Following the Raiders’ historic rout of the Chargers on Thursday night, the reeling team will drop the hammer early. The Bolts announced the firings of Brandon Staley and Tom Telesco on Friday morning.
The Chargers have since announced the promotion of Giff Smith and JoJo Wooden to respectively replace Staley and Telesco on an interim basis. The former has experience as a D-line coach dating back to 1999, and he has been in the organization since 2016. Over the past two seasons, though, he has worked as the team’s outside linebackers coach. This will be Smith’s first appointment as a head coach at the college or pro level.
Wooden, meanwhile, has been with the Chargers for the past decade. He has served with the title of player personnel director after working his way through the ranks in the Jets’ scouting department from 1997 to 2012. Like Smith, he will now oversee the conclusion of a highly disappointing campaign for the Bolts before potentially garnering consideration for the full-time role.
This is the first instance of the Chargers firing a head coach in-season since they axed Kevin Gilbride 25 years ago. But Staley has long been expected to be out, with the Bolts regressing in a season following a 27-point collapse in the wild-card round. Telesco spent 11 years as the Chargers’ GM. While much-hyped rosters formed under his watch, the team did not turn well-regarded transactions into sustained success.
Hired in 2021, Staley came over after one season as the Rams’ defensive coordinator. But the ascendant assistant could not establish success in this area with the Chargers. The Raiders dropping 63 on their rivals, 42 of those points coming in the first half, after the Vikings had held them scoreless in Week 15 prompted Bolts ownership to act early.
Telesco backed Staley following the Jaguars’ wild-card rally, which doubled as the third-biggest postseason deficit ever overcome, and the “what if?” involving Sean Payton is worth examining. The then-FOX analyst was linked to being interested in the Chargers job at multiple points last year. The move would have allowed Payton to stay in Los Angeles. But Telesco kept Staley, continuing a Chargers trend of keeping coaches beyond two seasons.
Staley is now the first Bolts HC to lose his job after less than four full seasons since the team fired Mike Riley following the 2001 campaign. Even Riley, who did not produce a winning season, lasted longer than Staley. But the alarming Week 15 performance opened the door to the Bolts needing to cut the cord now. As the team began to struggle this season, Chargers president John Spanos — a previous Staley advocate — began to distance himself from the embattled HC, Outkick.com’s Armando Salguero notes. The Spanoses will now begin to look for Staley’s replacement in an offseason that will remind of 2013, when the Bolts replaced both their HC and GM.
The Telesco news represents a bigger-picture development. The former Colts exec had hired Mike McCoy, Anthony Lynn and Staley during his run as GM. Telesco’s drafts brought difference-makers in Joey Bosa, Keenan Allen, Derwin James, Rashawn Slater and Justin Herbert. Telesco did well to leave no gaps between star quarterbacks, selecting Herbert sixth overall a month after Philip Rivers departed in free agency. Telesco, 51, also hammered out a through-2029 Herbert extension this offseason. The quarterback’s presence will make both the new Bolts vacancies attractive, but rampant underachievement has defined this team for much of the 21st century.
Even before the Raiders’ rout, Telesco was rumored to be on the chopping block. Dean Spanos will opt to not let Telesco hire a fourth HC. The three he hired combined for just three playoff appearances in 11 seasons. The Chargers, who had sustained success under Marty Schottenheimer and the early part of Norv Turner‘s ensuing HC run, have not ventured to back-to-back playoff brackets since the 2008-09 seasons. Despite Rivers playing his final seven Chargers seasons during Telesco’s tenure, the potential Hall of Famer only piloted the Bolts to two playoff brackets in that span. The Chargers won postseason games in 2013 and ’18 and were on track to eliminate the Jags last season, but success proved fleeting for squads that seemed to annually generate buzz.
After hiring offense-oriented coaches in 2013 and ’17, Telesco chose Staley’s defensive acumen to pair with Herbert in 2021. The Chargers managed to produce the AFC’s Pro Bowl starting quarterback and miss the playoffs. That had not happened in the AFC since the 1989 Bengals. Herbert put up dazzling numbers in 2021, but a Week 18 loss to the Raiders led to the budding superstar’s season wrapping early. A rib injury last September limited Herbert, and Staley fired OC Joe Lombardi following the playoff season. Two-year DC Renaldo Hill left to rejoin Vic Fangio in Miami this offseason.
Following a 2021 season that featured the Bolts ranking 29th in points allowed, Staley made a push for the team to equip him with better defensive personnel in 2022. The team traded for Khalil Mack and signed J.C. Jackson and Sebastian Joseph-Day. The Mack trade belatedly panned out, with the former Raiders and Bears standout rebounding for 15 sacks this season. The five-year, $82.5MM Jackson contract proved disastrous for the Chargers, who sent the underperforming cornerback back to the Patriots for next to nothing earlier this season.
The Chargers had made Jackson a healthy scratch in Week 3. Even after the round of defensive reinforcements, Staley’s 2022 defense ranked 20th; after last night’s Raider rampage, his third Charger defense ranks 29th. Last season’s Jacksonville catastrophe also featured the Bolts lining up without Mike Williams, who was injured in a meaningless Week 18 game against the Broncos. Staley and Telesco each defended the decision to leave starters in that contest deep into the second half, but the Chargers — who have struggled with receiver health over the past two seasons — suffered the consequences of Williams’ absence a week later. As the Chargers swooned in the wake of the playoff debacle, they lost Herbert to a season-ending finger injury.
Herbert’s status will naturally drive interest in this position, and some around the league are monitoring the Chargers as a Bill Belichick suitor. The Bolts would likely need to trade for the Patriots legend, and it would be interesting to see if this gains traction. A short-term Belichick-Herbert pairing would draw interest for a franchise that has struggled to establish itself in L.A., while such a move would also be a zag after Telesco made inexperienced coordinators — in Staley and Lynn — his HC choices. But we are still a ways away from the Belichick market taking shape.
Regardless of where the Chargers go from here, their next regime will be responsible for undoing some of the damage this era brought. The organization’s reputation for letdowns pushed “Chargering” into the NFL lexicon. In a division with Payton and Patrick Mahomes, the Bolts suddenly have more ground to make up despite striking gold with Herbert.
Adam La Rose contributed to this post.