“I try to evaluate myself. I can still beat a linebacker, I feel like I can still play,” Gates, 38, said Friday before the Chargers head to Denver for the regular-season finale against the Broncos. “The hard part is I set the bar at a certain level, but I’ve adjusted to my role and I just love my teammates, I love this staff. I’ve learned some new dances. I’m just having so much fun.
“It’s just beautiful to know that we’re also going to the playoffs already. It’s not like we have to win our last game to get in. We know we are going and this is a special team. At times in my career I took all this for granted. When I came in we were winning. I know now this takes work. I’m on third base and I’m heading home but I’m feeling so good about all this.”
The Chargers secured a playoff berth and are in second place in the AFC West behind the Kansas City Chiefs. Los Angeles currently is the fifth seed but could end up winning the division depending on the outcome of this weekend’s games.
Gates, whose 116 touchdown catches are the most for a tight end in NFL history, said that even though he knows his career is winding down, the management of his practice and game usage has allowed him to remain healthy and feel physically and mentally spry, even at this point of the season.
“People also forget that I didn’t play college football so I haven’t taken that wear and tear,” Gates said.
Again, that doesn’t sound like someone trying to stop playing.
That might not be up to Gates, though. After last season, there was a public parting between the Chargers and Gates, the former basketball player from Kent State, who’s compiled a Hall of Fame resume in his career — all with the Chargers. He signed a one-year deal this offseason after upstart tight end Hunter Henry tore his ACL during a practice in May.
Gates has just 28 receptions for 338 yards and two touchdowns, numbers similar to those in his rookie season in 2003.
“I’ve had to adjust to a role in which I’m not getting 12 or 13 targets a game, play a supporting role, but that’s fine,” Gates said. “It’s just beautiful to be in this position. All this hard work. Not just this season but over my career. I just embrace it.”