Three big questions facing the Chargers this offseason

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- The biggest question that loomed over the Los Angeles Chargers after their meltdown wild-card loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars was whether coach Brandon Staley would return.

But Staley will be back for a third season, and general manager Tom Telesco will return for an 11th.

However, changes to the Chargers’ staff are underway after the firing of offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, quarterbacks coach Shane Day and linebackers coach Michael Wilhoite.

Who Staley chooses to fill those positions, plus a looming contract extension for quarterback Justin Herbert, make for an intriguing offseason for the Bolts, who finished the season 10-7 and earned their third playoff appearance in 10 seasons.

Here are three big questions facing the Chargers at the outset of the offseason:

When will the Chargers strike a deal on a Justin Herbert contract extension?

Four days after a season-ending loss to the Jaguars, Telesco said he had yet to think about contracts, including Herbert’s, but added, “Obviously we want him here for a long time.”

The sixth-overall pick in 2020, Herbert became eligible for a contract extension at the end of the season.

Herbert, who turns 25 in March and recently underwent surgery on his non-throwing shoulder, proved this season that not only that he could continue to surpass many statistical milestones (He cruised by Andrew Luck for the most passing yards in the first three seasons of an NFL career, among other feats), but that he could lead a team to the postseason.

“I sleep better at night knowing we have a franchise quarterback,” Telesco said. “He’s done so much already in his young career, yet we all know there’s still a lot there because of his commitment to the game.”

“He took a huge step forward this year as a player,” Staley said. “[He] really brought out the best in him as a player, in terms of the challenges, from an injury standpoint, both upfront and at his skill positions.”

Herbert did not miss a start despite fracturing rib cartilage in Week 2. He also played most of the season without starting left tackle Rashawn Slater and only had receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams available together for four complete games.

Since entering the NFL, Herbert’s total quarterback rating ranks fourth behind Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Aaron Rodgers. In that timespan, he’s passed for 14,089 yards (ranked 3rd), 94 touchdowns (6th) and has a 2.69 touchdown-to-interception ratio (9th).

Plenty of time remains before a deal must get done, Herbert’s only entering the fourth year of a five-year rookie contract, but it would be beneficial to sign Herbert soon.

“I’m confident that Justin Herbert is going to be a Charger for a long time,” Staley said.

Herbert is expecting an extension worth more than $50 million per year and the price will only go up with quarterbacks Jalen Hurts, Joe Burrow, Tua Tagavailoa and Lamar Jackson also eligible for extensions.

For Herbert, it would likely prove beneficial, at least financially, to draw out the process.

What kind of offense will the new coordinator install?

Herbert is the pillar of the offense and the Chargers want to accentuate his arm, but to do that they must effectively run the football, an area that’s been in continual decline throughout Herbert’s career. Last season, the Bolts rushed for an average of 89.6 yards per game (ranked 30th).

Staley, who served as the Los Angeles Rams' defensive coordinator in 2020, said a Sean McVay-style offense or one like San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan’s would serve as models for the style the Chargers want to deploy.

“In terms of the passing game, that’s what we’ve been able to do at a high level for the last two years, throw the football,” Staley said. “But, to be more explosive, you have to be able to run the football more consistently to put more pressure on people.”

The Chargers announced that they have so far completed interviews with Rams passing game coordinator and quarterback coach Zac Robinson, Rams senior offensive assistant Greg Olson, Rams assistant head coach and tight ends coach Thomas Brown and Minnesota Vikings assistant quarterbacks coach Jerrod Johnson.

“The offenses that I think are the most challenging to defend ... are the ones that put a lot of pressure on you every snap, in terms of marrying the run game to the pass game,” Staley said, “putting a lot of pressure on you with personnel groupings, pace, motion, and being able to get the explosions consistently.”

Among qualities that Staley will seek in a coordinator include leadership and style of play. However, experience is not a prerequisite for the position. The Rams hired Staley, who produced the league’s top-rated defense in 2020, despite having no experience as a coordinator.

“Three years ago, there was an outside linebackers coach that only had three years of NFL experience that became a defensive coordinator, and I was that guy that no one knew about," Staley said. "What you have to do is go through a process to discover people like that. Like I said, good coaches come in all shapes and sizes, all levels of experience.”

Was the defense’s late-season turnaround real or a façade?

The Bolts' defense dramatically improved down the stretch, but several factors need to be accounted for.

They went 4-0 against teams that were a combined 2-14 over that same period, but then suffered an upset against the 5-12 Broncos in a regular-season finale, allowing the Broncos to gain a season-high 471 yards (The Chargers did gradually pull some defensive starters around the fourth quarter).

The defense finished the season ranked 21st overall, allowing an average of 22.59 points per game, though it jumped to third from Week 14 through 18, allowing an average of 15 points per game.

In the wild-card playoff game, they forced four turnovers, including three interceptions by cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. But the unit also allowed quarterback Trevor Lawrence to pass for four touchdowns in the second half.

“When things settled down at the end of the season, we were playing at a high level and the way that we expect to play, the standard of performance that we expect,” Staley said. “There were a lot of good takeaways from the way we finished the season. We got contributions from a lot of guys. I thought we developed guys well.”