COSTA MESA, Calif. — Situated off the Pacific Coast Highway, with an expansive view of Crystal Cove on the Newport Coast, sits Mastro’s Ocean Club.
It’s a see-and-be-seen spot, enriched by live music, an impeccable bar and mouth-watering menu.
Seafood platters overflow with lobster, shrimp, crab and oysters. Steaks and chops of every variety fill a plate — including rack of lamb, porterhouse, filet and wagyu beef. There’s delectable sides of white cheddar macaroni and cheese as well as truffle gnocchi. Duck butter cake. Lots and lots of butter cake.
In a corner of the restaurant, a separate entrance leads to a private room, enclosed by floor-to-ceiling glass. An area where the restaurant’s ambiance can be felt, but one where lively conversations can flow freely without interruption.
Welcome to Friday nights with the Los Angeles Chargers’ defense, and as of late, the offense, too.
“A lot of food gets thrown down,” linebacker Kyle Van Noy said. “And honestly, it’s awesome to be a part of, and part of something that is each and every week.”
Order what you want — veteran edge rusher Khalil Mack is happy to pick up the bill.
“Absolutely,” get whatever you want, Mack says, and the price “absolutely” doesn’t matter.
A crowd of NFL players — somewhere between 20 to 40 at a time — gather at some of Newport Beach’s swankiest restaurants — Mastro’s, Javier’s and Nobu — to break bread, build camaraderie and forge their way to the NFL’s postseason.
“We’ve been trying to get out,” safety Derwin James Jr. said, “build that chemistry.”
With three games remaining, including a “Monday Night Football” matchup against the Indianapolis Colts (4-9) at Lucas Oil Stadium (8:15 pm, ET, ESPN), the Chargers (8-6) are on a path to potentially ending a three-year postseason drought under second-year coach Brandon Staley.
A win on Dec. 18 over the AFC South-leading Tennessee Titans (7-7) helped catapult them into the AFC’s No. 6 seeds.
“Because we’re connected, it has allowed us to endure all that has happened this season, because that is the only explanation,” Staley said. “There’s no other way to explain it. Otherwise, we would be 3-9 or worse. We believe in one another.”
PRIOR TO ENTERING the NFL, rookie defensive back Ja’Sir Taylor, a sixth-round pick from Wake Forest, heard from friends and former teammates about what life was like in the league.
“They had dinners with their position groups and all that stuff,” Taylor explained. “And in the beginning of the year, we didn’t have that.”
Players started talking about it, but nobody organized it. Then Mack, barely a season into his Chargers tenure after an offseason blockbuster deal sent him from Chicago to LA, stepped up.
“Hey right [said], ‘You guys want to go out? I’ll take you out,'” Taylor said.
A ninth-year pro, Mack remembered previous teammates — former Raiders defensive linemen Justin Tuck and Antonio Smith and Hall of Fame defensive back Charles Woodson — who took on leadership positions and left a lasting impression.
“It wasn’t just about football,” Mack said. “It was a brotherhood at the end of the day, and the more you cared about each other off the field, the harder you played for each other.”
Mack’s presence can be felt in a room, although his voice is not often heard. He considers himself someone who would rather be about action than words — a doer, not a talker.
“But when he speaks,” defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill said, “it’s powerful.”
“I was literally walking [into the locker room] from the hot tub and he was like, ‘Oh, we’re going to Mastro’s,'” linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. said. “And I’m like, ‘What? OK,’ and he was like, ‘Everybody be there.’ And it was amazing because everybody showed up and we were all there and I feel like that’s been one of the key things that’s helped bring us together.”
The dinners for defensive players started in September. As of late November, offensive players wanted in too after hearing stories in the locker room and seeing the results on the field.
“They were getting together,” tight end Gerald Everett said of the defense. “And I was like, ‘Man, what are we doing?'”
Some guys arrive for dinner early. Others run late — a true test in bonding as they’re forced to find and sit in any empty chair. And no matter how much time is allotted, one thing is almost certain: “It’s definitely hard to leave,” defensive end Morgan Fox said.
They hung out. Talk about life. Talk about ball. And laugh — a lot.
There’s Mack and Joey Bosa, who has attended despite being on injured reserve since undergoing groin surgery following Week 3. Teammates describe the duo as opposites, but say they share some similar qualities. And they make the night lively.
“[Joey] doesn’t try to be funny, but half of what he says, just his demeanor and how he controls himself, it’s hilarious,” defensive lineman Breiden Fehoko said. “And with Khalil, Khalil is just as reserved. If he’s really comfortable around you, if he’s around the guys, he’s a clown.”
There’s inside jokes. There’s stories about families and kids. There’s a lot of talk among football players about subjects that hardly have anything to do with football.
“Being able to communicate and talk about life — it’s always good,” Van Noy said.
And then there’s food. Lots and lots of food, washed down by water, strawberry lemonade and magnums of Opus One wine.
“I get the bone-in ribeye, I get crab cakes, I’ll get lobster tail, the white cheddar mac and cheese, I’ll get calamari for appetizer, and then I’ll get a butter cake,” Fehoko said. “I’ll eat a butter cake there, and then I’ll take another butter cake home.”
Approximate cost for his meal? $285.
“K-Mack says, ‘Get whatever you all want.’ Alright,” Fehoko said. “You ain’t got to tell me twice.”
“Load up, big fella,” Mack said, smiling. “I know he’s going to have to take the double-teams on Sunday, so I try to feed him good.”
Linebacker Chris Rumph blushes, then breaks into a laugh when he talks about his go-to order.
“I got to get the wagyu,” he said, before attempting to lower his voice. “Between me and you, it’s better if I’m not paying.”
Mack, who is in the middle of a six-year, $141 million contract, peers over from a few lockers down and grins at Rumph’s laughter.
Then, there’s the rookies — still occasionally starstruck that they’re having dinner with players whom they used to idolize, and whom they certainly don’t want to embarrass when ordering.
“I always heard that when you’re out with important people, you’re not supposed to get your steak well done, so I’ve been dialing it back,” Taylor said. “I’m doing it well done … well plus, something like that? Medium well plus, whatever. I think whatever [James] orders, that’s what I get. Medium well plus.”
Mack, with the veteran move, doesn’t need to worry about anyone judging his steak.
“I like the roasted chicken,” he said.
And in ordering sushi? No limit.
“The question is how much can he pay for,” Fehoko said. “You name it, I’m killing sushi.”
“Start with some spicy tuna, spicy edamame, have to do the spicy snow crab,” defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day said. “This is just the beginning … the miso cod, the okra …”
“We probably should just go in the ocean and catch it ourselves with the amount of fish we eat,” Rumph said, laughing.
THE GROWING CAMARADERIE didn’t immediately translate to the field, as the Chargers teetered through a 5-5 start that included a lopsided 38-10 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars and a 27-23 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. But as the Chargers make a run down the stretch, their improved chemistry is apparent.
“The closer you are to someone,” said cornerback Bryce Callahan, who leads the team with three interceptions, “the easier it is to play with them.”
The Bolts have won two straight, in large part thanks to their defence, which has kept them in the game long enough to allow the offense to score, despite uneven performances. In Week 14, the Chargers frustrated Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (10-of-28 for 145 yards and a touchdown) in a 23-17 victory. It was Tagovailoa’s worst completion percentage in a game in his three-year career.
“I especially feel like we were playing as a unit, we really try to make a point of going out there and playing for each other, and I feel like everybody kind of — you can kind of sense it,” Murray said. “Everybody was out there playing for one another, everybody was trying to go hard so the other man could succeed.”
The following week, Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill completed 15 of 22 passes for 165 yards against the Chargers. Safety Nasir Adderley grabbed his first interception of the season and Tannehill was sacked by four different Chargers: linebackers Van Noy, Rumph and Drue Tranquill and defensive lineman Joe Gaziano. On the Titans’ first six drives of the second half, Tannehill had more sacks than completions.
“It’s slowly jelled together, and you can tell whether it’s a starter or a backup guy, it’s going to flow the same way because we all talk and we all have those off-the-field experiences,” Mack said.
After allowing an average of 25.8 points per game (ranked 30th) through the first 13 games of the season, the defense clamped down the past two weeks, allowing 15.5 (fourth).
“We’ve really made some good strides,” Staley said. “The last two weeks, in particular, I’ve probably felt more energy from the group for the whole game than at any other point since I’ve been here.”
The defense recently extended an invitation to offensive players to join dinners, while, according to several players, more veterans have stepped up to help cover the tab.
“[Justin] Herbert showed up,” Joseph-Day said, smiling. “It’s great. We have Justin sitting by us and we just sitting down, shooting the s—, talking about life.”
“[Mack] has done a great job of getting everyone involved,” Herbert said. “That’s huge for us.”
The running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and offensive linemen are joining in, too.
“It’s immeasurable,” Staley said of Mack’s influence on the team. “He’s the one bringing us together. I think that he is bringing out the best in everybody.”