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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.
"I worry 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."
Gates's teammates 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."
When healthy, 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 season.
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.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH NORV TURNER (69-87-1 in NFL), second season with Chargers