Antonio Gates has averaged just under 8 touchdowns a year in his career. (ZUMAPRESS.com)
Antonio Gates has been named to the last seven Pro Bowls, even getting the nod last season despite missing San Diego's final four games and sitting out six games total.
That streak could be in jeopardy in 2011. Gates finished a Week 2 loss to New England with no catches and was clearly hobbled by his injured right foot. He sat out Week 3 and now is contemplating sitting out for the next month or so to try to heal.
On paper, that possibility looks devastating for the Chargers. Gates has established himself as one of the greatest tight ends of all time and, when he's healthy, adds an element to San Diego's passing game that few other teams possess. So, this stat may come as a surprise: Without Gates in the lineup over the past two seasons, the Chargers are 6-1.
How has San Diego pulled that off? A lot of the credit has to go to Philip Rivers, who spreads the ball around well in the offense, regardless of who's on the field. In the absence of Gates last year -- and with holdout Vincent Jackson out of the lineup until late in the season, too -- Rivers utilized players like Legedu Naanee, Seyi Ajirotutu, Malcom Floyd, Darren Sproles and Patrick Crayton. In Week 17 of the 2010 season, Rivers actually completed passes to 10 receivers.
Can Rivers and the Chargers pull the trick off again, if Gates opts to sit out for a few weeks?
They scraped by last Sunday against Kansas City, winning 20-17 with Rivers tossing a pair of interceptions. He also hit seven receivers, though, and finished with 258 yards through the air.
The total passing yardage is really where you can notice Gates' absence. Last season, Rivers threw for 4,710 yards, an average of about 294 yards per game. In the six games Gates was injured, that average dropped to 266. Similarly, to start 2011, Rivers threw for 335 yards in Week 1 and 378 in Week 2. That total fell to 266 last week.
While the game plan doesn't necessarily change without Gates -- and the number of passes and completions are not skewed when he's out -- San Diego's ability to stretch the field and hit big plays appear to fall without its star tight end.
The loss of Sproles to New Orleans this offseason cannot be understated, even though the Chargers' running backs have done a nice job chipping in as receivers. Mike Tolbert and Ryan Mathews already have combined for 34 catches on the season, including seven against Kansas City.
Rivers also still has Jackson, Floyd, Patrick Crayton and backup tight end Randy McMichael to throw to.
It's kind of a unique situation San Diego has going -- if you took, say, Tony Gonzalez out of the Atlanta lineup, it would drastically change the Falcons' approach through the air. Taking a Pro Bowl player away is bound to make things more difficult, but San Diego has been able to overcome Gates' absence thus far. Assuming this doesn't turn into a season-ending ailment, there's no reason to think the Chargers cannot survive for three or four weeks without Gates in the lineup.