It’s been a challenge for Antonio Gates, proud 15-year NFL veteran and probable Hall of Famer, to stand on the sideline with helmet in hand while Hunter Henry, the second-year star out of Arkansas, takes the majority of tight-end snaps for the Chargers.
Nothing against Henry. Gates loves the kid and enjoys mentoring him, and their relationship is solid, with the 22-year-old Henry saying of the 37-year-old Gates, “That dude is like my big brother.”
And nothing against the Chargers. Henry is one of the best young tight ends in football, with 21 catches for 301 yards and two touchdowns entering Sunday’s game against the New England Patriots. It’s natural for the coaches to incorporate more of him into the offense.
It’s just that Gates, who set an NFL record for career touchdown receptions by a tight end with his 112th in Week 2 against Miami, is not ready to be put in mothballs.
“I feel like you’re irrelevant if you’re not doing something to help the team,” Gates said. “It’s like watching a fire burn. You’re just watching, and you see guys going in and saving people, and you’re like, ‘God, look at him save somebody,’ and you’re just sitting there.
“I want to go in there and save somebody too, so I can say, ‘Look, I got him, anybody else in there?’ It’s natural. You feel part of it then.”
The Chargers insist they’re not trying to phase out the 6-foot-4, 255-pound Gates, a former college basketball standout from Detroit who made the team as an undrafted free agent in 2003. Nor have they noticed a sharp decline in his skills.
Gates made a nice sliding catch of a 12-yard pass on third-and-nine from the nine-yard line on Oct. 8 to kick-start a 12-play, 92-yard touchdown drive in a 27-22 win over the New York Giants.
The following week in Oakland, Gates freed himself to make a 16-yard catch on second-and-eight from the Raiders’ 39, part of a 15-play, 82-yard, second-quarter touchdown drive during the 17-16 win.
“He looks the same to me,” offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said. “Two weeks ago, he made a catch on a corner route. He broke out and left the safety in the dirt, and you’re like, ‘Yup, there’s Antonio.’ ”
But numbers don’t lie.
Gates averaged 67 catches, 831 yards and eight touchdowns a season for 13 years from 2004 to 2016; he has 13 catches for 119 yards and one touchdown in seven games this season.
Gates played 146 snaps and Henry played 132 snaps in the first four games, all losses. Henry played 160 snaps and Gates 96 snaps in the past three games, all wins.
“Any frustration I have is because I know I can do more, and I’ve done so much more over the years,” Gates said. “But the ultimate goal is to win the AFC West, get to the playoffs, have an opportunity to win the Super Bowl, and those things are still in play.
“That’s what motivates me every day to keep doing what I do, because I know there will come a time when I have to make a play for me to still accomplish these goals. … Me not catching the ball 10 times a game doesn’t mean I can’t be a world champion.”
Gates still enjoys the grind that leads to NFL longevity — eating right, lifting weights, exercising, and visiting a masseuse and chiropractor. Considering his age and the pounding he’s taken for so long, he feels pretty good.
“A lot of it has to do with research about the body and taking care of yourself,” Gates said. “I know how to be a pro in this league and how to be successful.”
He’s still learning how to be a role player.
“I used to go into games knowing I would have enough targets to make an impact,” Gates said. “Now, based on our ability and talent, I go into a game saying, ‘OK, I’ve got a handful of opportunities, and I have to make the most of them, or I might not get another one until next week,’ which is fine. I get it.”
Gates is still among the game’s best at boxing out defenders and out-jumping them for balls. He thinks his skills can best be utilized “when games get tight,” on third downs, in the red zone, at the end of each half.
“It might be a big third-down that changes the dynamic of the game,” Gates said. “Like that third-down catch in New York, it changed the whole momentum of that game. We were able to go down and score. That’s how it happens.
“And if I stayed focused on the fact that I wasn’t getting the ball, when that opportunity presents itself, it might not be the same. … As a competitor, I always want the ball. But at my age, I understand the dynamic of picking spots and making us the best team.”
Gates’ tutoring of his protégé has made Henry a better player.
“I tell him what I would have done in this situation, ask him why he did what he did, but I don’t ever force him to be me,” Gates said. “I want him to be the best him he can be.”
NFL transition games can be tricky — it took Steve Young four years to wrestle the 49ers quarterback job from aging superstar Joe Montana in the late 1980s — but there has been no hint of animosity between Gates and Henry.
“He’s been great — he helps me every day,” Henry said of Gates. “And I believe he can still play this game at a high level. I see it all the time on the practice field and in games too.
“Some of those opportunities haven’t come yet, but we still need him here. He’s awesome in the building and awesome to be around. It hasn’t been awkward at all.”
Right tackle Joe Barksdale (turf toe) did not practice Friday and is doubtful for Sunday’s game. If Barksdale is replaced for the second straight week by Michael Schofield, the Chargers would have three relatively inexperienced players — rookie left guard Dan Feeney, right tackle Kenny Wiggins and Schofield — on a line that will face a traditionally tough Patriots defensive front. “With Joe not being in there, it does present some challenges,” coach Anthony Lynn said, “but we have faith in the guys backing him up.” … Defensive tackle Corey Liuget, who missed last week’s game because of a lower-back injury, was a full participant Friday, and running back Melvin Gordon was limited. Both are questionable for Sunday, but both are expected to play. … Gates (knee) and kicker Nick Novak (ankle) practiced Friday and were removed from the injury report.