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Full disclosure: I am a supporter of Chargers head coach Brandon Staley. I have been pushing for a coach who backs analytics to come in and take the league by storm, and I thought I had my guy.
Staley seems to have heard the criticisms of his decision-making and backed off a lot of what made him so lovable to the nerds. But that’s a story for another day. This story is about his indefensible decision to play his starters for the first three quarters of a meaningless Week 18 contest.
Not only did it not make sense to play his stars for the obvious reason: the outcome of the game had zero bearing on the Chargers playoff positioning. But, he should consider the makeup of his roster.
The Chargers best players — Justin Herbert, Mike Williams, Keenan Allen and Joey Bosa — have all battled injuries this season. Herbert played through fractured rib cartiledge early in the year. Williams has been in and out of the lineup with multiple injuries. Allen’s hamstring hampered him much of the season. Bosa only last week returned from an extended absence due to a groin issue.
In fact, with regard to their offense, ESPN reported the following: “The Chargers finish the regular season with just 260 plays (23%) where Herbert, Allen and Williams were on the field together, with Allen and Williams playing only four games (Weeks 14-17) together start-to-finish.”
Defending Brandon Staley’s decision
Now, that information could be used to spin Brandon Staley’s choices in a positive light. One could argue that having that trio on the field together in Week 18 is important for their chemistry since their time together has been limited this season.
However, the four games they played together were the four weeks prior to this one. And they’ve all played together for three seasons. One more game of time together does not outweigh the obvious downside if one of them were to get injured.
Which, of course, is exactly what happened. Mike Williams hurt his back and the Chargers medical staff carted him off the field. The video from the tunnel showed on the CBS broadcast looked very bad for Williams.
Luckily for Williams, Staley and the Chargers, he appears to be OK. Reports are that he experienced back spasms and should be able to play in the Wild Card round.
Joey Bosa also left the game after an awkward play, but also appears to have escaped major injury. The team additionally saw Kenneth Murray hurt and unable to return.
Chargers avoid disaster, but the point remains
Yes, it appears the Chargers are fortunate to not have suffered any long-term effects from playing in a meaningless game, but that doesn’t change the issue with the decision. Earlier in the week, Brandon Staley said the importance of the game would impact his strategy.
I was with him: getting the #5 seed in the AFC carried significance. But when the Cincinnati Bengals beat the Baltimore Ravens in the early window on Sunday, it locked Los Angeles into that spot. The result of the game against Denver had no bearing on the Chargers. None.
Brandon Staley knew that when his team kicked off in the late afternoon window. By his own admission, this should have changed his strategy. But it did not.
Justin Herbert played until the start of the fourth quarter. Keenan Allen played into the fourth quarter. Presumably, Williams and Bosa would have too if they’d not been hurt.
It’s been an up-and-down season for Staley, Chargers
Again, I’ve long defended Staley. I wrote a lengthy piece about why firing him to replace him with Sean Payton would be a mistake. I appeared on Dan Dakich’s show, “Don’t @ Me” and doubled down on that assertion.
When it looked like the Chargers might miss the playoffs, I preached patience. Chargers fans were not being patient. That had him out the door. But Staley won them over with a four-game winning streak and 5-1 record in the final six games to get Los Angeles to the postseason.
Not only that, into the #5 seed, setting up the easiest possible matchup in the Wild Card Round. The Chargers are favored on the road against AFC South champion Jacksonville. Dallas and Los Angeles are the only two road teams favored on Wild Card Weekend.
But with one game of poor decision, he undid all of that good will. A quick Twitter search of “Chargers” or “Brandon Staley” or “Mike Williams” during the game resulted in fans turning on Staley with near superhuman velocity. The Flash would be proud of the speed with which Chargers fans — really, all NFL Fans — changed their Staley tunes.
I could go on literally all day. But I won’t. You get it.
Staley defends decision after the game
Of course, the media asked Staley about his choices in the postgame press conference. He did not admit to being wrong. In fact, he defended himself.
These aren’t easy decisions … and hindsight is perfect for everybody on the outside, but these games are not easy to manage. They’re not, because you don’t have that many players and we did it to the best of our ability. We were trying to compete in the game and we only have 48 guys on the team that are active for the game. So we wanted to make sure that they went a good ways in this football game and competed at a high level and then when we felt like it was right for them to get out of the game, then that’s what we were going to do, slowly phase them out so that we could get ready for next week.Brandon Staley, according to ESPN
I’m rooting for the Chargers to win on Saturday, just to prove the doubters wrong. But even a Staley defender like myself can’t help but wonder why he seems hell-bent on getting himself fired.
Winning cures all, though, and there won’t be any questions if Los Angeles leaves Jacksonville with a win.
But if they don’t? Prepare for the Sean Payton talk to heat back up.
Follow Dan Zaksheske on Twitter: @OutkickDanZ