Aside from the obvious roster questions the battered Chargers seemingly face every game day, now there is another, perhaps more complicated question awaiting this team.
How much should tight end Antonio Gates play in his return to the field Monday night versus Pittsburgh?
The question is no doubt among the hot topics Chargers brass is faced with this week now that the future Hall of Fame tight end is back and practicing with the team after serving a four-game suspension.
The Chargers have known about this impending “predicament” for some time.
Still, now that the team has actually had an extended, Gates-free look at what tight end Ladarius Green can do, the question remains, how often and in what capacity do the Chargers use Gates against the Steelers?
“I really’ don’t have any expectations of how much I’m going to play, or how (little) I’m going to play,” Gates said Wednesday. “All I know is that, whenever, wherever my number is called, I just need to be ready. I think my focus is on being prepared, taking steps one day at a time and doing the right things to play on Monday night.”
He couldn’t have said it better.
Rushing Gates back into a full-time role, like last season when he played extensively, within the offense would be a mistake.
Gates is 35 years old. And while he is coming off a career year in 2014 and has proved he is still an effective player, the Chargers have the opportunity to have their talented pass catcher return, at an early point in the season, on fresh legs without injury. The last thing this team needs is to lose him to a hamstring or quad pull.
Moreover, Green has shown that he is more than capable of filling the void. In Gates’ absence, Green performed like the tight end we all thought (know) him to be. He caught 14 passes for 174 yards and two touchdowns in three games (he did not play in Minnesota because of a concussion).
Hack, even veteran John Phillips did his part, recording five receptions for 36 yards, including a crucial touchdown in the fourth quarter against Cleveland last Sunday.
Which brings us to the next intriguing part of Gates’ return.
We’ve long wondered why an extensive two-tight end formation, similar to what the Patriots used with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, hasn’t been used (or tried) in San Diego. That time is now, especially if Malcom Floyd (concussion) and/or Stevie Johnson (hamstring) don’t play.
“Obviously, we have a corps of guys who are super talented,” Gates said. “I’m quite sure our (offensive) coordinator will maximize every single player’s ability in that tight end room. I’m here like everybody else, just trying to do the right things and be efficient offensively.”
Monday night a perfect opportunity to get creative on offense, see how it plays out, all while easing Gates back into a prominent role with the team.
“I certainly don’t anticipate (Ladarius) standing on the sideline a lot of these games,” Rivers said when asked what Gates’ return would mean for Green. “He’s going to be involved, whether it be with Gates or keeping Gates fresh for this 12-game stretch. I don’t know this for sure, but its not like Gates has to play 70 plays every week. Ladarius is still going to be a big part of it.”
He should be.
And so should Gates, eventually.
–Andrew Burer (TWITER: @andrewburer)