If Antonio Gates was on the fence between retirement and returning for a 16th NFL season, his decision may have been made somewhere between the touchdown pass he caught with a defender crawling up his back on Christmas Eve and the clutch 20-yard catch he made while tip-toeing the sideline on New Year’s Eve.
“For the last couple of months I was kind of on the border, trying to figure out what I could do physically — can I still play?” Gates, the Chargers’ 37-year-old tight end, said after Sunday’s season-ending 30-10 victory over the Oakland Raiders in StubHub Center.
“Sometimes you need that reinforcement because as you get up in age, you need to go out there and physically do it, and that helps you mentally. I have a little saying that I tell my kids, ‘I still have the juice.’ It’s fun to go out there and play and help the team win.”
Gates is a future Hall of Famer whose playing time and targets decreased dramatically this season while Hunter Henry, a second-year pro out of Arkansas, emerged as one of the best young tight ends in football. Gates had his least productive season since his rookie year with 30 catches for 316 yards and three touchdowns.
Gates returned to a leading role after Henry suffered a season-ending kidney laceration on Dec. 16. In the last two games, Gates did not look like a player nearing retirement or sound like one afterward.
Gates caught a season-high six passes for 81 yards and a touchdown last week at the New York Jets and four passes for 46 yards Sunday, including an acrobatic 20-yard sideline catch that gave the Chargers a first down at the Oakland six-yard line just before halftime.
Quarterback Philip Rivers then hit Keenan Allen on a corner fade route for a touchdown that gave the Chargers a 20-10 lead and helped catapult them to their ninth win in 12 games.
“The way we’ve been able to play over these last few months is very inspirational, and on top of that, I got an opportunity to play again and get an idea of where I am physically,” Gates said.
“Sometimes when you’re in backup role, you’re not sure what you can do because you’re not put in a position to do it. I had an opportunity these last two weeks to see what I could do physically, and I felt good.”
Gates has caught 114 touchdowns, the most by a tight end in NFL history, and has teamed with Rivers on 87 of them, which places them third all time behind only Peyton Manning-to-Marvin Harrison and Steve Young-to-Jerry Rice.
But his two-year, $11-million contract has expired, and he is a free agent. Gates said he would be willing to return to the Chargers in 2018, even if that means playing behind Henry.
“You know what? It was a road I had to adjust to, but I’m happy to be with a good group of people who can do some special things,” Gates said. “That’s the goal for me at this point. I’ve done so many things individually, but a Super Bowl is definitely a priority for me at this point.”
As much as Gates would love to play his entire career with the Chargers, he said if a team such as the New England Patriots, with their five Super Bowl titles since 2001, offered him a contract, he would consider it.
“As a guy with mixed feelings about returning, you want to make sure you have an opportunity to win a Super Bowl,” Gates said. If Patriots coach Bill Belichick called and offered him a spot, “I would talk it over with my family and try to make the best decision possible,” Gates said.
“But I really feel like the pieces are in place here to get it done. … This team is traveling north very fast. When you’re with this team and in this locker room, you can sense something special is about to happen. I want to win a championship here, for the L.A. Chargers.”
The consensus among the Chargers is that Gates has plenty left to offer. Asked if he thought Gates looked like a player close to retirement, receiver Keenan Allen said, “Not on Sundays, for sure. He still can do it.”
Said backup tight end Sean McGrath: “He’s already the GOAT [greatest of all time], so nothing has really changed, in my opinion. You get a tool set in this game like his, it’s hard to send someone like that packing.”
Added coach Anthony Lynn: “He’s a Hall of Famer for a reason. He’s highly productive. Antonio was always a big part of this team and this offense.”
Of course, the decision-makers in the team’s front office must want Gates for him to return.
“No matter what I decide, whether I’m here or not, I’ll be a Charger for life,” Gates said. “It’s difficult because this is family for me. It’s beyond sports. I have a lot of close friends here. But I understand the dynamics of the business, and the dynamics of the direction the team might want to go.”
Follow Mike DiGiovanna on Twitter @MikeDiGiovanna