His team had just beaten its L.A. rivals, the Chargers pushing their win streak to four and reveling in the postseason berth clinched along the way.
Brandon Staley stood before the media inside SoFi Stadium and talked about the good things happening all at once.
“A big thing that we’ve been emphasizing is just the finish in our football team,” he said, “and finding our best here down the stretch.”
Ten-and-a-half months later, Staley is facing daily ridicule that’s emphasizing he might be finished.
From New Year’s Day to Thanksgiving week, Staley’s Chargers have been foiled by a questionable decision, a historic playoff meltdown and a defense that’s become increasingly difficult to defend.
The Chargers are 4-5, third in the AFC West and 12th in the conference — damning facts for a team that entered the season forecast to challenge Kansas City for divisional supremacy.
As they prepare to play at Green Bay on Sunday, the Chargers are looking at another game they simply can’t lose if their season is going to end up anything more than a smoldering heap of faded expectations and maddening mediocrity.
“We’re at a point now where we have to play to our standard,” linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. said. “There’s no other choice. There’s no turning back.”
A day after the Chargers beat the Rams 31-10 on Jan. 1, Staley was asked about playing his starters in the 2022 season finale at Denver, a game that ended up meaning nothing for playoff-seeding purposes.
He explained that he would “take the facts on the ground, as they happen in real time” and make “the appropriate decisions” on a “case-by-case” basis.
By the time the Chargers kicked off against the Broncos, Baltimore already had lost, meaning Staley’s team was locked into the No. 5 spot and would play at Jacksonville on wild-card weekend.
Still, many of the Chargers’ starters remained in against Denver deep into the third quarter. Just before halftime, wide receiver Mike Williams suffered a back injury that ended his season.
If there’s a moment when Staley’s arc as Chargers coach derailed, it happened on that chilly afternoon in Colorado, where their winning streak was blown away and took all the “feel-good” with it.
Six days later, they squandered a 27-0, second-quarter lead against the Jaguars and lost on the final snap, a collapse that led to howls for Staley — and general manager Tom Telesco — to be fired.
Instead, Chargers owner Dean Spanos kept both as the team took a more all-in approach in restructuring contracts to retain most of the roster and then signing quarterback Justin Herbert to a record extension.
Buoyed by all the belief and empowered by the idea that they were good enough to lead 27-0 in a road playoff game, Staley’s Chargers opened the season among the league leaders in hope.
After a nine-game stretch of uneven and, at times, shockingly poor play, the calls for firings and general upheaval have been renewed, the NFL’s week-to-week reality falling hard on this franchise.
“You have to move forward,” safety Derwin James Jr. said. “You don’t have time to wait and dwell. … Green Bay is coming in ready to play, so we have to be ready to play.”
Going back to that day in Denver, the Chargers have won just four of their last 11 games, the defense — Staley’s defense — largely responsible for the lack of success.
The Chargers have been burned by five 100-yard receivers, four 300-yard passers and one 100-yard rusher. Last weekend, for the second time this year, they surrendered more than 500 total yards.
“We have another opportunity to go out there and change the narrative about our defense,” cornerback Ja’Sir Taylor said. “We have eight or nine games left, right? It’s not over. If we go play lights out, that whole narrative can shift.”
That’s a tall task, especially after the Chargers were just exposed and exploited by a Lions offense that flatly detonated all over SoFi Stadium.
But it was a from-seemingly-nowhere defensive performance in Week 14 last season that launched the Chargers on their four-game winning streak. They limited high-octane Miami to 17 points and 219 total yards in a 23-17 victory.
And that happened without four starters — James, Joey Bosa, Sebastian Joseph-Day and Bryce Callahan.
“People looked at our depth chart and wrote us off,” Taylor said. “But we overcame and made the playoffs.”
Again, true, but this season has been different. For one thing, the Chargers a year ago opened 4-2. This team has yet to be above .500, with three of its four wins coming against backup quarterbacks.
The season isn’t over. It is, however, teetering, Staley’s Chargers all too familiar with how quickly fortunes — and futures — can swing.
“The only thing we’re guaranteed on Sundays is to go through adversity,” Murray said. “At some point, it’s going to come and you have to respond to it. That’s where we are right now.”