THE CHARGERS mayhave the best 53-man roster in the NFL, but one bad toe is threatening to tripthem up. Antonio Gates's feet are normally his greatest asset. After theAll-Pro tight end makes a reception, he plants a cleat in the ground, cuts pasta linebacker and outruns safeties all the way to the Pro Bowl. But in the firstround of the playoffs last season, Gates caught a pass behind the line ofscrimmage and slipped on the wet grass at Qualcomm Stadium. As he was hit byTitans linebacker David Thornton and tackle Tony Brown, his left foot stuck inthe turf and bent back underneath him.
Gates left thegame and was later found to have torn the plantar plate in his left foot, whichresulted in a dislocated big toe. He played on it the next week in a win atIndianapolis, as well as the week after in a loss at New England. He was notproductive—his agility was clearly compromised, and he caught a total of fourpasses 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. Bylate February, however, rest had done little to alleviate the pain, and Gateshad surgery. When training camp opened in July, he still could not practicewith the team.
Gates was clearedto practice in late August, and he knows he will soon come back, if not for theChargers' Sept. 7 opener versus the Panthers, then at least early in theseason. What concerns him is how he will perform when he returns, whether he'llstill be able to cut and run past those safeties. Gates, whose 41 touchdowncatches over the past four seasons rank third in the NFL, cannot bear to thinkof himself as another plodding tight end. He and the Chargers have come toexpect so much more.
"I worryabout my game as a whole—my jumping, my cutting, my running, if I'm still goingto be as explosive," Gates says. "It's human nature when you've beenout. I wonder if I'll be the impact player that I was."
Gates's teammatesthink he's overreacting just a bit. Safety Eric Weddle laughs at any notionthat Gates has lost a step. "This won't shake him," Weddle says."We see him running and cutting and catching and passing. If anything, helooks faster to me."
When healthy,Gates gives the Chargers a dimension that few teams can match. He opens spacefor running back LaDainian Tomlinson, diverts a safety from wide receiver ChrisChambers and provides peace of mind for quarterback Philip Rivers. Even wheneveryone is covered, Rivers can throw the ball to Gates, and chances are goodGates will go up and grab it. His blend of size (6'4", 260 pounds) andspeed is unique even for the NFL.
With Gates, theChargers are a strong contender to win the Super Bowl. Without him, they'restill the best team in the AFC West but a rung below New England in theconference. As Gates maps out the timetable for his return, he's alreadykeeping 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 ofplaymakers on this team. We'll be good with or without me."
The Chargers dohave more high-quality pass catchers than they have had at any point in thepast decade. With Chambers, the 6'5" Vincent Jackson and the swift Craig(Buster) Davis, the receiving corps is no longer a weak spot. Throw inTomlinson, and Rivers should have plenty of options in the beginning of theseason.
Of course, SanDiego will be judged by what it accomplishes in the end. The 29-year-oldTomlinson has indicated that he may only play two or three more years, andseveral top players are due to become free agents after next season, whichmeans that this team's time is now. Two years after they lost in the divisionalplayoffs, and a year after they fell in the AFC Championship Game, the Chargersare expecting to take the final step. They will need a healthy foot.
PROJECTEDSTARTING LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH NORV TURNER (69-87-1 in NFL), secondseason with Chargers
SACKS 8 1/2
SACKS 3 1/2
SACKS 2 1/2
SACKS 12 1/2
2007 RECORD 11--5NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 7/26/20 DEFENSE 16/14/14
14 at Denver
22 N.Y. JETS (M)
28 at Oakland
5 at Miami
12 NEW ENGLAND
19 at Buffalo
26 vs. New Orleans (in London)
9 KANSAS CITY
16 at Pittsburgh
4 OAKLAND (T)
14 at Kansas City
21 at Tampa Bay
(M) Monday (T) Thursday
NFL Rank: 31
Opponents' 2007 winning percentage: .422
Games against playoff teams: 4
SI.com's NFL personnel expert Michael Lombardievaluates the Chargers' units.
Rivers appears to have recovered from his knee injury.
Tomlinson and what's behind him make this unit one of NFL's best.
Chambers upgrades them; so would Buster Davis's emergence.
Gates is a star; good blocker in Brandon Manumaleuna.
Tough and physical in all aspects; clears the way for Tomlinson.
Like the OL, tough and physical; and can rush the passer.
Speed and depth here make special teams so effective.
Cromartie came through; a big year from Weddle needed.
Can cover and, with Darren Sproles, run the ball back.
He won a national title at Evangel Christian Academyin Shreveport, La. He won a national title at LSU. Can Hester bring hischampionship touch to the NFL? "It would be nice to get another one,"he says. Drafted in the third round, Hester will spell LaDainian Tomlinson inshort-yardage and goal line situations. He puts himself in all the rightspots.
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EXCERPTED FROM SI
August 20, 1979
WHEN THE Chargers have the ball, men, don't bother torig any elaborate defenses to stop the run. Don Coryell doesn't buy theshibboleth that you've got to establish the run before you do anything else.No, sir. Coryell's master plan consists of just one word: pass. Or as DanFouts, the Chargers' bearded quarterback, puts it, "We're going to throwthe ball, and we don't care who knows it."
Free access to all CHARGERS stories and photographs from the SI archives, plusvideo clips.
GREG TROTT/GETTY IMAGES
STILL THE BEST? A healthy Gates eludes safeties and gives Rivers an option few QBs have.
MIKE NOWAK/SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
RICHARD MACKSON (COVER)