The Los Angeles Chargers suffered a very frustrating defeat at the hands of Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs on Thursday night, 27-24. After beating the Raiders 24-19 in week one, the Chargers sit at 1-1 but the lack of offensive execution has a lot of fans searching for answers or even calling for certain heads to roll. Like all problem scenarios, there are a lot of moving parts here that require some objectivity and I’ll do my best to provide that.
From a wider lens, everyone knows that the general problem with the Chargers’ offense is that it isn’t explosive enough. They are incredibly methodical and can be wildly efficient, but they rarely get any freebie plays. Things like Justin Watson beating JC Jackson in coverage for an explosive play just don’t happen for the Chargers. Several fans are taking to blaming offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and want the team to fire him for not being creative enough or limiting Justin Herbert. This is an oversimplification, not a solution. This is a multi-faceted problem that would not be solved by simply removing the play caller.
First and foremost, we have to talk about the injuries and puzzling personnel decisions that this team is currently dealing with. I know people hate blaming health but this provides important context to the problem at hand. The four most effective deep route players on a per-play basis for the Chargers last year were Keenan Allen, Jalen Guyton, Donald Parham, and Mike Williams. All in very different ways, of course, you’re talking about an elite separator, a speedster, a 6’8 athletic specimen, and an elite jump ball wide receiver.
Parham has not played a single snap yet this season as he is dealing with a hamstring injury that he re-aggravated a few weeks ago. Parham isn’t a big name nationally but he is an extremely important piece of the Chargers puzzle on offense, particularly in the vertical passing game. He is able to threaten safeties and linebackers at an incredibly high level, and reportedly was taking a huge step forward in his development in training camp. He also does a lot of the dirty work required of the Chargers’ tight ends and became a very reliable blocker throughout last season. On the occasions where they wanted to run those long-developing downfield plays, Parham was often the one blocking right in front of Herbert. Tré McKitty is a good blocker and a good receiver but he’s simply not the player that Parham is.
Allen only played 22 snaps before also injuring his hamstring against the Raiders. Obviously, he’s not a burner by any means but Matthew Harmon had him as an elite receiver in terms of success rate when running go routes, post routes, and corner routes. Leaning into that aspect of his game was one of the things that helped the Chargers offense most last season it seemed like that was going to continue into this season. Before leaving the first game in week one, his average depth of target was close to 13 yards (his career high over the course of a whole season was 11.1 in his rookie year). I still believe in Josh Palmer’s potential but his best routes were all short routes last season (slants, curls, and outs).
In terms of the overall construction of the passing unit, this is where Guyton and one of my biggest question marks of the team overall come in. When Lombardi was in New Orleans they centered their passing offense around Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, two short area playmakers. Despite the constantly declining arm strength of Drew Brees they always had vertical threats like Ted Ginn, Tre’Quan Smith, and Marquez Callaway to at least threaten defenses deep. Brees had to access the deep parts of the field in a much different way than Herbert is able to obviously but they had the ability to do so from a personnel standpoint.
In Herbert’s rookie season they had both Tyron Johnson and Jalen Guyton stretching the field to create space for Allen and Hunter Henry over the middle. This new staff couldn’t find a roster spot in 2021 for Johnson after drafting Palmer, which resulted in Guyton being the only true speed threat on the team. They were able to make it work to a certain extent and Guyton had a pretty solid season. Now, they can’t seem to find a role for Guyton, even without Allen on the field. Guyton has only run SIX routes in two games and has only been targeted ONCE. I’m not saying that playing Guyton more solves everything, he’s not that kind of difference maker. However, no team is going to respect the Chargers’ deep concepts when there is no real speed threat on the field. That was the case against the Raiders and Chiefs.
The Chargers told anyone who would listen that one of the reasons they weren’t able to access the deep parts of the field at a higher level last year was the lack of confidence in their protection. This is why they drafted Zion Johnson and Jamaree Salyer to shore up their interior offensive line. Unfortunately, their All-Pro center is dealing with some tendinitis in his knee which caused him to miss the second half on Thursday night. Corey Linsley’s injury changed everything for the Chargers up front. He does so much for them with the protection plan and taking that role off Herbert’s plate. The Chiefs love to blitz and run stunts to frustrate quarterbacks and offensive linemen. With Linsley, the Chargers had a very clean pocket for the majority of the first half. The second half was the opposite, and that impacted their ability to access the deep parts of the field significantly.
As for Lombardi, the answer is yes, he does deserve blame for what has transpired thus far this season. The fair criticism laid against him is that he is a safe offensive coordinator and when things go wrong he reverts to what he knows, which is obviously the Saints’ old quick game plans. His intention is to shrink the margins and aim for efficiency.
It is clear by now that he is a B-level offensive coordinator. I think fans have an unrealistic view of how many consistently elite play callers there are in the NFL. There’s really only a small handful of them around. The vast majority of the league does not have one and therefore aims to have one that will shrink the margins and keep the ship afloat. (It’s a very similar world as the quarterback world.) That’s where Lombardi fits in. He has some strengths to be sure, the Chargers are so much more well prepared than they were under the previous coaching regime. I generally like the way he will manipulate the pace to work to their advantage (NOT at the goal line). I do believe that his offense has helped develop Herbert into a better processor because of its complex calls and route progressions. However, he has not done a good enough job of creating an environment that seeks out progression or evolution. There doesn’t appear to be a “next step” despite all the “football 202” talk that came out from training camp. This mentality is what will hold him back from being an A-level play caller.
All of these issues combine to bring about a Chargers offense that has struggled at times since Staley was hired, but it has really compounded to start the 2022 season. The windows of opportunity shrink at an unnecessarily high level and require a superhuman quarterback to always be on top of his A game. As a fan of the team, I share that frustration. The same issues showing up for the offense as last season is absolutely a cause for concern, and it’s not like Herbert is going to be 100% healthy going forward either. Getting healthier around Herbert will help somewhat but that won’t solve all of their issues.
Fire Lombardi and you risk creating more problems, further disconnect, and a probable timeline where Herbert would have four different coordinators in his first four seasons. Firing a coordinator mid-season never works out in the way that fans want it to and it’s not like the Chargers have a budding young coordinator waiting in the wings that would be a clear upgrade over Lombardi. All due respect to Shane Day, I don’t really want to cross that bridge in a season in which the Chargers are supposed to be viable contenders. Lombardi’s leash is getting shorter, though.
For now, I would encourage fans to be patient. Despite the struggles, the offense is three or four plays away from hanging 30 on the Raiders and Chiefs in back-to-back weeks. It hasn’t always been super pretty but they have been able to move the ball and get in position to score touchdowns. Clean up some execution errors and they’ll be back to that same level.
Schematically, I have to believe that Staley, Lombardi, Day, and Herbert will be able to put their heads together and solve at least some of the problems that are plaguing the team. Like I said earlier, they made some really solid adjustments last season by changing Allen’s role a little bit and adding more wrinkles to the RPO game and rushing attack. Get Guyton involved more, use Austin Ekeler as a mismatch tool, add other new wrinkles, run the football at a higher level, and don’t fall back into the comfort zone and the offense will be a top-five unit again in no time.
The Truth About The Chargers Offensive Issues. Photo via Ty Nowell