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Did Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley blow his team’s chance at the playoffs when he called an unexpected timeout with 38 seconds remaining in overtime against the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday night?
No, not really, but, then again, kind of, maybe.
Confused? Yeah, so were a lot of people at the end of what was about as strange of an NFL game – the final contest of the regular season – as you’ll ever see.
Both L.A. and Las Vegas were sitting at 9-7. Whoever won would grab a wild-card spot. It was a classic de facto playoff game; except there was a twist. If it ended in a tie, both teams would get into the playoffs (and thus leave the Pittsburgh Steelers out).
All week, the NFL buzzed about this possible situation (which required a huge Jacksonville upset of Indianapolis). Would the Raiders and Chargers agree to tank the game or suffer through a prisoner’s dilemma and try to win?
“We had jokingly discussed, ‘Oh, man, what if we only need a tie?’” said Raiders kicker Daniel Carlson.
A tie in football is so rare (there was just one in 272 games this season) that it’s nearly impossible to arrange without both teams committing to a complete farce. So both played to win.
Yet here they were anyway, tied at 32, in the final minute of overtime, with the clock ticking. Vegas had the ball, third-and-4, on the Chargers' 39-yard line. On the Raiders' sideline, a discussion had occurred about how, if the scenario arose, they might let the clock bleed out and take the tie. Specifically, if they were stopped on third down (they had to run at least one play), would they risk a lengthy, 56-yard-plus field goal that might, due to the trajectory, get blocked? Or, would they just take the tie and head to the playoffs? Sure, they’d have to play Kansas City, rather than Cincinnati, but a wild card is a wild card.
Raiders interim head coach Rich Bisaccia assumed the thought had crossed the Chargers' mind as well when Staley hadn't stopped the clock earlier in the drive. A tie was everyone’s friend, after all.
“Yeah, it was [a] conversation,” Bisaccia said of the tie. “We were talking about it. We ran the ball [on second down] and they didn’t call timeout. So I think they were probably thinking the same thing.”
But then Staley did call timeout, with 38 seconds left, surprising nearly everyone.
The Chargers coach said the timeout was solely about getting the best personnel on the field to stop an expected Vegas run play.
“We needed to get in the right grouping,” Staley said. “We felt they were going to run the ball. We wanted to get our run defense in. [We made] that substitution so we could get a play that would deepen that field goal.”
OK, that makes sense. Except during the timeout, Staley took inside linebacker Kenneth Murray, who had five tackles in the game, off the field. The Chargers wound up with five defenders (rather than the previous four) on the line of scrimmage, but there was just one inside linebacker, Kyzir White, behind it.
That meant safety Nasir Adderley had to slide down into a linebacker-esque spot. While the Raiders were in 11 personnel (which can be versatile since it features three receivers, a tight end and a running back) Staley said he expected the run.
Taking that extra inside linebacker off the field was the mistake. This wasn't an ideal run-stopping package.
And, perhaps predictably, it didn’t stop the run. Adderley got caught up in blocking congestion and was a non-factor as the Raiders' Josh Jacobs rushed for 10 yards and a first down. Would Murray have done better? That’s what the Chargers will wonder all offseason.
Now sitting at the 29-yard line, Vegas could have just let the clock bleed out. Instead, it had Carlson hit a 47-yarder to win the game, 35-32, and send them to face Cincinnati on Saturday in the wild-card round.
Los Angeles, meanwhile, went home.
Afterward, Staley kept insisting that his timeout didn’t doom the Chargers.
“I don’t think it changed their mindset because they were going to run the ball the play before and then they ran the ball the very next play,” Staley said. “So we wanted to make sure we got our run defense in there.
“We didn’t execute well enough,” Staley said. “But we wanted to get our premium defense in there and that’s what we did.”
Staley is correct. The execution was the problem. But, again, two inside linebackers who are schooled at reading and reacting to blocking strategies would have been preferable.
While on the NBC Broadcast, Las Vegas quarterback Derek Carr said that the timeout did change their mindset – “it definitely did, obviously” – he wasn't specific about it. Bisaccia was, and it should take Staley off the hook somewhat.
It wasn’t the timeout, per se, that was the issue. It was the 10-yard run that was.
“We popped the run in there and gave us a chance to kick the field goal and win it,” Bisaccia said. “We were certainly talking about [the tie] … [but] we had the big run. When we had the big run, it got us to what we thought was advantageous field-goal position for us. We were going to take the field goal to win it.”
So Staley’s timeout didn’t specifically cost the Chargers the game by causing the Raiders to reconsider accepting the tie and instead go for the win. His decision to go with one inside linebacker on a clear-run play was.
Sure, that may be all 20/20 hindsight, but it was the 10-yard gain that made going for the field goal, and thus the win, much more palatable for the Raiders.
If there was a decision Staley deserves scrutiny for, it was going for it on fourth-and-1 from the Chargers' own 18-yard line in the third quarter. While some analytical formulas said the move was justified, Staley said it wasn’t about analytics.
“Just felt like that was going to be a drive starter for us, you know, generate some steam for our offense,” he said. “Felt like we’d get it. Felt like we had a good play-call … Really looking to get our offense started, get our engines started.”
Instead the Chargers got stuffed.
“They just knifed in there and made a good play,” Staley said.
That set up Vegas into field-goal range, which it converted after three failed plays. Take that gift field goal out and maybe overtime never happens.
“I understand the criticism,” Staley said.
Either way, Vegas is in. L.A. is out. And that timeout will be discussed for a long, long time to come.