and he saw teammates waving goodbye to Jaguars fans. To him, that shouldn’t have been the team’s mindset. There was too much game to be played, more than a half, and too many things could happen. He’s seen enough of it in his seven seasons, during which they’ve surrendered a fourth-quarter lead 21 times — second over that span to the Indianapolis Colts (24).
“When I played at Ohio State, it was a mentality that we can’t lose,” Bosa said. “It’s a culture and mindset that we really need to get. That when something goes wrong, we can’t let that snowball, because it seems that’s what we let happen if things are going well. One bad play happens, then we get that kind of collective sense like ‘Oh gosh, what’s happening?’ Me included. I have it ingrained in my head a little bit because it’s happened to us a million times.”
But, arguably, there’s no instance more painful than the game last January.
“That was one of the worst possible ways to lose a game,” Spanos said. “It was devastating. And not just for me, for everybody.”
HALL OF FAME quarterback Dan Fouts sighed and rolled his eyes. Yes, he’s heard of the term “Chargering.”
“I’m responsible for some of it,” said Fouts, who led the Bolts to four playoff appearances but never advanced to the Super Bowl in 15 seasons.
Under Hall of Fame coach Don Coryell, whose offensive scheme, “Air Coryell,” remains a staple throughout the NFL, the Chargers lost two divisional and two conference championship games.
Fouts turned in several stellar performances, including one in a playoff win over the Miami Dolphins that’s known as the “Epic in Miami,” but otherwise couldn’t find the same consistency in the playoffs as the regular season.
Although Fouts says he bears some responsibility for “Chargering,” he’s hardly responsible for all of it.
The Chargers’ lone Super Bowl appearance in 1994, with Stan Humphries at quarterback, resulted in San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young and wide receiver Jerry Rice dismantling the then-San Diego team 49-26.
A decade later, kicker Nate Kaeding missed a 40-yard field goal in overtime as the New York Jets prevailed 20-17 to advance to the divisional round. After five seasons passed, Kaeding struck again as he missed three field goals against the Jets, despite leading the NFL with 32 conversions all season, in a three-point loss in the divisional round.
There’s former quarterback Philip Rivers fumbling a kneel down in 2011 which led to a Kansas City Chiefs overtime victory. And there’s “Hey, Diddle, Diddle, Ray Rice up the middle,” as Rice proclaimed, after he turned a short pass into a fourth-and-29 conversion to set up a Baltimore Ravens overtime win in 2012.
But perhaps the most painful defeat lives with Marty Schottenheimer’s 2006 team.
“I just remember going to the Pro Bowl and our whole team was over there,” Gates said. “I just remember just saying to myself, ‘It’s 11 guys over here, why are we not Super Bowl champions?'”
After a 14-2 season, the Chargers cruised to the No. 1 seed in the AFC, but mismanaged what could have been a game-sealing play in the fourth quarter of a divisional matchup against the New England Patriots.
With a 21-13 lead and 6:25 remaining, Chargers safety Marlon McCree intercepted a pass by quarterback Tom Brady. McCree returned the ball 3 yards before Patriots receiver Troy Brown stripped it and receiver Reche Caldwell recovered.
McCree’s mistake proved costly. He should have taken a knee to give the Chargers, with three timeouts remaining, an opportunity to drain the clock.
“I remember being in complete control the whole game. We were really the better team,” said Tomlinson, who was named league MVP that season, becoming the most recent non-quarterback to earn the honor. “But you have to finish the game and we didn’t finish the game.”
The Patriots scored a touchdown, completed a 2-point conversion, forced a three-and-out, then drove to kick a 31-yard go-ahead field goal to take a 24-21 lead. The Chargers missed a 54-yard field goal on the ensuing drive, with eight seconds remaining, and lost.
“I just remember having that moment of feeling like a champion,” Gates said. “And sometimes you don’t always become that champion.”
AFTER A HEADLINE-GRABBING offseason that included trading for edge rusher Khalil Mack and signing cornerback J.C. Jackson in free agency, the expectation was a deep playoff run, if not a Super Bowl appearance for the 2022 Chargers.
Then Herbert fractured his ribs. Left tackle Rashawn Slater ruptured a biceps tendon and was sidelined for the season. Bosa tore his groin and joined Slater on injured reserve for 12 weeks. Receiver Keenan Allen nursed a hamstring injury and receiver Mike Williams suffered a high-ankle sprain. Jackson blew out his knee and ended up on injured reserve. The Chargers finished a Week 10 loss to the 49ers with exactly three available defensive linemen.
Nevertheless, they were 6-6, with ESPN’s Football Power Index metric giving them a 50% chance to make the playoffs. At a crossroads with a decimated roster, they had many reasons to look ahead to 2023, but instead proved resilient.
“Our team really rose to the occasion,” Staley said.
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With two weeks remaining in the regular season, the Chargers clinched their first playoff bid in four seasons, with several players, including Allen, back in the lineup.
Despite a Week 18 debacle highlighted by Williams fracturing his back, the Bolts remained optimistic about going on a deep playoff run.
That optimism became reality with a fast start against the Jaguars as they intercepted quarterback Trevor Lawrence four times and jumped to a 27-0 lead with 4:25 remaining in the first half.
“I was thinking like, ‘Man, they’re … they’re going to blow them out,'” Tomlinson said. “Because we started out so well and then everything was going our way. But it tells you the momentum can change, especially in a playoff game, and it’s weird how it happens.”
The Jaguars scored with 24 seconds remaining in the first half and went into the break trailing 27-7. The Chargers opened the half with the ball, but were forced to punt. The Jags scored again, making it 27-14.
Chargers kicker Cameron Dicker booted a 50-yard field goal to go up 30-14, but the Chargers wouldn’t score again.
The Jags scored on the ensuing drive but failed on the subsequent 2-point conversion to pull within 30-20. In the fourth quarter, after Dicker missed a 40-yard field goal, the Jaguars scored again, completing a 2-point play and trailing 30-28 with 5:25 remaining.
The Chargers went three-and-out on their ensuing possession.
“It was like a bad dream,” Mack said. “Like a nightmare.”
As time expired, the Jaguars kicked the 36-yard field goal to win, becoming the first team in playoff history to win a game despite losing the turnover battle 5-0.
“We lost because we f—ing blew it in the second half, pretty simple,” Bosa said a day later.
“Any playoff loss is painful, but losing in the first round is difficult,” general manager Tom Telesco said. “Then, the manner in which we lost, just stings a little bit more.”
“The first half I felt pretty good. I’ve never seen a better half,” Spanos said. “But it was a tale of two halves and obviously that second one was tough.
“Losing is terrible. But the way you lose sometimes is even worse.”
IT WAS A spring day inside Chargers headquarters, where coaches and players buzzed with renewed energy during the offseason program, and where a television inside the cafeteria was tuned to the NFL Network.
Until a replay of the game came on.
A staff member swiftly retrieved the remote and changed the channel as a colleague commended the move.
Many don’t want to be reminded.
Defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day doesn’t live in that category. He isn’t concerned about letting the loss to the Jaguars get to him.
“It does consume me,” Joseph-Day said. “I think that’s the part about it. I think that if you’re a competitor and you want to be great — I’m not speaking for anyone else, I’m speaking for me, like that consumes me. The way that we lost, I’ve never lost like that before.”
Since taking over as coach in 2021, Staley has emphasized adding the correct people and players to the organization — those who know what it takes to succeed.
“The people that you have in your building that have been with you from the beginning that you want to build with, you bring that all together and you’re going to have something special,” Staley said. “That’s what is happening here. Again, it’s something that does take some time. As long as you’re doing it with the right people, which is what we have here, I know that won’t be the case.”
Staley heard Bosa’s comment on the culture, how it needs to be more like Ohio State and feature a winning mentality. So did Telesco, who is entering his 11th season.
“Ohio State wasn’t always that way,” Staley said. “I’m from Ohio. Things take time to build.”
Said Telesco: “I didn’t feel that [the culture issue]. I didn’t feel it during the season. I didn’t even feel that during the [playoff] game.”
Whose job is it exactly to ensure that the sense of impending doom disappears, if it exists at all?
“It’s everybody’s job. I don’t think one single person is going to be in charge of 100 people’s minds on the sideline. I think it’s something you work and talk about all year, and practice all year,” Bosa said. “It’s something that we’re going to have to talk about throughout the year and be mentally prepared for.”
The Chargers look ahead to 2023 inspired to put their embarrassment behind them and inspired that this is the year with the players they need.
Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and his ultra-conservative playcalling are out; Kellen Moore, along with his playcalling that emphasizes getting the offense downfield, is in.
Herbert, after surpassing former Colts quarterback Andrew Luck for the most passing yards through their first three NFL seasons, returns for Year 4.
At his disposal are receivers Allen, Williams, Joshua Palmer — who led the group with 72 receptions last season — first-round pick Quentin Johnston and running back Austin Ekeler, who led the NFL with 18 touchdowns last season.
Defensively, Bosa and Mack will get another shot at becoming a top pass-rushing duo, star safety Derwin James Jr. returns, and optimism surrounds the recovery of Jackson.
“We’re going to be hard to beat,” Spanos said.
NOT EVERYONE SUBSCRIBES to “Chargering.”
Staley is familiar with the term. He’s raised it in conversation. He can define it, but his vow is to not let it define his era of Chargers football and he certainly won’t say that’s what happened last January.
“I resent the term. I reject it,” Staley said. “None of us who are here are built like that. I don’t bring anyone else in here who represents anything like that. When you look at all the strategic moves that we’ve been [part of] since I’ve been the head coach, it’s the exact opposite. Now, you have to have a breakthrough together, for sure.”
“Chargering,” Staley says, pertains to issues of the past, which he says aren’t issues for the current team.
Allen, the longest-tenured Charger entering Year 11, says he’s unfamiliar with the term and doesn’t even agree with the premise.
“When you look at not winning the Super Bowl, yeah,” Allen said when asked if they’re “Chargering.” “But that means 31 teams are ‘Chargering’ if that’s the case. If you’re not Tom Brady or Pat Mahomes, you’re ‘Chargering.'”
What must happen for the Chargers to get over the hump and realize their potential?
“It’s going to take a little luck and a lot of hard work,” Fouts said. “If they can get through the season, through that division into the playoffs, they’ll be battle hardened and that’ll help them in the playoffs, because the playoffs are a different story.”
The Chargers must face in 2023 a gauntlet of a schedule that includes two trips to the Eastern time zone, a November date in Green Bay with the Packers, and twice playing the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, who have won seven straight division titles, tied for the second-longest streak in NFL history.
ESPN’s FPI gives the Chargers a 50% chance to earn a playoff bid.
“When you have an elite quarterback, you have a chance every game and then you start putting the pieces around him, which the Chargers are starting to do right now, and the luck will go our way,” Tomlinson said. “I believe that the luck is going to start to go our way.”