There is nothing certain about Antonio Gates’ future beyond this: He wants to keep playing.
The veteran tight end made it clear after Sunday’s 41-28 loss to the New England Patriots that he would like to play another NFL season, and he’d like it to be with the Chargers.
“I don’t know if I want to learn a whole ’nother system, a new locker room,” he said. “For me, it’s always about, do I still want to compete? I love to compete, man. We’ll see how it goes and make some decisions when time is right.”
Gates, 38, has spent all of his 16 seasons with the Chargers. He and Philip Rivers have teamed to form the most prolific tight end-quarterback duo in NFL history.
A year ago, the Chargers decided to move in another direction when they signed veteran Virgil Green as a free agent and had Hunter Henry returning after two productive seasons.
They had not planned to re-sign Gates but reconsidered after Henry suffered a torn knee ligament in May. Gates eventually rejoined the Chargers after training camp.
“I know the decisions made in the past were for the 2018 team,” Gates said. “The decisions upcoming will be for another team. All I can do is display what I can display, from a physical standpoint, and everything else will take care of itself.”
He caught 28 passes for 333 yards and two touchdowns during the regular season while sharing playing time with Green, who is considered more of a blocking tight end.
Gates had five catches for 41 yards and a touchdown Sunday, becoming the oldest tight end in league history with a scoring reception in the playoffs. His 540 career postseason receiving yards are the most in Chargers history.
“My goal is to win a Super Bowl,” Gates said. “This is just a bump in the road. I’ll sit down and talk with the head coach, the personnel group, to see if I have another shot at it next year.”
Gates said he was encouraged by the roster assembled and led by Anthony Lynn, and was certain he could contribute again next season.
Gates also said he understands the situation isn’t always that simple.
“It’s not just the player,” he said. “It might be a numbers game. It might be a salary cap game. Who knows? But at the end of the day, I think the teams we play think I can still play because they’re still doubling me.”
The other notable tight end in the game Sunday paid tribute to Gates afterward.
“I’ve been watching him since I was in high school,” New England’s Rob Gronkowski said. “Just to share the field with him again is definitely an honor. … He’s a great player and a great role model for the league.”
An emotional day for Chargers defensive lineman Brandon Mebane began with an acknowledgment from the Patriots, who held a moment of silence before the game in memory of Mebane’s 7-week-old daughter, Makenna, who died of a rare chromosome disorder on Jan. 3.
“We didn’t know it was coming,” Chargers safety Jahleel Addae said. “We appreciate the Patriots organization. They’re a first-class, stand-up organization to do such a thing. I know he appreciates it, and we appreciate it as well.”
Makenna spent all of her life in the neonatal intensive care unit of an Omaha medical center. Mebane missed four games in late November and December as well as last week’s playoff game in Baltimore.
He returned to practice Wednesday and had six tackles in Sunday’s game. He was one of the last players to leave the team’s Gillette Stadium locker room after the game, politely declining to speak to reporters.
“I gave him a big hug after the game,” defensive end Joey Bosa said. “It’s a tough moment. We’re dealing with this stuff here, which we think is a big deal, and he’s dealing with real-life problems and real issues. For him to come back and be a part of this team means so much to all of us, and it means a lot to him, too. It’s great to be here for him.”
Henry played about a dozen offensive snaps, about a dozen more than the tight end was expected to play this season.
He suffered what was thought to be a season-ending right knee injury in May and underwent surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament. But he remained ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation throughout the fall, returned to practice Dec. 17 and was activated for the game.
Henry, who did not have any receptions, was used as a blocker most of the time. But he felt it was worthwhile to return to action, even if it was just for one game.
“Physically, I feel good,” said Henry, who caught 81 passes for 1,057 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first two NFL seasons. “Shoot, it was a long year, lots of battling, lots of watching. It took a lot of hard work just to get back out there.
“It was good to get the pads back on and get back out there and get some hits and be with the team. I have the whole offseason to train and get stronger and ready to go. I know I can get back out there and do it.”