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The last and most absurd game of the 2021 NFL regular season was, seemingly, one play away from ending in a tie that would have sent both the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders to the playoffs — when, with 38 seconds remaining, Chargers head coach Brandon Staley called the timeout that supposedly changed everything.
In the aftermath of a remarkable Raiders victory, it became a scapegoat, a supposedly nonsensical blunder that ended the Chargers' season. In a postgame interview, Raiders QB Derek Carr said it "definitely" changed his team's strategy, "obviously."
What he and everybody blaming Staley for the loss failed to explain was how.
"They were gonna run the ball on the play before [the timeout]," Staley said. "And then they ran the ball the very next play."
"I don't think it changed their mindset," Staley said. He called it to prepare his defense to stop the exact type of play that Vegas eventually ran. They just ... didn't get the stop. And that's why their season is over.
Why Staley's timeout wasn't a mistake
The situation, at the time, seemed complex. It was actually fairly simple. As overtime clocks ticked under 40 seconds, the Raiders faced a third-and-4 on L.A.'s 39-yard line. They knew a tie would get them to the playoffs. They also knew a win would get them a higher seed and a better matchup — on the road against the Cincinnati Bengals instead of a trip to face the Kansas City Chiefs — so they had two sensible options:
1. Take a knee and accept a tie
2. Run a safe play and attempt a game-winning field goal
On the Raiders' sideline, coach Rich Bisaccia said, they discussed Option 1. They ultimately chose Option 2. They bled the play clock. With five seconds left on it, they were about to snap the ball and likely hand it to running back Josh Jacobs.
And that's when Staley called timeout because his Chargers, in that moment, had one option: Stuff Jacobs, and hope for a Daniel Carlson missed kick.
"My mindset was to make the field goal as long as possible," Staley said.
So he hit pause. No, he didn't prolong the game, because the play clock was waning and the snap was imminent anyway. No, he didn't necessarily help the Raiders.
"We wanted to make sure we got our run defense in there," Staley said. "And we obviously didn't execute well enough. But we wanted to get our premium one-back run defense in there, and that's what we did."
The Chargers' run defense cost them the game
If Staley made a mistake, it was devising that defense. Former NFL linebacker Emmanuel Acho explained how Staley might have "outsmarted himself." He took one potential run-stopper, linebacker Kenneth Murray, off the field.
Brandon Staley took the timeout because he out smarted himself.
There’s one player missing on the #Chargers defense after the timeout. That missing player was the difference. See for yourself pic.twitter.com/ROvz4sLcqK
— Emmanuel Acho (@EmmanuelAcho) January 10, 2022
Coming out of the timeout, the Raiders handed the ball to Jacobs, just as they almost surely would have done before it. Jacobs turned a 57-yard field goal into a 47-yarder. And that is what changed Vegas' strategy.
"When we got the big run, it got us into what we thought was advantageous field-goal position for us, we were gonna take the field goal and try to win it," Bisaccia said.
The Raiders then called timeout with two seconds remaining to set up Carlson for the game-winner. And Carlson drilled it.