THE CHARGERS may
have the best 53-man roster in the NFL, but one bad toe is threatening to trip
them up. Antonio Gates's feet are normally his greatest asset. After the
All-Pro tight end makes a reception, he plants a cleat in the ground, cuts past
a linebacker and outruns safeties all the way to the Pro Bowl. But in the first
round of the playoffs last season, Gates caught a pass behind the line of
scrimmage and slipped on the wet grass at Qualcomm Stadium. As he was hit by
Titans linebacker David Thornton and tackle Tony Brown, his left foot stuck in
the turf and bent back underneath him.
Gates left the
game and was later found to have torn the plantar plate in his left foot, which
resulted in a dislocated big toe. He played on it the next week in a win at
Indianapolis, as well as the week after in a loss at New England. He was not
productive—his agility was clearly compromised, and he caught a total of four
passes for 45 yards—but he and the Chargers were not overly concerned,
believing the toe would heal after the season with rest and standard rehab. By
late February, however, rest had done little to alleviate the pain, and Gates
had surgery. When training camp opened in July, he still could not practice
with the team.
Gates was cleared
to practice in late August, and he knows he will soon come back, if not for the
Chargers' Sept. 7 opener versus the Panthers, then at least early in the
season. What concerns him is how he will perform when he returns, whether he'll
still be able to cut and run past those safeties. Gates, whose 41 touchdown
catches over the past four seasons rank third in the NFL, cannot bear to think
of himself as another plodding tight end. He and the Chargers have come to
expect so much more.
about my game as a whole—my jumping, my cutting, my running, if I'm still going
to be as explosive," Gates says. "It's human nature when you've been
out. I wonder if I'll be the impact player that I was."
think he's overreacting just a bit. Safety Eric Weddle laughs at any notion
that Gates has lost a step. "This won't shake him," Weddle says.
"We see him running and cutting and catching and passing. If anything, he
looks faster to me."
Gates gives the Chargers a dimension that few teams can match. He opens space
for running back LaDainian Tomlinson, diverts a safety from wide receiver Chris
Chambers and provides peace of mind for quarterback Philip Rivers. Even when
everyone is covered, Rivers can throw the ball to Gates, and chances are good
Gates will go up and grab it. His blend of size (6'4", 260 pounds) and
speed is unique even for the NFL.
With Gates, the
Chargers are a strong contender to win the Super Bowl. Without him, they're
still the best team in the AFC West but a rung below New England in the
conference. As Gates maps out the timetable for his return, he's already
keeping an eye on the playoffs. "I want to finish strong," he says.
"I don't want to go in early and not finish strong. We have tons of
playmakers on this team. We'll be good with or without me."
The Chargers do
have more high-quality pass catchers than they have had at any point in the
past decade. With Chambers, the 6'5" Vincent Jackson and the swift Craig
(Buster) Davis, the receiving corps is no longer a weak spot. Throw in
Tomlinson, and Rivers should have plenty of options in the beginning of the
Of course, San
Diego will be judged by what it accomplishes in the end. The 29-year-old
Tomlinson has indicated that he may only play two or three more years, and
several top players are due to become free agents after next season, which
means that this team's time is now. Two years after they lost in the divisional
playoffs, and a year after they fell in the AFC Championship Game, the Chargers
are expecting to take the final step. They will need a healthy foot.
STARTING LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH NORV TURNER (69-87-1 in NFL), second
season with Chargers