Finally healthy, Chargers' Gates looking like his old, dominant self

by | Senior NFL Columnist

Gates came on at the end of last season, and says he's the healthiest he's been in years. (US Presswire)  
Gates came on at the end of last season, and says he's the healthiest he's been in years. (US Presswire)  

SAN DIEGO -- With practice concluded, the San Diego Chargers retreat to their locker room, where they shower, dress and get ready to go home. No one's in a rush, yet tight end Antonio Gates pulls himself together so quickly that it draws the attention of one of his teammates.

"Hey, where you going?" asks quarterback Philip Rivers, whose locker is adjacent to Gates'. "I've never seen you dress so fast."

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Gates smiles.

"I'm not hurt," he says.

Rivers smiles back, and he should. Because if Gates is as healthy as he seems, Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers just regained a critical weapon to challenge Denver for supremacy of the AFC West.

It's not just that Gates is a proven playmaker. It's that he's one of the NFL's premier tight ends, the gold standard against whom others are measured. At least, he was until he was crippled by foot injuries several years ago. Since then, he's been in and out of the lineup, missing games and a lot of practice time -- with his absence felt by those left behind. Over their last 33 games, the Chargers are 17-16 and haven't reached the playoffs in two years.

Granted, there were other issues that sabotaged the club, like Rivers' turnovers, a rash of injuries to wide receivers and a defense that couldn't squeeze the pocket or make crucial stops. But having a healthy Gates on the field could have -- maybe would have -- made things easier on everyone.

"It was very difficult," said Gates. "What made it mind boggling is that I knew I could do more from a physical standpoint. But not being able to beat a linebacker one-on-one ... that changes your train of thought, as far as how much you have left in the tank.

"People see you, and they start talking about other guys at this position, and then you go back to your family and tell them, 'I can't do this' or 'I can't do that.' People don't know what you're dealing with every day."

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The Chargers did. Gates tried to play through excruciating pain that limited him and the team's offense. He had trouble running. He couldn't separate from defenders. He struggled to jump. In short, he wasn't Antonio Gates, and it wasn't just the eight-time Pro Bowler who suffered; it was his team. "Antonio is one of those guys who makes it easier on everyone else around him," said coach Norv Turner. "If he's going at the level where he's at his best, people are usually doubling him, grabbing him and holding him. It helps with the running game, it helps other guys get open and it helps backs get out of the backfield.

"And then he has great production. So we really build our offense around him, particularly in the passing game. When he's been healthy and played well in the last two years we've been a more productive offense."

Well, this just in: He is healthy. In fact, Gates said he feels better than at any time since 2008, and he demonstrated it in practice this week by making a series of catches against Dallas. Rivers said he can see a difference in his speed. He's faster. Others say he's quicker and that they can see a difference in his movements.

"He's hopping and bouncing around," said running back Ronnie Brown, "and he looks pretty good."

Whatever it is, it's Antonio Gates as you remember him, and that's the first piece of positive news for a Bolts team that this summer subtracted running back Ryan Mathews and wide receiver Vincent Brown. Mathews is expected back in September, but Brown is out indefinitely -- and it's not a stretch to think he could miss the season.

That means there's a void for someone to fill, and Antonio Gates is the logical choice. He's Rivers' favorite target, and he's a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses ... when, of course, he's right.

Which he is now.

"I explain it like this," said Rivers. "When we get in our huddle, I stand down here, and he stands there [he points to an area directly opposite him]. So he completes the huddle. He kind of attaches that end of the huddle. He ties it all together.

"Obviously, we won some games and we've done some good without him in there. But him being in there not only in the games ... but out there day after day after day in practice ... well, teams are going to have to play us differently on the outside because their eyes get focused in on him."

That means opportunities for San Diego's wideouts, and that's crucial in a year where the Chargers must return to the playoffs for Turner to keep his job. Vincent Jackson is gone, but Malcom Floyd, Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal head a group of wide receivers who must excel for San Diego to move forward. There's not an elite target in there, but if Gates is as healthy as he seems, there is now.

"When you deal with injuries," said Gates, "sometimes your self-esteem is low, and you can't really appreciate this game or appreciate how much fun it is when you have your health. Now, I go as much as I can, I practice every chance I get and I don't take days off. I'm just embracing health."

And the Chargers are embracing him. They should. There is no more dangerous receiver on the Bolts than Antonio Gates ... provided, of course, he's healthy.

"You aware that some people had written you off?" I asked.

"I was," he said. "Somehow, it gave me a sense of urgency to get back with a kind of chip on my shoulder to prove everybody wrong. After you've accomplished things, and you're not able to feel those expectations, all of a sudden people say, 'He's getting older,' or 'He'll never be the same.' I use all of that as fuel to continue to work hard and continue to grind.

"I always wanted to be the best. I always wanted to be the guy that they said set the bar for this position. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to do that because I was dealing with injuries, and that's the nature of this game.

"But when I grew up I always looked at a player and [thought]: Anybody can play at 100 percent. That's why I've always grinded through injuries; because the great ones play through pain when they're not 100 percent. They find a way to get it done. This is a productivity league, and you either do it, or you don't."

Trust me, Antonio Gates will do it ... again. And if he's as good as he once was, maybe the San Diego Chargers will be, too.


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