Open the Gates

Coming off a disappointing loss in Baltimore, there is a general consensus that the Chargers offense is underachieving. The uncertainty lies in the root of this problem. Many have cited Marty Schottenheimer's conservative play calling, while others blame Philip Rivers for frequently overthrowing open receivers.

Both theories have merit, but both are completely and utterly incorrect. The Chargers offense is underachieving because of its failure to get the ball in the hands of the team's best player – Antonio Gates.

In his first two seasons as a full-time starter, Gates collected 2,065 yards receiving and hauled in 23 touchdowns - the most ever by a tight in a two-year stretch. A former Kent State basketball star, Gates uses his incredible combination of body control and soft hands to completely own the middle of the field.

It's funny that when the Chargers had their incredible turnaround season in 2004, many credited the offensive resurgence to improved quarterback play.

It's no coincidence that then-starter Drew Brees went from caretaker to Pro Bowler as soon as Gates became featured in the team's passing attack.

"I have always maintained that a top tight end is a quarterback's best friend because he is never going to be real far away from you when you are throwing the ball," Schottenheimer said. "That enhances your success rate. When you have a guy like Antonio Gates, who is so physically gifted, there are very few guys that have the kind of athletic ability that Antonio has."

Unfortunately, all that athletic ability is about as useful as a wet Kleenex when Gates is playing right tackle in the team's Jumbo package. Unless Coach Schottenheimer is content to have that prefix removed from his name, he needs to muster up some gusto and give his All-Pro tight end a chance to make some plays.

No one is expecting Martyball to transform into Air Coryell version 2.0. But it is completely fair to expect him to manufacture at least six receptions for Gates each and every game.

Through three games this season, Gates has but ten catches. That is an embarrassing amount of underutilization for a player widely recognized as the league's best at his position, even in an era when pass-catching tight ends are in vogue.

Just because the Chargers have forgotten about their most dangerous offensive weapon, doesn't mean their opponents are making the same mistake.

"They do a good job of moving him around, using him like a receiver trying to create mismatches where he's bigger than the defensive backs you put on him and faster than the linebackers that try to cover him," said Steelers coach Bill Cowher. "You have to be careful of how much you use one guy to mirror a player like that. He is one guy that you have to be aware and he can become a match-up problem."

Only if you let him.

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