| A healthy Gates eludes safeties and gives Rivers an option few QBs have.|
|Greg Trott/Getty Images|
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
|Jacob Hester, Running back: He won a national title at Evangel Christian Academy in Shreveport, La. He won a national title at LSU. Can Hester bring his championship touch to the NFL? "It would be nice to get another one," he says. Drafted in the third round, Hester will spell LaDainian Tomlinson in short-yardage and goal line situations. He puts himself in all the right spots.|
How far they go depends on whether rehabbing tight end Antonio Gates can get his season off on the right foot.
The Chargers may have the best 53-man roster in the NFL, but one bad toe isthreatening to trip them up. Antonio Gates's feet are normally his greatestasset. After the All-Pro tight end makes a reception, he plants a cleat in theground, cuts past a linebacker and outruns safeties all the way to the Pro Bowl.But in the first round of the playoffs last season, Gates caught a pass behindthe line of scrimmage and slipped on the wet grass at Qualcomm Stadium. As hewas hit by Titans linebacker David Thornton and tackle Tony Brown, his left footstuck in the turf and bent back underneath him.
Gates left the game and was later found to have torn the plantar plate in hisleft foot, which resulted in a dislocated big toe. He played on it the next weekin a win at Indianapolis, as well as the week after in a loss at New England. Hewas not productive -- his agility was clearly compromised, and he caught a total offour passes 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 practice withthe team.
Gates was cleared to practice in late August, and he knows he will soon comeback, if not for the Chargers' Sept. 7 opener versus the Panthers, then atleast early in the season. What concerns him is how he will perform when hereturns, whether he'll still be able to cut and run past those safeties. Gates,whose 41 touchdown catches over the past four seasons rank third in the NFL,cannot bear to think of himself as another plodding tight end. He and theChargers have come to expect so much more.
"I worry about my game as a whole -- my jumping, my cutting, my running, if I'mstill going to 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 teammates think he's overreacting just a bit. Safety Eric Weddlelaughs at any notion that Gates has lost a step. "This won't shake him," Weddlesays. "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 space for running back LaDainian Tomlinson, diverts a safety from widereceiver Chris Chambers and provides peace of mind for quarterback PhilipRivers. Even when everyone is covered, Rivers can throw the ball to Gates, andchances are good Gates will go up and grab it. His blend of size (6' 4",260 pounds) and speed is unique even for the NFL.
With Gates, the Chargers are a strong contender to win the Super Bowl.Without him, they're still the best team in the AFC West but a rung below NewEngland in the conference. As Gates maps out the timetable for his return, he'salready keeping an eye on the playoffs. "I want to finish strong," he says. "Idon't want to go in early and not finish strong. We have tons of playmakers onthis team. We'll be good with or without me."
The Chargers do have more high-quality pass catchers than they have had atany point in the past decade. With Chambers, the 6' 5" Vincent Jackson andthe swift Craig (Buster) Davis, the receiving corps is no longer a weak spot.Throw in Tomlinson, and Rivers should have plenty of options in the beginning ofthe season.
Of course, San Diego will be judged by what it accomplishes in the end. The29-year-old Tomlinson has indicated that he may only play two or three moreyears, and several top players are due to become free agents after next season,which means that this team's time is now. Two years after they lost in thedivisional playoffs, and a year after they fell in the AFC Championship Game,the Chargers are expecting to take the final step. They will need a healthyfoot. -- Lee Jenkins