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Armando Salguero: How Chargers Earned A Playoff Chance After 7-9 Season And Coach Firing In 2020

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At the end of each week, long after the game plan has been written, practiced and honed, after all the preparation for the next game is basically complete, Los Angeles Chargers coach Brandon Staley will walk the team facility’s halls knowing everyone’s gone home to rest and decompress.

“The calm before the storm,” Staley calls it.

Except Staley usually isn’t alone in that silent facility.

Quarterback Justin Herbert is typically still there.

Working. Studying. Closing whatever circle he might think is still open in his preparation for the coming game.

“When the rest of our facility is empty, he and me are the last ones here,” Staley said Monday. “I think that that never ceases to amaze me. That peace and quiet, that serenity in a pro building, where you’re kind of at the end of the week, but your starting quarterback is still here.

“It’s a reminder of why he’s earning all of the things that he’s earning.”

Herbert has reached multiple milestones and broken multiple records his first two seasons with the Chargers and first one under Staley’s staff.

His 805 completions through 31 games made him the fastest player to reach that mark in NFL history.

He threw his 35th touchdown pass of the season in Sunday’s 34-13 victory over the Denver Broncos, and that gave him the franchise single-season passing touchdown record previously set by Philip Rivers in 2008.

And it should be noted the record that now belongs to Herbert puts him above past Chargers quarterbacks such as Drew Brees, Dan Fouts, John Hadl and, yes, Rivers.

“I think it’s special because I was a Chargers fan growing up,” Herbert said. “I knew about all of those guys. I watched them all. They’re football legends. To be able to be even in the same conversation with them is a huge honor.

“But we’re not done yet. We still have a big game coming up on Sunday. We’re going to need to have a good week of practice heading into it.”

Oh, yeah, the season finale against the Las Vegas Raiders.

After a 7-9 season in 2020 that was followed by the firing of coach Anthony Lynn, the Chargers have improved to 9-7 and are set for Sunday night’s game in which the winner goes to the playoffs.

“It’s like the playoffs are starting this week already,” safety Derwin James said Monday. “You win, you keep advancing. That’s how the playoffs work. We have a great opportunity coming this week in Week 18 against the Raiders.”

It’s obvious the Chargers have done a lot of things right to have the opportunity. (Yes, so have the Raiders, who are expected to get tight end Darren Waller back in their lineup.)

But it should be noted Los Angeles has had to grow to this point.

The defense is still, well, iffy at times. The Chargers are tied with the Houston Texans in giving up 26.5 points per game, which is sixth worst in the NFL.

The run attack, sometimes absent and often inconsistent through half the season, has gotten better lately but still plays a featured role behind the star quarterback’s passing.

“I feel like we have been able to establish some continuity here in the second half of the season,” Staley said. “I think that you’ve seen that in how we’ve run the football the last, I would say, three or four games, for sure. I think that that’s been a strength of ours and it makes us a much more difficult offense to defend.”

So the Chargers, it should be understood, are a work in progress.

Their 9-7 record shows they’re not a finished product but are improving. And it has started with the team’s culture, which has apparently taken hold under the new coaching staff.

“When you hear your players start to sound like coaches, I think that you feel like you’re a lot closer to establishing your way of doing things,” Staley said. “When your players sound like coaches with the way you practice — whether it’s techniques, schemes, situation — when they start to sound like you do, I think that you know you have a good thing going.”

Herbert’s play also has shown signs the Chargers have a good thing blossoming before their eyes. He was the offensive rookie of the year last season, and he’s been better this season.

Through 16 games, Herbert has improved on his completion percentage, increased his touchdown passes from 31 to 35, increased his yards per attempt average and has thrown for more yards.

Aside from breaking the Rivers TD mark set in ’08, Herbert’s 4,631 yards also eclipsed the 4,009 set by Rivers, and his 67.3 completion percentage is better than Rivers’s 65.3 completion percentage that year.

No, the Chargers haven’t had a Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Dan Marino in their prime on their team. But Herbert breaking the Rivers mark is the equivalent of a latter day QB breaking the marks of those greats on the Patriots, Colts or Dolphins.

That obviously is one reason the Chargers have earned this upcoming opportunity to get in the playoffs. So you know what’s going to happen this Friday, days before that fateful game is played.

Herbert will be the last player in the Chargers facility late Friday afternoon.

“I normally head into the quarterback room before I leave, knowing that he’s there, just to connect before the weekend, the calm before the storm,” Staley said. “When you’re towards the end of the week, you’re trying to get into that space of how it’s all of this preparation, and now you’re getting into the space of how it’s time to go perform.

“It’s one of those spaces during the week that I’ve enjoyed. At the same time, it’s one of those reminders of what makes him really special.”

Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

Written by Armando Salguero

Armando Salguero has covered the NFL since 1990 for the Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald and ESPN. He was a 2016 Associated Press Sports Editors Top 10 columnist. He is a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector and AP All-Pro team voter.

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