The Chargers’ season was on the line Sunday. That the rest of it still matters is the result of a confident decision by second-year coach Brandon Staley, who has his faults but proved that lacking guts isn’t one of them.
He boldly met the biggest moment of the season, refusing to turn cautious and play for overtime when his team urgently needed a win. By calling for quarterback Justin Herbert to find tight end Gerald Everett on a late two-point conversion attempt that came off “as smooth as chocolate milk,” as Staley described it after the Chargers’ 25-24 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, the coach kept his players’ trust and kept them in contention for a playoff spot.
That’s no small feat in a season complicated by endless injuries — especially on the offensive line — and too many unproductive second-half offensive drives.
“It just goes to show how much he really believes in us and the courage that he has,” Everett said of the call. “We’ve been waiting so long to just have that moment to just be aggressive in tight games like this against good teams. What better way to finish a tight game like that and go for two and have that be the deciding factor?”
As soon as Austin Ekeler caught a short pass from Herbert to cut the Chargers’ deficit to 24-23, going for two was on every player’s mind. They expected it. They wanted it.
“That’s us. That’s our mindset,” safety Derwin James Jr. said. “We already knew we were going for it. Before they scored the touchdown we already knew. Fifty seconds and we’re driving, we know we’re going for it.”
Wide receiver Keenan Allen hoped so. “I was holding it up too,” he said, holding up two fingers. “We got to go. We got to go.”
It was just a matter of how they’d do it.
“I imagined that we were going to go for it just because that’s kind of how aggressive that we play, and I love that about our coach,” Herbert said. “But I didn’t know the exact play call.”
Staley did. They had practiced the play last week, and he thought it had gone well.
“I felt like we’d have good answers against the defenses they might play and we wanted to finish the game on our terms,” he said. “When we made a couple first downs and the clock was winding we said, ‘Hey, under 40 seconds, that’s going to be our mindset.’ ”
Herbert was unable to engineer a triumphant late drive two weeks ago against San Francisco or against Kansas City last Sunday. But he didn’t flinch when presented the same situation again.
That’s part of his growth, progress as noteworthy as his performance Sunday in recording his 16th career three-touchdown performance and 10th with three or more passing touchdowns and no interceptions. That’s the most by any player in their first three NFL seasons, according to the Chargers.
“What I told the team was is the two weeks prior in the two-minute it didn’t go down for him. And that’s what it’s like when you’re a quarterback in the NFL. You’re not going to make every two-minute drive,” Staley said. “But the thing that he has going for him is that our entire organization believes he’s going to make it and so he brought us back. Game ball for him. Big-time performance. Wouldn’t have won without him.”
Everett said Herbert met his eyes in the huddle before the play and gave him confidence. Herbert was calm. Prepared to execute his end. He was asking and challenging Everett to match that.
“That look. Glance. You just know,” Everett said. “Nothing needs to be said. I’ll be there. We just kind of have that. The rest of the guys have it too, that eye connection. We know you’d better do your job.”
Everett did. “Some guys they shy away from those and getting the ball and getting their number called. My coaches and team know that no one wants it more than me,” he said.
And he delivered. “It was great. It was really a one-man play,” Allen said. “Everybody knows the ball is going to Gerald, so he had to be big-time right there and he was. Just a kind of dodge route, we call it. I’m clearing the middle. They ran man [coverage] again and he was able to beat his man for the two-point conversion.”
By winning a must-win game at State Farm Stadium, the Chargers earned the right to play another must-win game, next Sunday at Las Vegas. But at least they still have something to play for. They’ll pretty much have to win every remaining game if they want to get where they want to go — the playoffs.
“You got to speak it. You got to believe. I dream it. I embrace it. I think about it,” James said. “It’s not just going to happen by you just believing. … I feel like we’re moving in the right direction.”
At least they’re still moving. Boldly.