All Ball Sports: Chargers coach chokes, Rams throw it away, USC revolving door
By Paul Teetor
Justin Herbert should fire Chargers Head coach Brandon Staley.
The star quarterback can’t fire the head coach, can he?
Technically, no. But in this case the Football Gods should make an exception.
That’s because Staley made the dumbest decision in sporting history late Sunday night, when he called a timeout with the score tied at 32-32 and less than a minute left in overtime of the Chargers game with the Las Vegas Raiders.
In legal terms, Herbert – and all his deeply frustrated teammates – would have a solid case for charging Staley with coaching malpractice. Or at the very least with being asleep at the wheel just before he drove the Chargers season into a ditch.
As the game clock ticked down toward zero, everyone in the stadium knew the reality: if the two teams ended the game tied – which was going to happen in just 38 seconds – then both teams would go to the playoffs and the Pittsburgh Steelers would not. But if one of them won the game, only that team would go to the playoffs. The other team would go home and the Steelers would be in.
Don’t ask All Ball how that mathematical quirk was reached – it had to do with which teams had won or lost earlier in the day, and which team had beaten which team earlier in the season, and would therefore hold the advantage in case of a tie. You’d need a rocket scientist to explain the math of it all.
But with 38 seconds left it was clear that Raiders Coach Rich Bisaccia certainly knew that all he needed was a tie and he would be the first coach since Wally Lemm in 1961 to take over a team in mid-season – he replaced Raiders Coach Jon Gruden, who was fired for sending racist and sexist emails – and lead it to the playoffs.
By refusing to call a timeout and letting the clock run down while his team was on the Chargers 46-yard line, Bisaccia was making it clear he was happy with a tie because it ensured his team would make the playoffs. Raiders fans in Allegiant Stadium were even holding up hastily made “Take the Tie” signs.
“We were definitely thinking along those lines,” Bisaccia admitted after the game. “We were talking about it. Definitely.”
In a situation where the worst could happen – the Raiders could fumble the ball, the Chargers could block the kick and run it back for a touchdown – why take a chance on kicking a field goal when they were already guaranteed a spot in the playoffs with a tie game and control of the ball?
So, facing a third-and-four situation, the Raiders didn’t call timeout to set up any kind of special play. They were content to run one more play and let the clock run out. If that meant the Chargers also made it to the playoffs, who cares — besides the outraged Steelers fans and the euphoric Chargers fans? His job was to make sure his team got into the playoffs – the same job Staley had.
Then, without any rhyme or reason and completely out of the blue, Staley suddenly called a timeout.
Why? Who the hell knows?
What we do know is that it gave the Raiders time to regroup on the sidelines, rethink their approach, and call a couple of plays that succeeded in getting them in prime position to kick a 47-yard, game winning field goal.
Herbert and all his teammates looked like zombies as they watched the kick sail through the goal posts to end their season and nullify one of the greatest comebacks ever seen in a win-or-go-home game.
Their own coach had just stabbed them in the back. Granted, it wasn’t on purpose, but it was a clear dereliction of duty. He simply hadn’t read the situation correctly, and realized that the Raiders were about to give him a late Christmas gift. So instead of gratefully accepting it, he gave them a gift.
In other words: he panicked. A first-year head coach, the 38-year-old Staley didn’t meet the moment when it mattered most.
Herbert, who now owns practically every NFL record for a quarterback’s first two years – he set a new one Sunday with 69 touchdown passes, breaking Dan Marino’s record of 68 – had just led the Chargers back from a 29-14 deficit with under five minutes to go in the game.
In the process he converted five, fourth down plays, threw a sinking rocket for a two-point conversion that kept their hopes alive at 29-22, and then uncorked a 21-yard laser beam on the final play of regulation – yep, another fourth down play – for a touchdown that produced a 29-29 tie after they kicked the point after.
Right there was another questionable Staley decision. All year long he had tried to project an image of himself as a gambler, a new-style coach who wasn’t afraid to roll the dice on a risky move. And now he was in Vegas with a chance to go for a two-point conversion and win the game outright without even having to go into overtime, where the team that wins the coin toss to get the ball first usually wins the game. All he had to do was put the ball in the hands of the best player on the field – that would be Herbie – and let him do his thing.
Besides that, Herbert two minutes earlier had just thrown a 2-point conversion to bring them within 29-22. The emerging superstar was having one of those legend-making games and the stage was all set for him to cap it all off with another two-point conversion to win the game 30-29.
Nope. This time Staley went old-school conservative – the very same approach he had disdained all year — and took the safe approach: kick the extra point for the tie, and take your chances in overtime.
Naturally the Raiders won the coin toss, got the ball first, and eventually won the game thanks to Staley’s bone-headed timeout call.
But the players’ indictment against Staley goes even beyond those two terrible calls.
Early in the third quarter the Chargers faced a fourth-and-one on their own 18-yard line. This was not the time to go for it because if you miss you give the Raiders a very short field to score and because the Chargers were only trailing 17-14. Plenty of time for desperation tactics late in the game if the situation dictated it. But not now.
Then Staley compounded his bad decision by calling a simple running play, sending Austin Ekeler off tackle, where he was stuffed for a loss. Now Ekeler is a great running back having a great season, but he is not a ground-and-pound back. He is a scat-back, a quick, shifty little guy who’s at his best catching short passes out of the backfield and turning nothing into something by making guys miss their first or second tackle attempts. He doesn’t run linemen over. He scoots around line-backers and makes big plays with his great balance and acceleration.
The damage from those two bad decisions was minimized when the Chargers defense held the Raiders to a field goal that pumped their lead up to 20-14. If not for those bad decisions, Herbert’s miracle comeback would have won the game in regulation before Staley had another chance to screw it all up.
After the game there wasn’t enough time to ask Staley about every single bad decision he made. But the media demanded to know why he called the crazy timeout, and he offered up a truly lame explanation. “We needed to get the right grouping,” he said. “We felt like they were going to run the ball. So we wanted to make that substitution so that we could get a play where we would deepen the field goal.”
But even that made no sense: a replay showed that the only personnel change he made after the timeout was removing a linebacker and sending in another defensive back: the kind of change you make to stop a pass play, not a running play. And it was clear as day that the Raiders were not going to try a pass play. Again, why take a chance when you’re already in the playoffs as long as the tie score remains.
Daniel Carlson kicked it with two seconds left, the Raiders won 35-32, and the Chargers were left trying not to slam their coach when the media asked them about it.
“I never wanted a tie so bad in my life,” was all Herbie had to say and smartly left it at that.
One thing is clear: this was by far the best and most dramatic game of the entire NFL season, and one of the greatest games in the league’s long history.
You could also say it was Herbie’s coming out party as a future NFL MVP, but faithful All Ball readers have known how great he was since the first game he played last season.
Now he just needs a coach as great as he is and the Chargers will be in the business of competing for Super Bowl titles for the next decade. Chargers Owner Dean Spanos – who was prowling the sideline as the dramatic ending unfolded — needs to seriously question whether he put Staley in the wrong job.
He’s clearly a great defensive coordinator. He proved that last year as the Rams defensive coordinator, when they had the top-rated defense in the entire league. This year the Rams defense wasn’t nearly as good without his leadership. Coincidence? I think not.
But is he ready to be a great head coach?
Based on one small sample size – a season where the Chargers finished 9-8 after a 4-1 start, and missed the playoffs by the thinnest of margins — the answer is NO.
Rams Make the Playoffs on a Sour Note
Twice, the Rams had Sunday’s game won.
And twice, the Rams found a way to lose Sunday’s game.
In the end, the giant wrap-around scoreboard at SoFi Stadium said 49ers 27, Rams 24 – in overtime.
But that close score didn’t begin to tell the whole story of this horrible, no good, dispiriting loss, a shocking Rams defeat in front of a roaring home crowd that a legit Super Bowl contender never would have let happen.
Even worse, it exposed all the fatal flaws that make it so unlikely that the Rams will make it back to SoFi for the Super Bowl next month, much less actually win a Super Bowl.
Start with this painful reminder: you can’t blame this one on Jared Goff. The former Rams quarterback and perennial punching bag has been exiled to Detroit and replaced by a guy in Matthew Stafford who was supposed to be a major upgrade.
Not by a long shot – or by a long pass, which he threw for yet another interception to end the game, a frustrating ending that encapsulated all the rabid Rams fans pent-up frustration with Stafford and with the team.
His two interceptions in this game gave him seven in the last three games. Unless that troubling trend changes quickly and dramatically, the Rams won’t even make it out of the first round. He and McVay have to find a way to stop the tsunami of turnovers.
After a great 7-1 start to the season, Stafford dramatically regressed to the point where he threw a pick-six in three straight games during the Rams winless November.
Granted, he led them to a four-win month in December, but the Rams never once looked like a powerhouse that was barreling its way towards a triumphant Super Bowl win on their home field, which was the whole rationale for all the mortgage-the-future moves the front office made this year.
Owner Stan Kroenke, one of the richest old guys in the world, had made it crystal clear that he was willing to open his wallet in exchange for the honor of watching his team win or at least play in next month’s Super Bowl at the $5.5 billion stadium that he personally financed every penny of.
But even with all the reinforcements and upgrades of the past year – trading Goff and two first round drafts picks for Stafford, trading a second and third round pick for edge rusher Vonn Miller, trading a fourth-round pick for running back Sony Michael – the Rams still couldn’t finish a game in which they led 17-0 late in the first half.
At that point it seemed there was no way the Rams could lose. After all, Head Coach Sean McVay was an incredible 45-0 in games where his team was leading at halftime. On the other hand, the 49ers were 0-and 40 after trailing by 17 points or more.
But somehow the Rams found a way to beat the odds and break both those streaks.
Even after San Fran pulled even at 17-all, the Rams went ahead 24-17 with just over a minute to go. Yet again the 49ers marched right through the porous Ram defense to score another TD and force overtime, where they won it with a field goal that the Rams could not match when Stafford threw a foolish interception, ending the game with that turnover.
Ultimately, the damage from the loss was not as bad as it could have been. With a win, the Rams would have been the second seed in the NFC and would have had home field for the first two playoff rounds, assuming they win their first game.
But the loss dropped them to the fourth seed with a 12-5 record, and now they will have to face the Arizona Cardinals and their unstoppable, scoot-and-shoot quarterback, Kyler Murray, Monday night at SoFi Stadium in the first Monday night playoff game ever.
They split the season series with the divisional rival Cardinals, but right now Murray is playing a lot better than Stafford – and these kinds of close playoffs games between evenly matched rivals who know each other well usually come down to which team’s quarterback is better on that day.
The only good news: the game will be played in SoFi Stadium. It is unlikely that the Cardinals, who do not have the kind of national fan base that the 49ers do, will be able to turn out nearly as many Arizona fans as there were 49ers fans at this game.
Whose House? Rams House!
It better be, or they won’t be moving on.
USC’s quarterback revolving door
It started last month with USC’s stunning hire of Oklahoma Coach Lincoln Riley, a game-changer who is now expected to return the Trojans to the glory days of yesteryear. Lost in all the noise over Riley’s arrival was the news of Kedon Slovis’ departure via the transfer portal.
A few days before Christmas Slovis, who had been USC’s starting QB for the last three seasons – and twice made All Pac-12 – announced that he was moving on to Pitt. He tweeted out that he will be the Panther’s starting quarterback next year and also wrote an essay looking back on his three years as a Trojan.
“USC will always be a special place to me,” he wrote. “But now it’s time to start a new chapter.”
In the second half of this season, he split time with freshman QB Jaxson Dart, who had a couple of spectacular games and was expected to prosper under Riley, who made his rep as a quarterback whisperer while developing two consecutive Heisman Trophy winners in Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray.
So a major shock wave hit town Monday morning when news broke that Dart had entered the transfer portal and is now expected to leave USC. Meanwhile, the latest star quarterback that Riley had developed at Oklahoma, Caleb Williams, entered the transfer portal last week and is rumored to be following his coach to LA any day now.
Apparently, Dart figured he better get out of town while the getting was good. When you’re an elite quarterback whose sole goal is to make it to the NFL, the prospect of sitting and watching while someone else is calling the plays and throwing the passes is simply unacceptable.
So for those Trojan fans who are keeping score at home: Kedon Slovis to Pitt, Jaxson Dart to who knows where – don’t be shocked if he transfers to Oklahoma – and Caleb Williams is probably on his way to LA.
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