San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates made news this offseason when he said he wanted fewer touches. It’s odd to hear a star player say he wants to see the ball less. However, I’m sure he didn’t plan on achieving that goal by using performance-enhancing substances and getting suspended for the first four games of the season. One can’t ignore the irony of the timing of all this with Gates entering his 13th and likely final season as a professional football player.
We can believe he didn’t know and whether we do or not it still doesn’t change the fact that he will miss a quarter of the season. He will be ineligible to return until week five against the Steelers in San Diego. With Gates being out, quarterback Philip Rivers loses his security blanket. Gates is the one player Rivers can rely on to be where he’s supposed to be 99.9% of the time. The two have a nearly telepathic link on the field. They are the most prolific quarterback/tight end combination in NFL history.
How will Rivers and the Chargers make up for Gates’ absence?
Unlike previous seasons, the Chargers are more equipped to handle this unexpected hurdle now than they would have been in previous years. The offensive line has been rebuilt and is composed of young, man-mountains to protect Rivers and clear running lanes for new workhorse running back Melvin Gordon. Speaking of whom, he is the first way the Chargers accommodate for the loss of Gates.
1. Strong running game. A strong running game is something the Chargers haven’t consistently had since LaDainian Tomlinson left to join the Jets. Yes, Ryan Mathews had one season two years ago where he finished in the top-five in rushing, but his entire tenure as a Charger was marred by injuries, fumbles and blown opportunities. Melvin Gordon has yet to take his first snap in an official NFL game, but his track record speaks for itself. Gordon is a franchise back who does inherit an offensive line stronger than Mathews had, and it’s one reason he will be more successful than Mathews. With Gordon, Woodhead, Oliver and Brown pacing the running attack, Rivers will take less damage, the chains will keep moving and the passing game will benefit as a result.
2. Healthy Danny Woodhead. Woodhead is the Swiss army knife of the running back corps. The reason he is listed separately is he will make up for a lot of the catches Gates would get. The Bolts can line him up all over the field. Woodhead can play wide receiver, halfback or in the slot, creating a match-up nightmare for the defense. His elusiveness combined with an even faster no-huddle offense will account for yards in bunches.
3. Deep receiving corps. Rivers will begin the season with Floyd, Keenan Allen and the blossoming Dontrelle Inman plus newly acquired vets Stevie Johnson and Jacoby Jones as his wideouts. Allen is looking to improve on a sophomore campaign where the added attention he received as the Chargers’ number one receiver led to subpar results by his own standards. Allen caught more balls in 2014 than he did in 2013 (77 to 71), but for fewer yards (1046 to 783) and half as many touchdowns (eight to four). Inman and Rivers have shown good on-field chemistry that will only get better. Johnson and Jones are getting much-needed fresh starts and should thrive on a team on the cusp of being special.
4. Ladarius Green. Last but definitely not least, if Ladarius Green is going to step up and be the heir apparent to Gates, now is the time. We’ve seen flashes of brilliance from Green. He’s bigger than Gates at 6’6″, 240. He’s faster than Gates and we’ve seen his breakaway speed on the field. He’s entering his fourth year on the team with three years of tutelage from a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer as a mentor.
Green has had three years to work on his hands, route-running and master how to use his body to his advantage the way Gates did when he came to the Chargers. Green only had 19 catches for 226 yards because Gates found his fountain of youth to the tune of 69 catches for 821 yards and 12 touchdowns. Now those targets will go to Green, the only true passing-game threat from the tight end position with Gates out. What he does next will determine his fate in lightning bolts. Success makes the offense nearly unstoppable. Failure will see him on another team in 2016.
Fortunately for the Chargers, tight end is a luxury with the team scheduled to take the field in September instead of a necessity. The schedule also favors the Chargers in Gates’ absence with the first two games against Detroit and Cincinnati. Yes, they both made the playoffs last season but they are both hot-and-cold, wildly inconsistent teams. Games three and four are against perennial doormats Minnesota and Cleveland. The Vikings will get a huge boost from the return of disgruntled star running back Adrian Peterson. But after a season off, how will the man who traditionally skips preseason fare in his fourth game of real contact? Cleveland? There are no easy wins, but Cleveland is about as close as it gets these days.
San Diego will head into Gates’ return game against Pittsburgh with a 3-1 record or better. By then, we won’t wonder how the Bolts did it without him, but how much greater they will become with him.
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The Greg One