A friend returns

The return of San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates cannot be understated. He does as much for the offense as anyone and it is why they locked him up to an extension, albeit costing him game one of the season in the process.

The Chargers offense will get a considerable lift Sunday with the return of All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates.

After serving the final game of his three-game suspension in Sunday's opening-day loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Gates is eager to suit for the first time since January's playoff loss to the Jets.

"I'm happy," Gates said. "Dealing with all the obstacles I overcame - the contract negotiations and all - I'm just happy I have the opportunity to play football again."

And the Chargers offense is welcoming him with open arms. Especially after Dallas stopped LaDainian Tomlinson, negating the Chargers' biggest weapon.

Without Gates in the mix to keep Dallas' defense honest, the Cowboys flooded the box and dared the Chargers to beat them through the air. Quarterback Drew Brees did throw two touchdown passes to Keenan McCardell, but in crunch time, the Chargers offense had zero balance.

Consider that San Diego was perched at the Dallas 7 in the final minute Sunday and had four shots at the go-ahead touchdown. But instead of giving it to Tomlinson, the two-time Pro Bowler was merely a bystander.

With every gap filled and the Cowboys blitzing, the Chargers elected to go away from their strength (Tomlinson) and flung the ball four straight times without success.

If Gates is in there, the Cowboys couldn't be so cavalier about ignoring one of the top red-zone receivers in the league.

"I've often said Antonio Gates is LaDainian Tomlinson's best friend," coach Marty Schottenheimer said.

What's apparent is something has to be done - and Gates' presence will help - to get Tomlinson's mitts on the ball more than 19 times. It's criminal that the Chargers' brain trust couldn't decipher a way to get Tomlinson more involved after knowing since late August that Gates wouldn't be available.

What's as befuddling as Tomlinson getting just 19 rushes is he had zero receptions, as the Chargers seldom looked his way.

Come Sunday, the Chargers offense will have a different look. The Chargers hope that translates into a different result.

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