The Los Angeles Chargers’ locker room featured that undeniable feeling which comes with a win which propels a team into the playoffs.
There was the combination of sweat, swagger and that fleeting feeling of success that hung in the air after the Chargers beat the Indianapolis Colts on Monday night, putting L.A. into the postseason for the first time since 2018.
That it came in Indy was appropriate, as the checkered flag was dropped on a pricey proposition that potentially faced Chargers owner Dean Spanos.
Brandon Staley, Spanos’ rookie head coach in his third season, had been feeling the heat. Not quite to the mouth-burning degree one encounters at St. Elmo’s, when dipping into the iconic Indy restaurant with horseradish that has no mercy.
But Staley, to many, was on the hot seat.
Staley’s status, as it should have been, was up for discussion when the Chargers, behind sensational quarterback Justin Herbert, at various points this year appeared headed for another offseason to figure out what went wrong.
There were rumors that Sean Payton would replace Staley. Or any other coach that could convince the Chargers that they could make hay while Herbert was on his team-friendly rookie contract.
So when Spanos entered that steamy and boisterous visitor’s locker room in Naptown, he left with an eye-opening gift. It was a game ball presented to him from Staley, a $170 retail item that had the significance of millions of dollars.
No longer would the whispers of Payton’s arrival follow the Chargers, like those still fumbling when calling them “San Diego” all these years later.
No longer would Staley’s innovative ways produce yet another head-scratching response.
No longer would Spanos have to calculate how much the Super Bowl-winning Payton, the hottest available candidate on the market, and his staff would cost. Plus, the expenditure Spanos would have to absorb when showing Staley and his crew the door.
All of that was washed away in a 20-3 win which was relatively easy for the Chargers (9-6). Facing a Colts team with a coach with even less experience than Staley was a breeze. Herbert’s late-game magic wouldn’t be needed, and now that goes for Payton and his other possible replacements.
The second-place Chargers are going to the playoffs and Staley isn’t going anywhere. Those knowing L.A. and the way it conducts its business might be surprised by the first notion, but not by the second.
Win or lose in Indy, it was unlikely Spanos would dig that far into his pockets for a splashy hire like Payton. Spanos selects coaches for as much as what they haven’t done, for what they have accomplished.
Simply, the Chargers thrive on the notion of being frugal when annointing their top man. Staley joined a long list of first-time, i.e. less-expensive, head coaches that broke their NFL seals with the Bolts.
Before Staley, the Chargers under the Spanos family trotted out Anthony Lynn (33-31), Mike McCoy (27-37), Mike Riley (14-34), Kevin Gilbride (6-16), Bobby Ross (50-36) and Al Saunders (17-22).
Only twice have the Spanoses hired full-time coaches with extensive NFL resumes: Marty Schottenhimer (47-33) and Norv Turner (56-40).
Schottenheimer, led the team to a 14-2 record in 2006 and then was canned after failing in the playoffs.
Turner took the Bolts to the AFC Championship game, which they lost, the following season. But he never equaled those heights in a tenure that ended in 2012.
So when Spanos, whose father, Alex, once fired should-be-Hall-of-Famer Don Coryell, had that slick, leather NFL football plopped into his mitts by Staley, it meant more than another keepsake for Spanos’ mantle.
While there was no guarantee that Spanos would have generated headlines this offseason by bringing in a big name, and costly, new coach, Monday’s win sealed the deal that he won’t.
Staley (18-14) is returning and the Chargers are back in the playoffs, too.
That game ball might has well had a dollar sign on it, next to commissioner Roger Goodell’s name, as it potentially saved the franchise millions.