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The 16 years of Antonio Gates’ greatness in the NFL

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NFL: AFC Wild Card-Los Angeles Chargers at Baltimore Ravens Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Antonio Gates’ last catch came on January 13, 2019. It was a divisional round playoff game in New England vs the Patriots, who posted a worse record than the LA Chargers (12-4 vs 11-5) but who were allowed to host thanks to winning the division, while the Chargers were relegated to a wild card spot behind the Kansas City Chiefs. Of course, the Chiefs were also 12-4, having gone 5-1 in the division instead of 4-2.

There are many moments that if changed would have given the Chargers a home game in the playoffs and a bye week, but instead they’d be playing in Gillette for their postseason lives. Among those wanting to live another day ...

Antonio Gates.

Though LA could claim to be the better regular season team, they trailed 41-22 in the fourth quarter. Gates had two catches for seven yards at that point. There were five minutes left in his career.

Philip Rivers then found Gates for a 12-yard gain. He targeted him on the next pass, but it fell incomplete. He was intercepted two plays later. After forcing a punt — aka, after waiting for three obvious runs — the Chargers got the ball back with three minutes left. On 4th-and-10, Rivers found Gates for a 14-yard gain. One minute and 39 seconds later, with nothing left to play for but memories, Rivers hit Gates for an 8-yard touchdown pass.

Gates played in 12 postseason games but he hadn’t caught a touchdown since his first. It also came in the waning seconds of regulation.

On January 5, 2005, the San Diego Chargers were hosting the New York Jets in the wild card round. Having gone 12-4 under Marty Schottenheimer with a version of Drew Brees that had been brought to life following the draft day trade for Rivers, the Chargers went 12-4. But because the Patriots were 14-2 and the Steelers were 15-1, San diego had to play an opening round game vs a really good Jets team.

Trailing 17-10 with under 5 minutes left, Brees was sacked on first down, setting up 2nd and 16. He next hit Gates for a 21-yard gain. After an incomplete throw to LaDainian Tomlinson, Brees hit Gates on a screen pass, this time gaining 44. Facing 4th-and-2 from the 2, Brees looked Gates’ way again, but it fell incomplete. Game over, except that roughing the passer was called on Eric Barton, giving San Diego first-and-goal from the 1 with :16 seconds on the clock.

Brees rolled to his right, as did Gates, and it was an easy 1-yard score that would help define a generation of big, athletic tight ends who’d gone on to dominate smaller defenders in ways that most receivers couldn’t.

What happened in OT in that game is another part of Chargers history that you may just want to forget, but Gates’ legacy as a future Hall of Fame football player was just getting started. It’s hard to believe that it would take 14 years for Gates to catch another postseason touchdown — and that of his two career scores, one was from a young Brees and the other was from an “old” Rivers — but everything that happened in between still greatly exemplifies just how special he was.

Here’s some more facts about Gates that I think is pretty special, now that he’s officially retired one year after that career-ending score against New England.

Gates, Gonzalez, and Witten

Pretty much everything we know about tight ends in 2020 was redefined in the aughts by these three players. They all have at least a little something to claim over the other two, but all three will be early-ballot Hall of Famers and they spent a considerable amount of time as the three best players at the position.

Tony Gonzalez got a major head start by entering the NFL as the 13th overall pick in 1997. It was the same position that Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow was drafted in by the San Diego Chargers in 1979, and Winslow retired in 1987 having caught 541 passes for 6,741 yards and 45 touchdowns. In 2004, Gonzalez had eclipsed all three of those career categories and he was only 28 years old. He’d play another nine seasons and make the Pro Bowl eight more times. That was all after he’d passed Winslow in career numbers.

It was in 2003 that the Dallas Cowboys selected Jason Witten in the third round and the Chargers signed Gates as an undrafted free agent out of Kent State.

Witten caught 35 passes for 347 yards and one touchdown as a rookie. Gates caught 24 for 389 and two touchdowns. From then on out, Gonzalez, Gates, and Witten ruled all tight ends.

FootballOutsiders’ has two primary measurements for success: DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) and DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average). Gonzalez ranked 2nd in DYAR in 1999, 1st in 2000, 1st in 2001, 2nd in 2002, and 1st in 2003.

As rookies, Gates ranked ninth in DYAR and Witten ranked 22nd. Over the next four seasons, none of them would fall outside the top 4 of that category:

Gonzalez ranked first in 2004, 2006, and 2008.

Gates ranked first in 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2010.

Witten never ranked first, but was second in 2005 and 2007, third in 2004, 2006, and 2008, and fourth in 2009, 2010, and 2012.

In the 10-year period between 2004 and 2013, Gonzalez ranked first among tight ends with 9,480 yards and 857 catches. Witten was second with 9,452 yards and 844 catches. Gates was third, but played in 11 fewer games than Gonzalez and 12 fewer than Witten, totaling 695 catches and 8,804 yards.

But his 85 touchdowns in that time was 21 more than Gonzalez and 34 more than Witten. His 8.43 yards per target was also the highest mark in the NFL for any tight end with at least 80 games played in that time, and well above the marks for Gonzalez (7.4) and Witten (7.9).

All three of them averaged 59 yards per game in that time.

It wasn’t until Jimmy Graham in 2010 and Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez in 2011 that the tight end position would be redefined once again, but only off the back of success that these three teams (four if you split up the Chiefs and Falcons for Gonzalez) had with these three highly unique athletes.

Undrafted

Consider also that of all the great tight ends in this century, most were drafted in the first round (Gonzalez, Greg Olsen, Vernon Davis, Heath Miller, Jeremy Shockey), the second round (Gronkowski, Zach Ertz, Alge Crumpler, Kyle Rudolph), or the third (Witten, Graham, Travis Kelce, Jared Cook, Chris Cooley). With some exceptions, like George Kittle in round five, most had some draft day cache.

Gates went undrafted out of Kent State and no other tight end in the top-25 of receiving yards in this century can say the same. Not until you get to Marcus Pollard, who was undrafted all the way back in 1995 and ranks 30th in yards in the 2000s. If looking for the top undrafted tight end of the 2000s, you’ll have to find Jack Doyle, undrafted in 2013.

Consider that in 2018, when Gates was 38 and playing his final few games, he was ranked tied for 32nd in DYAR and DVOA. The player he was tied with: Jack Doyle.

Gates is the only undrafted tight end in the post-merger era to be named as a first team All-Pro (which he earned three times) and only the second after Willie Frazier in 1965.

Touchdowns

  • Most games with at least one receiving touchdown from 2003-2018: Larry Fitzgerald had 96 such games. Gates was second with 92. Reggie Wayne was third with ... 70.
  • All totaled up, Gates and Fitzgerald were tied for most touchdowns in the NFL from 2003-2018 with 116 each. Fitzgerald averaged a catch rate of 60.5% and had 7.56 yards per target in that time. Gates caught 65.5% of his targets and had 8.12 yards per target. Randy Moss was third with 96 touchdowns.
  • Gates retires seventh all-time in touchdown receptions. Four touchdowns behind sixth-place Fitzgerald and five ahead of eighth-place Gonzalez.

Special Teams

According to Pro-Football-Reference, Gates also played on special teams. He got one snap there in 2016. There’s quite literally nothing he can’t do.