Some ailing Chargers are MIA, but absence of Antonio Gates after 16 seasons is glaring

Antonio Gates, left, and Philip Rivers share a moment on the sidelines, something they've done for the previous 15 seasons.
For the first time as starting quarterback, Philip Rivers, right, will start a season without Antonio Gates at tight end.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

His team is readying to play without its All-Pro safety, its two-time Pro Bowl left tackle and its 2018 Pro Bowl running back.

That all seems a little strange, Philip Rivers acknowledged Wednesday, but not as strange as who else is missing.

For the first time in a career entering its 16th season, Rivers is about to open a season without Antonio Gates.

“That’s probably more weird for me, personally,” he said. “I’ve checked in with him a few times … I think he’s doing good. I’m sure it’s weird for him, as well. His body clock’s probably telling him, ‘I need to go run a corner route.’ ”

Starting in San Diego and ending in L.A., Rivers and Gates formed one of the greatest quarterback-tight end connections in NFL history.


With Hunter Henry returning healthy, the Chargers decided against re-signing Gates, who had been with the organization since 2003, the year before Rivers joined the team. So, that will be another notable absence Sunday when the Chargers host Indianapolis at Dignity Health Sports Park, though Gates not being on the field is more significant historically.

The absences of Derwin James (foot), Russell Okung (pulmonary embolism) and Melvin Gordon (contract holdout) likely will have a more direct impact on the Chargers. They’ve known for some time that James would open the season on injured reserve and Okung has been sidelined since June with no definitive timetable for a return.

Long recognized as a great athlete who made dumb mistakes on the field, Rayshawn Jenkins now makes big plays from free safety position.

Regarding Gordon’s status, however, nothing has been certain and, in fact, he could return at any time or not until the second half of the regular season or even beyond that.

“Guys come and go,” Rivers said. “That’s what this league is. But certainly, it being the situation it is and kind of an unknown for such a long period of time, it’s been a little different.

“I don’t know any other way to say it other than when it gets to this point right here, it’s all eyes on Indy and our guys trying to find a way to win one game and then doing that week by week.”

For Rivers, Sunday will mark his 209th consecutive regular-season start. Including the playoffs, he has started 219 in a row, missing no games since he took over in 2006. In a career loaded with accomplishment — eight Pro Bowls, 62 300-yard passing games, No. 8 all time in yards and completions — Rivers is still without a Super Bowl title.

He is entering the final year of his contract and has said he plans to play at least one more season after this one. But Rivers has committed to nothing more, meaning the time left to be an NFL champion is running short.

“I’m thankful to be trotting out there for another opening day,” he said. “Just excited about this team. Excited about this season. We got a good group.”

Unlike past years, Rivers did not play a snap in the preseason. Instead, he and a few other Chargers veterans relied on joint practices with the Rams and New Orleans Saints.

Rivers said he has no concerns about feeling rusty Sunday, noting that he went through past preseasons without being hit by the opposition. He said he anticipates feeling in typical game flow quickly.

Los Angeles Chargers veteran Thomas Davis is certain his three torn ACLs — each a threat to his career — have allowed him to extend it.

“I don’t think anybody’s thinking, ‘Gosh, if I had had three more snaps in preseason, I’d really be ready to handle this,’ ” Rivers said. “We may start off three-and-out. It won’t be because I didn’t play in the preseason.”

Pouncey is centered

Center Mike Pouncey, through his agent, approached the Chargers about a contract extension at the end of training camp. He signed a one-year deal worth up to $9 million Tuesday.

“It wasn’t about money to me,” said Pouncey, who is now signed through 2020. “It was about finding the right fit and being somewhere where me and my family are happy. This is the place.”

A Pro Bowl selection in 2018, Pouncey often has been cited by teammates for his leadership, a trait that could be even more important this season with the offensive line missing Okung.

“At this point of my career, this team gives me the best chance to win,” he said. “To want to leave here in Year 10 and go somewhere else and start all over, it didn’t make any sense to me no matter what the number was in salary.”


Linebacker Jatavis Brown (ankle), cornerback Trevor Williams (quadriceps) and safety Roderic Teamer (hamstring) didn’t practice. Linebackers Denzel Perryman (ankle) and Drue Tranquill (back) were limited. … Rivers, Pouncey, defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, linebacker Thomas Davis and edge rusher Melvin Ingram have been elected by their teammates to be the Chargers’ 2019 captains. … Coach Anthony Lynn was asked whether he has experienced losing such a significant player so close to the start of a season as Andrew Luck, who retired as the Colts’ quarterback last month. “Yeah, I look at it every day,” he said. “They go into this game without Andrew Luck. But I go into this game without one of the best left tackles in the game in Russell Okung, one of the best safeties in the game in Derwin James, one of the top running backs in the league in Melvin Gordon. So yeah, I see it every day. You got to step up and overcome it.”