COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Antonio Gates is looking at the back end of his career through rose-colored glasses.
At 38, Gates knows his days of 1,000-yard receiving and double-digit touchdown seasons are in the rearview mirror.
But the allure of winning an elusive Super Bowl drew Gates back in for one more magical season, as the Los Angeles Chargers, at 9-3, sit near the top of the AFC.
“It’s challenging when you become accustomed to doing something for so long and doing it at a high level,” Gates said. “But the bigger picture is not what I can do individually. It's more about the team and what I can do to help us win, and I just need to be ready for that time, whenever it’s called.”
With only 19 catches, 239 receiving yards and two scores, he’s no longer Philip Rivers' No. 1 target to a spot player in an offense led by Keenan Allen, Melvin Gordon, Tyrell Williams and Austin Ekeler.
“He’s been great,” Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said. “I understand it. He’s very competitive. He’s one of the best tight ends ever to play this game, and when you are not doing it every snap, it’s tough.
“But I think he is realistic enough to understand too that he probably couldn’t take every snap right now. It’s been great having him, and I think we were all really excited to see some of the things he did last week.”
Gates is the Chargers’ all-time leader in receptions (946), receiving yards (11,747) and touchdown catches (116). Gates and Rivers’ 89 touchdowns during their careers is the most in NFL history by a quarterback-tight end tandem.
While the numbers are not what Gates would like, he has been targeted more of late.
Three weeks ago against the Denver Broncos, Gates finished with a season-high five receptions for 80 yards, including a 6-yard catch for a score.
“We know that getting him back [this season], he’s in this for the long haul,” Rivers said. “When we get in the game like this where [Denver] is doing some things to our receivers and you have him singled up [on man-to-man coverage], then he’s going to get some opportunities.”
Gates’ 12.6 yards per reception is his highest per-reception average since 2010, so he’s doing a better job of creating explosive plays.
In the Chargers’ comeback win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Gates had a clutch catch for a two-point conversion in the second half.
“He’s been bracketed this year,” Whisenhunt said. “A couple times. Different teams do it. Especially in the red zone, people do it.
“We’ve had that discussion ourselves about, ‘Are they going to do that?’ I can’t say it’s as much as they used to do it, but they have done it this year.”
It's certainly not how the offseason began for Gates. The Chargers’ brass told Gates’ representation that his services would not be needed for the 2018 season, opening more opportunities for emerging tight end Hunter Henry.
Then Henry suffered an ACL injury in May and all of a sudden the future Hall of Fame tight end’s services were needed -- again.
Gates believes the Chargers did not have to put up an ultimatum about his return in free agency in February.
“I never wanted to leave -- that was the dilemma,” Gates said. “I always knew we had a chance [to win a Super Bowl], which is why I wanted to come back.
“Normally when you leave, it’s not on your terms. And for a person that’s been here, done all of this and been through the wars and they didn’t want to let me leave on my own terms -- there was a lot of bitterness from that perspective. Like, ‘I can’t make the team? Whoever y’all want, it doesn’t matter, but I want to be here and I can’t get a spot?’ That’s how I felt. I remember what hurt me the most is I really thought we were going to win it this year, and I’ve got to root from afar.
“I was never really crazy about the business decision they made. I thought it was early to be honest with you. I didn’t think it had any effect on anything, but I got the points when we started communicating again, and I was like, ‘All right. I don’t necessarily agree, but I understand.’”
Gates said he has moved past the hurt feelings from this offseason and is pleased to be back in the building in his traditional spot in the locker room next to his longtime teammate Rivers.
“It’s in my best interest and my team’s best interest that I continue to stay positive in terms of where we’re trying to go, because at any given moment my number can be called,” Gates said. “And I could be so caught up into things that didn’t happen in previous weeks, or things I thought I could do more or didn’t get a chance to do, and now I’m not focused on the present and I could actually make a play now. I’ve played with guys who are always complaining, complaining and complaining, but with good intentions -- obviously they have a point. But when you do that, you start having this negativity and that affects you more than anything.
“You start coming here and going about your business the wrong way. You start feeling a certain way about how they’re calling the plays, or the players and the coaches. You start thinking that everybody is against you, but really the big picture is we’re trying to get to a place, and if you can help us get there, you need to do your part. I’ve been in major roles and watched guys in minor roles complain. And I said to myself I never want to be that type of teammate.”