Five months after he called the most infamous timeout in franchise history, Brandon Staley was as puzzled as everyone else.
He just wasn’t asking the same question.
“I’m not sure why that [got] magnified,” Staley said.
The Chargers opened minicamp Tuesday, by which time Staley had plenty of time to reflect on the Week 18 overtime loss to the Las Vegas Raiders that kept his team from making the playoffs.
He remained comfortable with his choices. He also still was bothered by how they didn’t work out.
“I’m not over it,” Staley said.
The failure drove him to do some soul-searching and offer his ideas on how the Chargers could rebuild their defense.
“I’ve never poured more into a season than that one in my entire life,” Staley said. “I haven’t poured myself into anything, other than my marriage, [more] than that. So you can imagine how I felt. I’ve been working every day since to make sure that it’s different.”
The Chargers traded for edge rusher Khalil Mack. They signed free-agent cornerback J.C. Jackson, defensive linemen Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Jackson, and linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
They also didn’t have a rookie coach anymore. Staley now is in his second year in charge.
“I think in your first year, there’s this rush to kind of explain and define everything you’re trying to do,” Staley said. “You’re trying to give people the vision for why you’re doing everything, and that requires a ton of energy. Now, that’s not the case. I think now I’m just able to get to the deeper chapters of the way we do things.”
Enough had changed with the team for Staley to be able to say the past was in the past, that his focus was entirely on the upcoming season.
But Staley didn’t do that, explaining instead how he was motivated in part by how last season ended.
In the game in question, all the Chargers needed was a tie.
A tie against the Raiders in Week 18 and the Chargers would have made the playoffs. The Raiders just needed a tie too.
And they were tied at the end of regulation, after which they exchanged a pair of field goals. When the Raiders advanced into Chargers territory with 38 seconds remaining, Staley called a timeout.
On the next play, on third and four, Josh Jacobs rushed for 10 yards. The Raiders called a timeout, setting up a 47-yard field goal by Daniel Carlson.
The Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers were in the playoffs.
The Chargers were out.
“When something tough like that goes down, when you lose in the most dramatic way possible, you start with yourself,” Staley said.
So he reviewed his decisions.
He questioned his choice to not punt on fourth and one from the Chargers’ 18-yard line in the third quarter. Austin Ekeler’s run was short, and the Raiders kicked a field goal shortly after to extend their lead to six points.
“I wanted to create a mindset in our team, and it really started with … what I felt like it needed … a fearlessness,” Staley said. “I think the cumulative effect of that is going to help in time. I know it helped us last season, and in that game, I wanted to make sure that our guys knew that we weren’t going there hoping to win. We were going there to try to win the game on our terms.
“I don’t regret that decision, per se. But I certainly regret us not being able to compete in the tournament. I’ve had to live with that since the second I walked across that field.”
But the timeout in overtime?
Staley wondered why the play drew the attention it did.
Critics said the Raiders were content to run out the clock and made the case Staley’s timeout jolted them into shifting their mindset.
Staley said the fact Carlson was sent in to kick the winning field goal was evidence the Raiders intended to win the game. He pointed to how distance was more of a factor than time, and that he called a timeout specifically to prevent what happened from happening by deploying personnel that was better suited to defend against the run.
To Staley’s point: Jacobs had gained seven yards on the previous play.
If Staley hadn’t called a timeout and Jacobs had gained 10 yards, what would have happened? The Raiders very well could have done what they did — call a timeout and kick a field goal.
Staley said he didn’t mind that criticism, that he knew this was part of the job. But he also offered clues that he was bothered by the discussion over the timeout.
“This team will not be defined by that,” he said.
The Chargers have the quarterback. They have the offense. They now have what looks like a formidable defense.
Now, over the next seven-plus months, they will have a chance to redefine themselves — and their coach.