June 12, 2024

Brandon Staley beamed at the lectern.

The embattled Chargers coach raved about the resolve of Justin Herbert, who sealed a 24-17 victory over the visiting Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday by completing a 51-yard pass. He applauded the tenacity of Khalil Mack, who registered a team-record six sacks. He praised the collective effort of his defense, which spared the Chargers another on-brand meltdown.

His voice was joyous, his smile was infectious, but his words were as unconvincing as his team’s performance.

Against a rookie quarterback who was drafted in the fourth round, Staley’s team nearly blew a 17-point halftime lead.

Against a one-win team with a mediocre defense, the Chargers didn’t score a single point in the third and fourth quarters.

The Chargers have won their last two games to improve to 2-2 but still haven’t provided any reasons to believe they will be the team that breaks the franchise’s long-standing curse.

They triumphed despite failing to convert on fourth down from their 34 with their lead down to seven points and 3 minutes 34 seconds remaining. A week earlier, they won in Minnesota despite failing to convert on fourth down from their 24 with a four-point lead and close to 2 minutes on the clock.

Heading into their off week, the Chargers still feel less than the sum of their parts.

If not for narrow escapes against a couple of weak teams, this team with Super Bowl ambitions would be 0-4.

“I would definitely err the other way,” Staley said. “We could easily be 4-0. Some people could say 1-3. Right now, we’re 2-2. That’s what we are.”

Last week, after the botched fourth-down play, Staley was rescued by a late interception by Kenneth Murray Jr. Against the Raiders, after the botched fourth-down play, Staley was rescued by another late interception, this one by Asante Samuel Jr.

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert is stopped for no gain on fourth-and-inches.

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert is stopped for no gain on fourth-and-inches at the Chargers’ 34-yard line during the fourth quarter.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Asked about his decision to call for a sneak by Herbert on fourth down, Staley replied, “It was less than a yard. In that range, we just felt like we had the right play.”

Would Staley reconsider his fourth-down approach?

“Every decision is a life of its own,” he replied. “I’ve said it for three years now.”

Staley attempted to shift the focus of the conversation.

“The story line,” he said, “is the way our defense played.”

Except it wasn’t.

Staley had a legitimate point about “premium players” who were sidelined — safety Derwin James Jr., edge rusher Joey Bosa, running back Austin Ekeler and center Corey Linsley didn’t play — but something doesn’t look right with this team.

On how each of the Chargers’ four games were decided by seven or fewer points, receiver Joshua Palmer said, “It’s quite frustrating, honestly.”

In other words, the teams should be better.

Staley said he believed the Chargers were improving every week. When relayed Staley’s statement, Mack started, “I feel like we’re playing solid football.”

However, Mack was soon pointing to what they still had to improve.

“Situationally, we have to get better, especially penalty-wise,” Mack said.

Chargers linebacker Khalil Mack (52) sacks the Raiders' Aidan O'Connell.

Chargers linebacker Khalil Mack (52) sacks the Raiders’ Aidan O’Connell. Mack brought down the quarterback a team-record six times.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

When Samuel intercepted a pass by Aidan O’Connell, he slid at the Chargers’ 11, even though he had plenty of open space in front of him. There was 2:39 remaining on the clock. The game wasn’t over and the Chargers could have used the extra six points.

“That’s one of those things,” Mack said. “You have to be better situationally, especially in those types of situations.”

To run out the clock, Herbert had to connect with Palmer on a 51-yard pass on third-and-10 from the spot at which Samuel went down.

“I thought there were some good things we did offensively,” Herbert said, “but a lot of room for improvement and things that we could have cleaned up. I felt like we necessarily didn’t have to be in that situation there at the end to put it away.”

This inability to close out an opponent was what ended the Chargers’ season last year. Staley has attributed the postseason choke job in Jacksonville to a lack of experience and said his team would learn from it. So why are they still doing similar things?

The Chargers are still in the early stages of their season, but it’s not too early for them to play their way out of contention. They will host the Dallas Cowboys in Week 6 and visit the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 7.

If Staley really intends for the Chargers to be Super Bowl contenders, he has to make them look like one soon.

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