Debate: Did Staley’s timeout cost the Chargers a playoff spot?

The football world — including two of Annenberg Media’s own — is split on that very question. We debate.

A photo of Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley in a blue Chargers hat and hoodie with a dejected look on his face. Staley is facing a microphone.

Sunday Night Football between the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders was the ultimate game of cat and mouse.

Both teams knew they could punch their ticket to the playoffs with a win or a tie, but the latter scenario seemed unlikely — until it didn’t. With the teams tied at 32 in the final minute of overtime and the Raiders possessing the ball on third-and-4 at the Chargers’ 39-yard line, L.A. head coach Brandon Staley — presumably thinking the Raiders were going for the win — called a timeout.

Raiders running back Josh Jacobs took the next play 10 yards to the Chargers’ 29-yard line, Vegas ran the clock down to two seconds before calling timeout and Daniel Carlson drilled the game-winning field goal, ending the Chargers’ season.

So did Staley’s timeout cost Los Angeles a playoff spot, or were the Raiders going for the win all along? The world may never know. Annenberg Media’s Nathan Ackerman and Will Camardella give their takes — read their argument below.


Nathan Ackerman: Alright, I’ll start this one off. Here are the incentives for the Raiders to beat the Chargers last night as opposed to taking the tie:

  • Become the No. 5 seed instead of the No. 7
  • Travel to play the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card Round instead of the Kansas City Chiefs (who beat them twice by an average of 33 points this season)
  • Eliminate a division rival
  • Avoid accusations that they were rigging the game
  • Build momentum for the playoffs

And here are the incentives to tie instead:

That’s right. There are none.

The Raiders were at the Chargers’ 39-yard line. Say Staley never calls that timeout. Even if the Raiders take a knee, that would’ve set up a completely makeable 57-yard field goal for Carlson, who was 4-for-4 in the game and had hit 39 of 42 on the season — including his last 22. They were already in field-goal range, and the incentives to win (which the coaches surely knew of — they know everything), were plenty enough for them to kick it. And if they miss, they’re in the playoffs anyway! The only drawback to kicking the field goal is the possibility of the Chargers blocking it and returning it for a touchdown, which is equally likely whether the kick is from 47 yards or 57. Clearly, the Raiders wanted to win the game. That’s why they won it. Timeout or not, they’re doing the same.

Will Camardella: Simply put, the Raiders absolutely had an incentive to play for the tie on that third-down call. While the Bengals certainly provided a more favorable matchup for Las Vegas this weekend, the highest priority for interim head coach Rich Bisaccia was to earn a playoff spot. Any unnecessary decisions to try and pull out a victory at the expense of a guaranteed tie would appear to be far too risky to attempt. As a matter of fact, Bisaccia noted in his postgame presser that he was considering taking the tie on his team’s final drive, once he realized that the Chargers were not using their timeouts.

On that season-defining drive, the Raiders clearly had a plan to keep the clock running. The play-calling consisted mostly of runs up the middle and short passes, and the Raiders only ran the ball following the two-minute warning. Quarterback Derek Carr allowed the play clock to nearly expire before snapping the ball on each play in the drive, causing just under four minutes to elapse from the game clock in only six plays before Staley’s timeout. With tempo of the offense running at a snail’s pace, the ultra-conservative play-calling from Las Vegas indicated that the team was more than content to lock up its playoff positioning without having to go for the win.

When Staley called his timeout, however, the Raiders were given more time to stop and reevaluate their options. With time to weigh all their different options, everyone on the Vegas sideline clearly had a shift in mentality on how to approach the end of the game, which Carr admitted immediately afterward. We know for a fact what decision Bisaccia made with the extra time provided by Staley, but the Raiders’ approach was not nearly as aggressive on the front end of that stoppage. If Las Vegas had to make its decision in the heat of the moment without extra time to consider, the coaching staff would have most likely opted for the safer approach and secured the playoff berth with a tie.

Nathan Ackerman: I have to first address the notion that the highest priority was to guarantee a playoff spot — and, actually, I agree. But it wasn’t the only priority. If it was — if it was actually the case that they only cared about making the playoffs, however they had to get it done — they very easily could have still run the clock out and accepted the tie, even after the timeout. That’s the zero-risk approach. But they didn’t. Did you see the way Carr pumped his fist and yelled as he walked back to the sideline following the Raiders’ own timeout with two seconds remaining? That was the look of a guy who wanted to end someone’s season in cold-blooded fashion.

The reason Las Vegas’ play-calling was so conservative is that the team didn’t need to be aggressive. The last thing they wanted to do was give the Chargers the ball back, because there was no telling what they would’ve done. Maybe they would’ve gone for the win and knocked the Raiders out. Who’s to say? The only way to guarantee a playoff appearance was by keeping the ball the entire game. That explains the run-only approach. But when they found themselves in field-goal range — which happened, mind you, before the timeout (see Carlson’s credentials above) — the approach changed. Might as well win it, since there’s nothing to lose, and something to gain.

As for the press conference remarks, sure. Carr did say that it “definitely did, obviously” — change the strategy. But he followed that up with “we knew, no matter what, we didn’t want to tie. We wanted to win the football game.” He contradicts himself. What is there really to take away from that?

Say Staley holds the timeout. The Raiders probably still run the ball, right? Say they still pick up 10 yards, like they did. Do you think they would’ve just let the clock wind down anyway because the Chargers hadn’t done anything to spite them and they were feeling nice? I certainly don’t.

Will Camardella: Obviously Brandon Staley did not call a timeout for no reason. “We needed to get into the right grouping,” he said postgame. “We felt like they were going to run the ball, so we wanted to get our best 11 personnel run defense in and make that substitution so that we could deepen the field goal.”

If the goal of the Chargers’ first-year coach was to get a big run stop via substitutions, then that decision was a complete failure. Whatever adjustments Los Angeles made during that stoppage did not prevent Jacobs from bursting off a 10-yard run to set up the 47-yard field goal. The timeout gave the Raiders plenty of time to draw up the perfect running play to make the field goal much more manageable, which they may not have called if Staley had forced Las Vegas to make a much more rapid decision. If the Chargers, in lieu of the timeout, had stuffed Jacobs at the line as the clock continued to run, the decision to line up the kicking unit would not have been nearly as much of a no-brainer. While there are some kickers in this league who can make 60-yard field goals look routine, a 57-yard attempt is still very long.

Los Angeles would have very likely sent a player to the end zone on an attempt that long to potentially return the kick if it was short. If Carlson did not fully connect with the ball, that player could return the kick all the way to the other end zone, leaving the Raiders out of the playoffs altogether. Additionally, the Chargers would have 10 fewer yards to run if they somehow blocked the kick altogether. While these possibilities may not sound the most probable, the reality is anything can happen, as Bisaccia, who began the year as a special teams coordinator, knows better than just about anyone.

Even if you think such risks are small, they still exist and would be heightened by a longer attempt. Considering that Bisaccia would have much less time to make his decision, and also considering that the downside of tying is minimal compared to the downside of a disastrous special teams miscue, I am confident that the Raiders would have chosen the much safer path in that scenario.