Antonio Gates has the age to be sage.
That is good and bad for those of us who don’t want to contemplate the Chargers without him.
“It’s so hard to say,” Gates said when asked if this season would be the last before he hangs it up and awaits the call from Canton. “It’s getting close. I don’t know how close. I think about it more now than I ever did. I talk about it more now than I ever did. Days come up and I’m like, ‘Oh man, I don’t know.’ “
For now, Gates is preparing to play as well as he can as much as he can.
How long he plays will be something he determines based on how the first two go.
“If I can find some way to get the most out of me, that in my mind is efficient enough, where I feel I’m playing at a level I’m comfortable with,” he said when asked the considerations he will make in deciding whether to play beyond this season. “I’ve never come off the bench. I’ve never not contributed. So if it ever got to that point where I am not doing that, I don’t know how I would feel as a person. All that stuff is still remaining to be seen when I play.”
Gates is seven touchdowns from tying Tony Gonzalez’s career record of 111 touchdowns. He is aware of the mark, wants to set a new one. The Super Bowl ring he thought he’d long ago have is about the only other thing for which he has to strive.
But there is something else he knows he must accomplish this season. It has to come first, and it has to happen week after week.
Basically, just as was the case last year, Gates is going to have prove to himself he is still Antonio Gates.
“Sometimes understanding is the biggest thing you face -- just being able to understand what you can do and can’t do and being happy with what you’ve done,” Gates said. “… For me, it’s about still playing well and being productive. And at the same time, winning a Super Bowl is the priority. So I have some things I can get done. I feel like if I get utilized in the right way, in the right manner, the right amount of times, I can still help win football games.”
Gates, who was suspended the first four games of last season for a failed PED test and also suffered the first knee injury of his career (MCL strain) in October, played his fewest games (11) since 2010 and made the fewest starts (four) of his career. His 56 receptions and 630 yards were his lowest totals since 2012.
He still required an extra man to cover him in some situations, still outmanuevered a number of safeties and made a lot of linebackers look lumbering. He remains Philip Rivers’ intrinsic fallback and instinctive go-to.
That’s why, while Gates practiced more than usual during training camp, he did not play a single preseason snap for the first time in his career. The goal, Mike McCoy said, was to get Gates to the season opener as fresh as possible.
How long that will last can’t be predicted.
He is 36-years-old. With a lower body that feels some days the way a 70-year-old’s might. A 70-year-old crash test dummy.
His hands aren’t consistently magnetic anymore. He is sometimes a half-step behind. His body positioning, once practically indefensible, is more than occasionally neutralized.
Now, there was a period of about a decade where Gates’ ability to get open and make the improbable catch was unmatched. So any comparison to that version is going to come up lacking. And the knowledge he has amassed in 190 games and his comfortableness with Rivers and in the Chargers’ offense certainly help him maintain an edge against many opponents.
But one of Gates’s favorite sayings is about Father Time being undefeated.
Gates sometimes mentions his resepct for Jerry Rice and Darryl Green, who respectively played 21 and 20 seasons. He told Pete Metzelaars, his position coach the previous two seasons, he was going to match his 16 seasons as an NFL tight end.
Being audacious enough to read between the lines, though, it seems clear Gates won’t challenge any of those marks.
“I’m on third base coming home,” he said. “Last year was one of those years I didn’t know what the year was going to be like, whether I was going to come back or not. A lot of it has to do with the process – Do I enjoy going through the process to play? … If ever I get to the point where I’m just here, that’s probably the calling to the end – if I am ever OK just being a guy.”
The Chargers drafted Hunter Henry in the second round and his spring and summer performance has everyone, including Gates, excited about his being the tight end of the future. Henry will play a lot this season. If that ends up being in place of Gates rather than as a complement, there will be little need to ask Gates about 2017.
“Some guys still play and they get paid and yet they don’t have the same role,” he said. “I don’t know if I can actually do that.”
To be ready, Gates will do as he always has. A man doesn’t play this long through the injuries Gates has without knowing his body. He will not practice some days. His snaps will be limited in some fashion.
“It’s all about me being able to be ready and do the things I do,” he said. “Or that I’m hoping I can still do.”
That is the wisdom that comes with age. Unfortunately.