The San Diego Chargers are struggling badly offensively because Philip Rivers loves using his tight end, Antonio Gates, as a safety valve on obvious passing downs. The offense will continue to struggle until Rivers finds that new security blanket. The coaching staff is finding that it’s not easy to replace an icon.
No question that Gates is a future Hall-of-Famer, as he accumulated 788 receptions for 10,014 yards and 99 touchdown catches in a very distinguished 12-year career. Those are impressive numbers for an undrafted former college basketball player out of Kent State.
Gates is in the midst of serving a 4-game suspension after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs this summer. His absence in the starting lineup has been a tough pill to swallow, especially since Gates has been the main cog in the passing game each week.
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The Chargers have been touting Ladarius Green as being his successor since the day he was drafted in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft. What was not to like about him, as Green has the size (6-6, 240 lbs.) and athleticism to become an ideal target deep downfield.
Last season was supposed to be the year when Green was to be inserted into a more active role in the passing game, but he hardly made an impact on the field. Not surprising, since the aging Gates had a phenomenal 2014 season with 12 touchdown receptions that stunted Green’s progression into the offense.
Chargers head coach Mike McCoy hoped that Green would have thrived in this four game audition, but his availability has been limited due to experiencing after-effects from a concussion that was sustained during practice before the season-opener. Often, Green’s playing status has been a game-time decision, and now an expanding role in the passing game is up-in-the-air. His opportunity may have pasted and Green could fade into the background once again with Gates’ imminent return.
McCoy doesn’t have any other viable options on the roster to fill Gate’s void this week against the Cleveland Browns. John Phillips and David Johnson are more run-blockers than pass-catching tight ends, as both rarely run routes in games.
Three games into the regular season, and Rivers has transformed into an average quarterback. He misses his go-to receiver, as Rivers trust that Gates will catch the football in crunch-time. The best remedy for this ailment is throwing to Gates early and often upon his return, as there’s no better red-zone partnership in the NFL today.
Charger fans can expect to see “vintage” Antonio Gates in his return to the lineup against the Pittsburgh Steelers on October 12th. He will be a nightmare to cover for opposing linebackers and safeties, as his presence will force them to align in different coverage schemes.
The four-game suspension may have been a blessing for all involved, as Gates is fresh and healthy for a condensed 12-game schedule. The Chargers understand that his incredible career as one of the top receiving tight ends is coming to end, but they hope Gates can regain his high level of play for at least one more season.