Column: Three Chargers injured against Broncos. Why did Brandon Staley play starters?

Trainers assist the Chargers Mike Williams off the field.
Trainers assist the Chargers Mike Williams off the field after he injured his back against Denver.
(Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)

A couple of questions into his postgame news conference, Chargers coach Brandon Staley was asked whether receiver Mike Williams could have returned after departing the game in the second quarter with a back injury.

“Possibly,” Staley said, “yeah.”

Unless Staley uses an unconventional definition of “returned” or received inaccurate information from the team’s medical staff, he lied.

Quarterback Justin Herbert’s most explosive target, Williams was unable to walk on his own power later on Sunday when he made his way to the team bus from the visiting locker room at Empower Field. His arm was draped over the right shoulder of a Chargers’ staffer, who held him around his lower back. Williams shuffled his feet slowly.


Staley was fiery and defensive in his address after a 31-28 defeat to the Denver Broncos, his unusual demeanor reflecting the magnitude of the self-inflicted damage his team sustained in its regular-season finale.

Star receiver Mike Williams and Kenneth Murray Jr. injured in meaningless season-finale loss to Broncos, but Chargers shift concerns to AFC playoffs, Jaguars.

Jan. 8, 2023

What a debacle.

What an absolute Charger of a debacle.

With the Chargers locked in as the AFC’s No. 5 seed before kickoff, the game was a meaningless exercise until Staley decided it wasn’t, and they now could be forced to play their postseason opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars without Williams, linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. and edge rusher Joey Bosa.

Staley didn’t just play his starters in a game that didn’t count. Herbert played three quarters. Many of the team’s defensive starters played into the fourth. Receiver Keenan Allen played the entire game.

This was the coaching equivalent of throwing into quadruple coverage, an unforced error that could compromise the championship ambitions of a team that was trending the right way on multiple fronts.

The Chargers had a realistic path to the Super Bowl, spared a first-round showdown with the Cincinnati Bengals when the Baltimore Ravens lost earlier on Sunday.

 Chargers defenders Joey Bosa (97) and Derwin James Jr. (3) pursue against Denver.
Chargers defenders Joey Bosa (97) and Derwin James Jr. (3) pursue against Denver. Bosa, who just returned from injury last week, did not finish the game against the Broncos.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

They had momentum, as they went into Week 18 on a four-game winning streak.

Most importantly, they were healthier than they’d been in months, their improved form in recent weeks coinciding with the returns of key players.

The Chargers haven’t played a postseason game in four years and Staley didn’t want them to go in cold.

“We wanted to make sure that they went a good ways in this football game and competed at a high level,” Staley said. “When we felt like it was right for them to get out of the game, that’s what we were going to do.”


Give the starters a couple of drives.

Give them a quarter.

Chargers: First look at AFC wild-card opponent Jacksonville Jaguars, who won a regular-season matchup in Los Angeles between the teams in Week 3, 38-10.

Jan. 8, 2023

Murray exiting the game with a stinger in the second quarter should have served as a warning but Staley ignored it.

Williams departing later in the same quarter with a back injury should have sounded the alarm bells but Staley didn’t hear them.

“This isn’t a preseason game where you have 90 guys to choose from,” Staley said. “You only have 48 players to choose from. You have to go out there and you have to field a football team.”


The Chargers also have only one Herbert and one Derwin James Jr.

Why subject Herbert to the kinds of late hits he absorbed? So what if backup quarterback Chase Daniel would have played three quarters?

Curiously, the player who could have used the extra snaps was the first player removed from the game. That was Bosa, who was activated the previous week from injured reserve. Other than Murray, he was the only defensive starter who was taken out in the second quarter. Staley said Bosa wasn’t injured but considering what he said about Williams, who would believe him?

After a thrilling Week 18 of the NFL season, the playoffs are set. Here’s a breakdown of what happened Sunday and what’s ahead on NFL wild-card weekend.

Jan. 9, 2023

And to think this day started with a gift from the football gods in the form of the Ravens’ loss to the Bengals.

The playoffs are as much about whom a team plays as it is how it plays and the Chargers caught a break. The third-seeded Bengals are 12-4. The Jaguars are 9-8.

The Chargers were blown out by the Jaguars at SoFi Stadium in Week 3, 38-10, but the Chargers aren’t the same team that they were then. In that September game, Herbert was clearly affected by the rib injury he suffered the previous week. Allen didn’t play. Center Corey Linsley didn’t, either.

In the wake of what happened in their regular-season finale, the Chargers should be grateful they are playing the Jaguars instead of the Bengals. That was about the only positive development for them on Sunday.


Staley made it a point to remove the franchise’s wretched history from the organizational mindset, addressing the subject with his players when he was a first-year coach last year. He might have now just game-planned the Chargers Curse back into existence.