Elliott: Chargers’ lament failed brotherhood of talent has led to a broken family

Where it all went wrong for the Chargers this season was the logical topic to discuss after players exited the field at SoFi Stadium — many likely for the final time with the team — following their season-ending 13-12 loss to the playoff-bound Kansas City Chiefs, who wisely kept their stars out of a meaningless game for them.

Did the Chargers’ season go off track even before it began, when they kept coach Brandon Staley after they had blown a 27-point lead over Jacksonville in an AFC wild-card round loss last January?

Did they mistake close losses early in the season for signs they were near a breakthrough, when they never really were?

They lost their first game by two points, their second by three (in overtime), and, after beating Minnesota and the Raiders, lost by three to Dallas.

Two more narrow defeats — a three-point loss to Detroit on Nov. 12 and another three-point gap at Green Bay on Nov. 19 — seemed to reinforce the notion they weren’t far from winning.

That was shattered in their unconscionable 63-21 loss at Las Vegas on Dec. 14, which forced owner Dean Spanos to fire Staley and general manager Tom Telesco.

There were more questions than answers Sunday. It was a day of sadness, regret and reflection for a 5-12 team that started the season with optimism and finished with stud quarterback Justin Herbert on the injury list, an interim coach in Giff Smith, a five-game losing streak, and the certainty that the offseason will be marked by massive changes on and off the field.

“Very frustrating and disappointing. Not the way we planned it,” said safety Derwin James, who finished strong with a team-high eight tackles Sunday and a career-best 125 tackles this season. “We lost too many tight, close games.”

Chargers interim head coach Giff Smith walks off the field after losing to the Chiefs. He was 0-3 as interim coach.

Chargers interim head coach Giff Smith walks off the field after losing to the Chiefs. He was 0-3 as interim coach.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

And too many games, period. It probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference if they’d fired Staley sooner, though it couldn’t have been much worse.

“We didn’t meet our expectations,” running back Austin Ekeler said. “There’s too many things to say, ‘This, this, this.’ It was a collective effort and we failed as an organization for multiple reasons.”

Ekeler, who had a modest 11 yards rushing in 10 attempts and 38 receiving yards on seven receptions Sunday, can become an unrestricted free agent and is prominent on the list of players who might not return to the Chargers next season. He called free agency his next journey, a trip that began when he made the roster as an undrafted free agent in 2017 and went on to rack up two 900-yard-plus rushing seasons.

“Haven’t really thought too much about it because I wanted to finish this one before we get on to the next one,” he said, “and now that’s a conversation my team and I will have.”

He put some of the blame for the team’s failures this season on his own shoulders.

“I learned that I need to be a better leader,” he said. “I can communicate more. I think I was a little too reserved this year and leadership’s hard.

“Leadership is really hard because you’ve got to establish yourself early on as far as how you’re going to lead this team. You can’t all of a sudden switch up and be a new guy. I would like to see myself be more communicative up front this year.”

Knowing that could happen somewhere else contributed to the sadness he felt Sunday.

Chargers wide receiver Derius Davis is surrounded by Chiefs defenders after making a catch.

Chargers wide receiver Derius Davis is surrounded by Chiefs defenders after making his only catch for a gain of 18 yards.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“Absolutely. Just because I’m not going to be with these guys anymore. It’s one of those journeys that I’ll always remember but sad that it has to end,” he said of the upcoming team-wide changes.

The future was also on the mind of linebacker Khalil Mack, whose sack of Chiefs quarterback Blaine Gabbert was Mack’s 17th this season, the highest single-season total by a Charger since sacks were first tracked in 1982.

It was too soon, Mack said — while the heavily pro-Chiefs crowd was filing out of the stadium and players showered and dressed — for him to objectively sum up an entire season that went so wrong.

“Fifteen minutes after the game it’s hard to process everything because of the emotions from losing and all those different things,” he said. “Some guys don’t understand this may be our last time playing together and all those different things.

“It was special. It’s always special when you can come together as a brotherhood and play for each other, play for one another and give your all for the man next to you. That’s something I’m not going to take lightly. Every one of these dudes in the locker room means something to me. So I give my all not for myself, but for everybody else.”

And even that wasn’t enough.

There are schematic and analytic points the Chargers can take from this season, but it’s the desolation they felt Sunday that players should most clearly remember — and resolve to not be in a position to feel that way again.

“Definitely motivation for the offseason because, man, I don’t want to go into these offseasons every year with this motivation, or whatever it is,” James said. “We want to really get it done here and it definitely wasn’t the season we wanted to have.”

Certainly not the way it should have gone.

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