Michael Lombardi: The Chargers fall short again

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Look how they massacred my boy…

A few years ago, while waiting for a table at Craig’s restaurant in West Hollywood, my friend Tommy the maître d’ (who is now at Sinatra’s in the Wynn, an amazing place, go and say hello) informed me James Caan was waiting near the bar.  Tommy knew I was a fan of The Godfather, suggesting I go over and say hello, which I did.  After the pleasantries, I said to Caan, each time I rewatch The Godfather, I warn you not to go to the toll plaza.   I scream at the television, “It’s a trap.”  And you still go.  Caan laughed and said, "Trust me, I wish I never went either."  Last night, when the Chargers got the ball with 2:23 to go in the half, after stopping the Cowboys on fourth-and-inches at their own 13-yard line, and all their timeouts remaining, I screamed to the television, "Don’t screw this up!" And much like Sonny Corleone, they didn’t listen. 

Nine plays later, they are punting the ball back to the Boys with 1:09 left in the half. To most fans, no big deal, right? They called eight passes and completed four of them, which means they stopped the clock four times and never forced the Cowboys to use a timeout. The Cowboys had two timeouts when they received the punt on their 29-yard line.   

After the celebrations of stopping the Cowboys in the red zone, the Chargers’ main objective when their offense took the field should have been to never give the ball back to the Cowboys. They needed to control the middle eight with their play calling and situational awareness. But knowing Chargers offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, and head coach Brandon Staley, you realize controlling the middle eight isn’t part of their program. So, naturally, they went into halftime down 10-7. Those three points ended up being the difference in the game. Like Sonny from The Godfather, even when warned, the outcome never changes. 

Winning close games for the Chargers has never been easy. Winning the second half has been even harder for quarterback Justin Herbert. After last night’s three-point loss, the Chargers under Staley are 6-9 in games decided by three points or less. They’re currently on a four-game losing streak in those situations. Their last win in a close game came last year when they beat the Malik Willis-led Titans 17-14 after Ryan Tannehill was injured. Herbert has been awful in the second half, going 7-24-2 ATS when leading at halftime. It’s fair to say the Chargers don’t win close games and cannot win second halves. So why would we ever bet them in a three-point or less game? If we do, we end up like Sonny at the toll plaza.

The Chargers are 21-18 under Staley’s direction. Everyone loves their talent. They marvel at the play calling of Kellen Moore, always citing the yards gained, never the won-loss record or his ability to understand game situations as they relate to play calls. For all the talent on paper, the Chargers never play to that level—especially on defense.  Everyone makes fun of the “simple” Cowboys offense under Mike McCarthy, yet he outgained Moore 5.6 yards per play to 4.5 and 7.0 yards per pass play to 5.8. The Cowboys overcame 11 penalties for 85 yards and still won—which is hard to accomplish.  

Staley was hired for his defensive skills as a coach, yet, no matter what statistics you examine, his defense has never been in the top five. They have spent in the top five of cap dollars on their defense over the last three years. Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack, the two largest earners, combined for four tackles and one sack last night. They rank 28th in points allowed per game, 29th in yards allowed and 29th in expected points allowed. 

But everyone thinks their talent is elite. So, is it Staley, or a misjudgment of talent? Perhaps a little of both. 

In fairness to both Staley and Moore, Herbert didn’t play well. The broken middle finger on his non-throwing hand made him miss throws he usually makes with ease. The deep throw to Allen down the Chargers sideline was a huge miss, a throw Herbert rarely doesn’t make. 

This week, they travel to Kansas City to play the Chiefs in a game that normally is tight.  The line opened at Chiefs -6 and moved to -5.5, which is going to be moving further down once people realize the Chiefs are not a great offense and the Chargers always play them well. Herbert has a 107.3 quarterback rating against the Chiefs, in six games, with 15 touchdowns, 8.0 yards per pass attempt and just four interceptions.  Since 2021, Herbert is 1-1 vs. the Chiefs and the one loss was by three points. Grab the points now, and ignore the Andy Reid numbers off the mini-bye week. (The Chiefs played last Thursday.) This will be a tight game—and count on Herbert playing better, at least in the first half.

 

A look ahead 

After six weeks of the NFL season, it’s fair to offer some betting conclusions and ignore some popular trends. 

1. The Patriots aren’t going to dig themselves out of this hole. With the injuries mounting and the quarterback not playing well, the next few weeks will be a challenge. They are better off getting into the Drake Maye/Michael Penix Jr./Caleb Williams derby than trying to win games now. Don’t buy into the Caleb Williams is the easy first pick of the draft. That hasn’t been determined by a long shot. 

2. Even with big spreads, don’t be scared to bet Miami against bad teams. Miami cannot shut down their offense. They have to keep putting their foot on the gas, as they don’t have a four-minute, milk-the-clock game. Why? Because their offense is designed to protect their bad offensive line, and if they played conventionally, they would be exposed.  So, they keep doing what they do—and keep scoring. 

3. VSIN’S wordsmith Bill Adee writes our morning newsletter, which is always fun and informative. Today, he wrote that I wrote "Finding a good quarterback is hard." He altered the idea slightly by saying, "Finding a healthy quarterback today might be harder." Eight quarterbacks are on the injury list this week, and Anthony Richardson is heading for season-ending shoulder surgery. That means you should fade the Colts. Gardner Minshew is a good “in-game” backup, but when teams have time to prepare for his style of play, he struggles. Much like we saw last night with Herbert, even when playing, the injuries cause some quarterbacks not to play well. If Trevor Lawrence is able to play on Thursday night, can he play to his normal level?  Handicapping starters is hard; handicapping backups is even harder. 

4. Who is the best team in the NFC South? Not sure there is a good team there, as both the Saints and Bucs, are good on defense with bad quarterbacking play. Both teams can beat bad teams, but can they beat good teams? I’m not sure. 

5. Houston is well-coached. CJ Stroud shows no signs of taking a step backward, and we need to adjust their power ratings. The Texans are good in all three phases of football. With each win, they gain more and more confidence. Don’t expect a letdown.