AP Photo/Kyusung Gong
In five of the six last Super Bowls, a team came out of nowhere to compete for a title.
The Cincinnati Bengals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons didn’t make the playoffs the previous season before they represented their conference to varied results.
Each made specific moves in the meantime to ensure they were capable of competing at the highest level.
The current iteration of the Los Angeles Chargers positioned itself this offseason to be next in line despite going 9-8 and missing last year’s postseason because of a Week 18 overtime loss to the Las Vegas Raiders.
With Justin Herbert’s continued development, improved personnel—particularly in the trenches—and the locker room buying into Brandon Staley’s philosophies, the Chargers should be forged by fire navigating the AFC West gauntlet to emerge as the conference’s best squad.
The Chargers really should have made the postseason in 2021. In coming up short, the outcome only strengthened the team’s belief in its approach.
Staley explained, courtesy of The Athletic’s Daniel Popper:
“There has to be a fearlessness to play in this game, and what I wanted to establish was that. The history of this team when I got here, it was like someone’s going to get hurt, they’re going to blow a lead, something catastrophic is going to happen. There’s this ‘Chargering’ thing. There’s all of these external factors that I know in my life, they’re just all excuses. They’re just all excuses.
“And so, how do you change that? Well, you have to do things different, you have to have a different approach. … Our mindset’s going to be on us, it’s not going to be on the opponent. It’s going to be on us. So creating that fearless mindset of, we are going to be aggressive, we’re going to put the ball in our hands, we’re going to trust our guys to make plays.
“If we lose, we’re going to do it on our terms, not someone else’s terms.”
Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley (Harry How/Getty Images)
The aggressiveness in which the Chargers approach their play-calling is intentional. It’s a mindset Staley and his staff are trying to establish in order to increase his squad’s odds of winning based on situational awareness. They’re not worried about the franchise’s history of crushing losses, and the coach hasn’t been shy or secretive about how he goes about his business.
Last season, Los Angeles went for it on fourth down a league-high 31.5 percent of the time, per Popper.
“The real football people understand that what I’m doing is playing to the strengths of our football team,” Staley told reporters after an overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in December. “What I’m doing is I’m trying to make the decisions that I think are going to win us the game.”
The Chargers play a game of ever-shifting percentages and make informed decisions based on what the numbers say in any given moment. To invoke the great Herm Edwards, they’re playing to win the game. In this case, they do so by placing themselves in the best position on a down-by-down basis.
This approach could backfire depending on the makeup of the locker room. That’s not the case in Los Angeles. The roster is all-in.
The veterans sent a message to Staley despite the disappointing end to his first season as Chargers head coach. According to Staley, they said, “Don’t you ever change. Don’t you even think about it.”
A blueprint with everyone in the locker room on the same page is important. But every squad needs its Jimmys and Joes to back up those X’s and O’s.
Everything starts with Justin Herbert as the quarterback enters his third season. Hebert appears to be an ascending superstar and one of the best at the game’s most important position.
Physically, the 2020 sixth overall draft pick stands 6’6″ and weighs 236 pounds. He’s not a statue, either. Herbert moves very well and excels when asked to work off platform and outside of structure. He presents dazzling arm talent, particularly when asked to push the ball downfield.
But his potential extends well beyond those innate capabilities. Herbert retains and translates information, processes well and displays excellent work ethic.
“He stays like an hour-and-a-half after practice just throwing balls,” wide receiver Keenan Allen told reporters Wednesday. “It’s crazy.”
“… Philip [Rivers] never stayed after practice to throw the ball. Philip put in the work, but this guy is out here like an hour-and-a-half after, just throwing the same route over and over and over. If there is not a spiral, he’ll just keep throwing the same one.”
Consistency in footwork, mechanics and timing are absolutely vital for high-level quarterback play. Herbert’s willingness to put in the extra time and effort to build a level of absolute certainty among his wide receivers will help him improve upon what’s already been an exceptional start to his professional career.
Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert at training camp. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
It’s hard to top what Herbert has done so far. He set records with 69 passing touchdowns, 9,350 passing yards, 839 completions and 77 total touchdowns through his first two seasons. The Pro Bowler is one of four quarterbacks to throw for over 5,000 yards in a season before turning 24, per Pro Football Focus. He also posted the lowest turnover-worthy play rate last season. According to Mike Tanier of Football Outsiders, Herbert’s defense-adjusted yards above replacement through his first two years ranks third behind some guys named Dan Marino and Peyton Manning.
“He’s just so steady,” Staley said. “He’s a fierce competitor. His intangibles are by far his best quality, the head that he has on his shoulders. There is nobody’s standards that will ever, ever meet his own.
“… He has rare competitive stamina. … It tells the organization that we better keep up with him.”
It may be hard to keep up with Herbert as he enters his second year in Joe Lombardi’s system. The quarterback is going to know the plays better. He’s going to be more comfortable with the verbiage and scheme. His receivers will have a better idea of what’s expected of them. The quarterback should naturally improve based on this increased familiarity.
The entire team will benefit from upgrades along both sides of the line.
According to Sports Illustrated‘s Albert Beer, Staley and the Chargers front office wanted to “get bigger across the lines of scrimmage.” They did.
On offense, the Chargers drafted Zion Johnson and Jamaree Salyer in the first and sixth rounds, respectively. Both are big, powerful guards, and Johnson quickly earned his spot at right guard with first-team offense.
“Well, we got a lot of really good coaches and we got a lot of good players that’ve helped,” Staley told Breer. “You bring in Zion [Johnson] and Jamaree [Salyer] and the fact that you have two stud line coaches in [Brendan] Nugent and Shaun [Sarrett], and then you have this great culture that you’ve created, like in a year, our O-line has got this really cool culture led by Corey [Linsley]. And now, they’re bringing those two guys along so fast and that is amazing.”
Los Angeles Chargers guard Zion Johnson in a preseason Week 2 contest against the Dallas Cowboys. (Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Los Angeles’ investments in the offensive line the last two seasons, including left tackle Rashawn Slater and center Corey Linsley, will help the Chargers’ downfield passing attack. Last season, Herbert posted an average throw depth of only 7.6 yards—which ranked 22nd overall, per Sports Info Solutions. Better protection and play from the big boys up front will give Herbert more time to survey the field and take deep shots with more regularity.
Right tackle has yet to be determined, but Trey Pipkins III may have taken hold of the spot after getting first-team reps back-to-back days to start the week, per Popper. The rest of the line, meanwhile, is already rock solid.
The running game will be boosted by improved line play and increased depth. Los Angeles drafted Isaiah Spiller in this year’s fourth round. Spiller is an insurance policy since starter Austin Ekeler has a history of small injuries.
“I think the one thing about Isaiah is he’s not impressed by the NFL,” Staley told reporters. “He feels like he belongs. He has confidence in himself. I think he carries himself that way.”
That same approach applies to the other side of the ball, where the Chargers brought in outside linebackers Khalil Mack and Kyle Van Noy, as well as defensive linemen Sebastian Joseph-Day, Austin Johnson, Morgan Fox and Otito Ogbonnia.
All six should bolster the Chargers’ strength at the point of attack. Mack is a wrecking ball when it comes to setting the edge. The 31-year-old Van Noy is an experienced and versatile veteran. Joseph-Day and Fox both played for Staley previously with the Los Angeles Rams. Johnson participated in every regular-season contest over the last five seasons. Ogbonnia was one of the stronger interior defenders in this year’s draft class.
An ability to hold the point and reestablish the line of scrimmage creates more flexibility within the defensive scheme and allows the Chargers’ talented secondary to make plays, especially after adding the game’s premier ball hawk, J.C. Jackson, in free agency and re-signing safety Derwin James to a long-term contract extension. Jackson is currently shelved after requiring ankle surgery, though he could be back for the start of the regular season.
The Chargers should be better at quarterback, offensive line and on defense as a whole. Their coach has the entire organization on the same page. The squad is as talented as any around the league. Los Angeles has everything it needs not only to make the postseason this year but also make the relatively short trip to Glendale, Arizona, for Super Bowl LVII.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.