June 16, 2024

He was asked to capture a Chargers season that has gone violently sideways in just a single word.

Eric Kendricks thought for a few seconds before offering two words: “So close.” Then he thought some more.

“But there’s a lot of close games in the NFL,” the veteran linebacker said. “It’s about finishing them.”

The Chargers too often haven’t, their 5-9 record including five losses by three or fewer points.

So here they are, playing for an interim coach and an interim general manager, trying to slow a skid of five losses in six games and coming off one of the NFL’s all-time red-faced performances.

“Definitely sad,” Kendricks said, “and disappointing.”

The Chargers play Buffalo on Saturday night at SoFi Stadium, the visitors vying for the playoffs and the home team opening a three-game stretch that suddenly feels like a farewell tour.

The coming weeks and months for this franchise will bring changes, perhaps significant and numerous ones to a top-heavy roster constructed for a postseason push that never was close to materializing.

The Chargers crumbled in the hands of Brandon Staley, the fired coach, and Tom Telesco, the fired GM. The team’s adopted “Our Way” motto turned into a “No Way” reality.

“It’s been tough, but we’re the ones that put us here,” quarterback Easton Stick said. “It’s collective. It’s everybody. Over the course of the season, it’s become this.”

Longtime assistant Giff Smith was given the title of coach for the final three games and the orders to keep the Chargers competing. After the Bills, they’ll face Denver and Kansas City, all opponents still playing for something.

Chargers outside linebackers coach Giff Smith yells from the sideline during a game against the Baltimore Ravens.

Chargers outside linebackers coach Giff Smith is now the interim head coach for the last three games of the season.

(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

In their most recent public appearance, the Chargers fell behind at Las Vegas 63-7 before rallying to lose by six touchdowns on a night when a franchise record was set for points surrendered.

Smith said his team “flushed that game,” using a familiar coaching expression that maybe never applied more perfectly to a smoldering heap of a situation. The Chargers’ response now means more than what remains on their schedule.

“We have three weeks to show the character of the men and the coaching staff that we are, to go out there and compete,” Smith said. “That’s what we’re looking to do, compete … and try to win these next three games.”

In the spring, the NFL placed this matchup in prime time based on how easily it could sell Justin Herbert against Josh Allen in a pairing of teams bound for the postseason.

Chargers quarterback Easton Stick (2) scrambles in a preseason game against the 49ers.

Chargers quarterback Easton Stick (2) will make his second NFL start.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Of course, no one’s buying any of that today. Along with the Chargers’ other fractured failures, Herbert is out for the remainder of the season because of a broken right index finger.

Stick will make his second consecutive start — both in the spotlight of stand-alone, national-television games — while trying to ignite a team that could be hunting for motivation.

“All of that starts between you and you, your why,” edge rusher Khalil Mack said. “It’s gotta be bigger than the game. As a competitor, you gotta have a natural knack for wanting to win no matter the circumstances.”

The Chargers wilted noticeably against the Raiders after falling behind 21-0 in the first quarter. Las Vegas scored the first 49 points, the seventh touchdown coming on a trick play apparently meant to mock.

Despite that utter failure, Mack suggested there’s no excuse for the Chargers to come with anything other than a complete and focused effort.

“If that changes, I’m going to let it be known,” he said. “I wouldn’t want nobody that already gave up on the field with me.”

Kendricks has been in the NFL since 2015. As with Mack, he was brought to the Chargers because Staley wanted him here, the former coach intent on building his defense around players he admired and believed in.

Because of this connection, Mack said he took Staley’s firing “very personal.” Kendricks agreed, explaining that a sense of obligation has weighed on him since Staley was let go last week.

The firing was a career first for Kendricks in the NFL. He hadn’t been through an in-season coaching change since his freshman year at UCLA. At the end of November 2011, Rick Neuheisel was fired following a 50-0 defeat to USC.

Those Bruins then lost the Pac-12 championship game and the Fight Hunger Bowl.

“It’s just a huge letdown, especially being a leader on this team,” Kendricks said. “We all had expectations and standards that weren’t met. As a competitor, there’d be something wrong if you didn’t take ownership of that.”

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