Witten vs. Gates will have to wait

The most fanatic of fantasy football nerds had to be drooling when the 2005 NFL schedule was announced. The San Diego Chargers against the Dallas Cowboys. Antonio Gates against Jason Witten. That did not stop Witten from talking about a player who plays his position.

After all, many fantasy football gurus feel that while anyone can choose a Marvin Harrison or Terrell Owens as a top receiver, it's the real geniuses who can fortify their receiving corps with a truly productive tight end.

To that end, Sunday's season opener at QUALCOMM Stadium represented a dream come true for those football fantasy fanatics, as two of the game's premier tight ends -- Dallas' Jason Witten and San Diego's Antonio Gates -- were going head-to-hear for the first time.

Each is entering his third NFL season. As a rookie, Gates caught 24 balls for 389 yards and remained completely anonymous outside of La Jolla. Witten, in the same season, caught seven more passes (35) for 347 yards. Perhaps because he played at a marquee college program (Tennessee, compared to Gates' alma mater: Kent State), Witten enjoyed a little more of the "up and coming" reputation.

That all flip-flopped last season. Witten had a very good sophomore season, catching a team-leading 87 passes for 980 yards and six touchdowns. But Gates became something of a national phenomenon, catching 81 passes for 964 yards … but found his way into the end zone 13 times. While LaDanian deservedly garners most of the headlines as he continues to collect votes as perhaps the NFL's best player at any position, and quarterback Drew Brees enjoyed something of a media love affair after holding off would-be golden boy Phillip Rivers with a season that far exceeded all expectations, it was Gates who drew most of the "savior" comments. The Chargers have a decent-but-not frightening crew of wide receivers, and Gates quickly became a national story: "Former basketball star finds stardom on gridiron."

Witten admits that the cross-examination that comes with any such matchup is normal. But after his banner year in 2004, Gates wanted a new contract. He held out from training camp, despite repeated requests and demands from the team that he return to camp and honor his existing contract. Eventually, the team suspended him for three games -- the last of which is Sunday's regular season opener. So the long-awaited (by some) Witten-vs.-Gates showdown will have to wait. Witten admits to being slightly disappointed, but quickly pointed out that out-performing Gates on the stat sheet was not his top priority, anyway.

"You try not to go into a game like this and look at it like it's me against Antonio, because it's not," Witten said. "I don't line up against him, and we don't defend each other. But I have a great deal of respect for what he does. He's a great player.

"But I was never going to look at it is a game when I had to come out of it with more catches than he does, or more touchdowns than he does. If we come back with the win, I don't care about those (statistical) things."

(Note to fantasy football owners: anyone who claims to have "known all along" that San Diego tight end Antonio Gates would bust out with a 13-touchdown season in 2004 is a liar of historic proportions.)

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