Antonio Gates’ resurgence in the Chargers offense isn’t an accident.
While the 33-year-old tight end should be entering the twilight years in the NFL, he’s on pace to have one of his most productive seasons.
Gates, who has battled a variety of painful injuries the past few years, is finally healthy. He admits there’s no such thing as being 100 percent and he, like every other player in the league, deals with soreness. That isn’t stopping him from being a centerpiece in the Chargers offense.
Entering Week 6, Gates ranked second in the NFL in receiving yards and was in the top five for receptions among tight ends. He attributes his individual production to not having to deal with nagging injuries, which gives him more practice time with his teammates.
“It has been a difference and a change,” Gates told FOXSports.com in a telephone interview. “Part of it is feeling like the window of opportunity is closing. When you play in your 11th season, you don’t really know what to expect. Ultimately, it just comes down to being healthy and doing the things that you needed to do in the past and just getting back to that.”
A rib injury in last season’s opener and a lingering plantar fasciitis injury contributed to his lack of production in 2012. Although Gates had seven touchdown receptions, he wasn’t as productive between the 20s, totaling 49 catches for 538 yards, career-lows since his rookie season.
It wasn’t a secret that Gates sensed people outside of the Chargers facility were having their doubts.
“It was an uphill battle every single day, every week for the last two or three years,” Gates recalled before San Diego played host to Indianapolis on Monday night. “Finally, just being healthy, you learn to appreciate so many different things this league has to offer. That’s just where I’m with it now. I appreciate practicing. I appreciate playing. There are so many days that you take for granted and ultimately you never really understand it until it’s taken away.”
That appreciation for the small things keeps Gates hungry. It’s allowed him to make the most of each moment on and off the field.
“There was a period where I would skip practice and just play in games," he said. "I would do things to take away the pain in my foot and I would find a way to play in the game. Somehow you get disconnected when you’re not actually practicing. You’re just meeting and playing in games and you get disconnected with the players on the field because you’re not necessarily putting in the same time that they’re putting in or the same work.
“For that matter you feel kind of singled out. You don’t feel as connected as you would want to be. Now I feel connected.”
There’s a familiar burst in Gates’ play. The same type he had during his eight Pro Bowl seasons. And the Chargers have been trying to feature him as much as possible.
Since the preseason, the Chargers haven’t had much luck with their offensive weapons. Wide receiver Robert Meachem was waived. Danario Alexander suffered a season-ending injury. Malcom Floyd was also placed on injured reserve with a neck injury. It has left them with an unlikely cast of playmakers including Eddie Royal, Danny Woodhead and rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen.
But it’s Gates who has been quarterback Philip Rivers’ sure-handed target ... once again.
After playing with each other for more than a decade, Gates is still blown away by the veteran quarterback. Coming into this season Rivers was criticized for the 47 turnovers he totaled during the last two seasons. The Chargers brought in a new head coach in Mike McCoy and a coaching staff to help curb the problem. It’s easy to point at that and determine that’s why Rivers is playing like his old-Pro Bowl self. Gates, though, credits his perseverance and work ethic.
“When you play with somebody like that you just learn so much,” Gates said. “I admire the way he works and his professionalism, that’s ultimately what stands out in my mind.”
Although the Chargers have somewhat exceeded expectations this season, Gates isn’t satisfied with where the team is at.
“We’re a 2-3 team,” Gates said. “That’s the reality of it. We had a chance to be 4-1, 5-0, but the reality is we’re 2-3.
“It’s been up-and-down for us and we’re searching for an identity. That’s really what it comes down to. We’re just trying to find our identity and decide who we are going to be this year. Part of it is just learning one another and growing as a team.”
For a team that hasn’t been to the postseason since 2009, Gates understands what it takes to get there. As an undrafted free agent from Kent State, he also knows that people have written him off.
Gates doesn’t have a timetable on how long he’d like to play. If he has it his way, he’ll be the one making that decision.
“I do know if I can continue to play the way I’ve been playing, I want to be able to walk away from the game," he said. “I don’t want the game to retire me, that’s what it’s really about.”