COSTA MESA, Calif. — It was the day after a surreal evening.
As they navigated south on the 101 and then 405 on July 22, Sebastian Joseph-Day and his wife, Rachel, recapped the night before, when the defensive lineman reunited with former teammates at Sony Pictures Studios to celebrate the Los Angeles Rams‘ Super Bowl victory. It was an elaborate party, complete with a red carpet, flowing champagne and a DJ spinning Drake’s anthem, “Big Rings,” to set the mood as players opened their custom-designed, world-championship, 20-carat diamond rings.
“Unreal experience,” Joseph-Day described of the made-for-Hollywood season. “Unreal ring.”
The goal isn’t exactly “Keeping up with the Kroenkes” — in reference to Rams owner Stan Kroenke — but the 2021 Rams experience, from the big-name player acquisitions to playing in the final game in February, is one the Los Angeles Chargers would like to replicate.
As Joseph-Day and his wife continued on their drive, the conversation turned to a new beginning with the Chargers, a team that shares Southern California and SoFi Stadium but is headquartered more than 75 miles south of the Rams’ facility in Thousand Oaks.
“I was like, man, O.C.’s like a whole different side,” Joseph-Day said of Orange County, where the Chargers are located. “And she was like, ‘You know, this is still like part of L.A., right?’ And I was like, ‘What? This is?’ I was like, ‘Holy crap.'”
When measuring recent success, the distance between the two organizations can feel even farther.
The Rams relocated from St. Louis to Los Angeles in 2016 and have since made four playoff appearances over the past five seasons, winning two conference championships and a Super Bowl.
In the past nine seasons, including the past five since moving from San Diego to L.A., the Chargers have earned one playoff bid.
However, “The goal,” Joseph-Day said, “is still the same.”
Win a title.
And this season, with the threat of falling further behind in the chase for relevancy in the NFL and in L.A. — a city that boasts the defending Super Bowl champion Rams and multiple Lakers and Dodgers titles — the Chargers have spared few expenses in the attempt to get there.
“This is a very, very competitive market right here,” Chargers owner Dean Spanos told KNBC. “Not only do you have to win, you have to obviously be good, you have to win, but you got to continually win and … you’ve got to be exciting. You have to be exciting.
“To do all those things is not easy when you have the Lakers and the Dodgers and, of course, the Rams, and give them their credit — they’re the world champions. They’ve been to the Super Bowl twice in the last few years … it’s incredible.”
BRANDON STALEY IS optimistic about his second season as Chargers coach, but ask the 39-year-old about how the first ended and the anguish quickly surfaces.
What the Chargers needed to advance to the postseason was a win or a tie in the regular-season finale against the Las Vegas Raiders. All they could manage was an overtime loss, with the Raiders rushing for 10 yards on third-and-4 to set up a 47-yard, game-winning field goal.
“That shouldn’t happen in that defense,” Staley said, a blank stare on his face. “That should have meant tackle for a loss or zero and we’re out of there.”
Instead, it meant season over.
From the outside, when the Chargers failed to earn a playoff berth, it only meant they were still the Chargers, simply putting a new twist on their old classic meltdown experience. The organization won 11 or more games five times between 2004 and 2018, reaching the AFC Championship Game once over that span.
But for the franchise, the overtime loss to its division rival could become the most significant, if not helpful, loss in recent history.
A win over the Raiders and a second playoff berth in four seasons, coupled with regular-season victories over the eventual AFC Championship Game-bound Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs, could have signaled that the roster was close to pursuing a conference title and Super Bowl.
Instead, it became glaringly clear that, despite sensational second-year quarterback Justin Herbert leading the NFL’s fourth-ranked offense, the Chargers weren’t close to good enough.
Not on special teams, a unit that ranked 23rd or worse in estimated points added in every season from 2014 to ’21, and certainly not on defense, a group that ranked tied for 26th in efficiency in 2021 despite featuring star edge Joey Bosa and All-Pro safety Derwin James Jr.
“[I] felt really strongly that in order to build a complete football team that was ready to face what we’re going to have to face,” Staley said, “that we needed to make significant changes in those two phases of the game.”
Staley told the front office and ownership that if the Chargers wanted to get to the next level, become a perennial playoff team and one with a real chance of advancing to the Super Bowl, they needed to dramatically improve in those areas — and they needed to do it fast.
General manager Tom Telesco, now in his 10th season with the team, had a solid foundation in place through years of successful drafts, selecting key players, including Herbert, left tackle Rashawn Slater, receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, and Bosa and James. But between 2013 and 2020, the Bolts never ranked higher than 14th among NFL teams in free agency spending.
In 2020, Staley served as Rams defensive coordinator, and he gained intimate knowledge of how the organization quickly constructed a championship-caliber roster by competitively paying in free agency and also aggressively pursuing the trade market. The Rams became famous for exchanging high draft picks, including years worth of first-round selections, for proven stars — such as quarterback Matthew Stafford, cornerback Jalen Ramsey and pass-rusher Von Miller — all of whom played significant roles in earning a Super Bowl title.
“We know what’s at stake. We know that we have a Super Bowl-caliber roster. We know what we have in our team.”
Derwin James Jr.
With the Chargers, Staley said he believed the team could no longer settle for building through the draft, waiting two to three years to fill apparent needs, when the offense was ready to win now.
It was time to expedite the improvement, which meant leveraging draft picks in trades and spending money in free agency.
“He’s right,” said Spanos of Staley’s critique, adding that Telesco and John Spanos, president of football operations and Dean’s son, were also on board. “We needed to be aggressive like that and move on it. That’s why we did what we did.”
What ensued was among the highest-spending offseasons in Chargers history.
“YOU GET WHAT you pay for,” Dean Spanos said. “And sometimes, you have to pay more.”
The Chargers have ranked in the top 10 in spending each of the past two years, and peaked this offseason at fifth, spending $148.3 million.
“It was an expensive year,” Spanos said. “But I can’t sit there and worry about all of that.”
The Chargers traded second- and sixth-round draft picks to the Chicago Bears to acquire All-Pro edge rusher Khalil Mack, who also came with three years remaining on a six-year, $141 million contract. Mack began his Chargers career with a three-sack performance in Sunday’s 24-19 win over the Raiders.
“Being able to trade for Khalil, it’s a big move from the outside [perception],” said Staley, Mack’s position coach with the Bears in 2018. “But on the inside, I just had so much unique knowledge of this player and I knew what he would do not only for our defense but for our team.”
“If you’re going to bring in Khalil, especially at his age, with his contract, and giving up a second-round pick,” Telesco said of the 31-year-old, “that’s pretty significant for us.”
Prior to sending a second-round selection to the Bears, Telesco had never traded a first- or second-round pick for a proven player. (He has, however, traded a first- or second-round selection for other picks on four occasions.).
After the Mack trade, the Chargers signed Pro Bowl cornerback J.C. Jackson, the NFL interceptions leader (25) since 2018, to a five-year, $82.5 million deal. Jackson could make his team debut Thursday after being sidelined following ankle surgery last month.
“If you don’t have cover guys and you don’t have rushers, you got nothing,” Staley said.
Then, they stocked up on defensive linemen who could improve their porous run defense and added Joseph-Day, ranked among the NFL’s best run-stoppers, on a three-year, $24 million deal, along with Austin Johnson (Giants) on a two-year, $14 million contract and Morgan Fox (Panthers)
“I wanted to get a big team up front,” Staley said. “That’s what I believe in.”
On special teams, they collected specialists, signing returner DeAndre Carter (Commanders), long-snapper Josh Harris (Falcons) and punter JK Scott(Jaguars), while also re-signing kicker Dustin Hopkins.
And on offense, they added tight end Gerald Everett (Seahawks) on a two-year, $12 million deal as a catch-and-run option for Herbert.
Staley has a history with six of the acquisitions — Mack, Joseph-Day, Fox, Reeder, Callahan and Everett, a factor a general manager must keep in mind, whether good or bad, when acquiring players.
“Especially on defense with Brandon’s background, it was huge,” Telesco said. “If you can, it’s nice to have that.”
“It was an expensive year. But I can’t sit there and worry about all of that.”
Chargers owner Dean Spanos
In all, the Chargers’ revamped roster features a league-high eight players in ESPN’s list of the NFL top 100, including six whom Telesco drafted.
And, as a bonus, four of the players they signed — Joseph-Day, Van Noy, Reeder and Jackson — have Super Bowl experience.
“It’s a benefit and a positive for us to have guys that have gone the distance,” said Bosa, the Chargers’ first-round pick in 2016. “They know what it takes to make it through and win the big game. The fact that they go from there to here means a lot. They see that there’s the same opportunity here to go and win.”
Jordan Cornette is predicting a big season from Justin Herbert and believes the Chargers’ improved defense will help them win the AFC West.
AS THE CHARGERS stockpiled defensive stalwarts, the rest of the AFC West signed offensive firepower. In Denver, the Broncos completed a blockbuster trade for Super Bowl-winning quarterback Russell Wilson, and in Las Vegas, the Raiders traded for star receiver Davante Adams.
“It’s competitive as hell, in our division especially,” Dean Spanos said. “It’s never easy, but it’s probably going to be more challenging than most years.”
The additions, however, haven’t just reshaped their respective units. They’ve strengthened the entire team. “They’ve changed our team because of the competition out there on the practice field,” Staley said. “Our offense is having to play now every day.”
Telesco declined to define a successful season. “I don’t really put labels on that stuff,” he said. “Never have. Never will.”
But players are aware of the upgraded roster and the expectation that accompanies it.
“We know what’s at stake,” said James, who signed a record-breaking $76.5 million extension before the season. “We know that we have a Super Bowl-caliber roster. We know what we have in our team.”
For Telesco, the team’s trajectory won’t become apparent until a month into the season.
“I hate hearing that things look good on paper,” he said. “You don’t really know until you get into September, late September, where you really are.”
When asked about the need to achieve with the bolstered roster, Herbert said there was no pressure.
“As a team, we have the pieces, we have the athletes and competitors,” he said. “As long as we’re doing our best and we’re asking each other what we want to do ourselves, I don’t think there’s much more that you can ask.”
For Joseph-Day, among the first orders of business when he moved into his new home in Orange County was to find a safe haven for his Super Bowl ring.
“I got it locked up safely,” he said.
As for what he plans to do with it eventually?
“What I’m gonna do with it is, God [willing], if we’re able to do what we have to do, be able to add another one to it and wear both of them at the same time,” Joseph-Day said. “That’s the goal.”