SAN DIEGO -- His number of receptions is down from the last two years. So, I guess Antonio Gates had an "off" year, huh?
"Antonio had a great year," scoffs Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer. "I'll tell you what production is. Production is what you put on the field in whatever role you're being asked to perform."
Almost every last one of us, fans and media, are guilty of misjudging tight ends. I recall a media session late in the year when Coach Bill was asked about Benjamin Watson, whom we all had expected to become a prime target for Tom Brady. His numbers aren't dazzling. Ergo, he must be something of a disappointment.
Well, no, said Coach Bill. We're very pleased with Benjamin Watson and with Daniel Graham, for that matter. They are performing the tasks we ask them to perform.
"Obviously, every year is a learning experience," says Gates. "One thing I can say is that I definitely grew as a player. One thing we try to do around here is not get caught up in individual stats, to stay focused as a team. Antonio Gates not getting the ball was not an issue to me."
So, here's the deal. After catching 81 and 89 passes the previous two seasons, Gates was "held" to 71 catches this season. But was it really that big a deal? He actually had slightly more yards per catch than in '05 (13.0-12.4), and had just one fewer touchdown (10-9).
But since by establishing himself as a great pass catcher he had become a star bordering on a megastar in the previous two seasons, people were asking questions midway through the season, simply because he wasn't on his way to 100 catches and 1,300 yards, or something. Of course, there was the matter of LaDainian Tomlinson's weekly totals and the fact the Chargers were winning and winning. Gates wasn't exactly hurting the cause.
What Gates is acutely aware of, and what he had somewhat hidden by virtue of his superior ability to catch passes, is that, at age 26, he is still learning this game. He doesn't just want to be a boutique tight end. He wants to be a true tight end, someone who can catch passes and fulfill his blocking assignments. Gates is so proficient at his specialty he was able to make it into the NFL despite being otherwise unprepared to play at this level.
"I don't believe in making excuses about why I was not being as productive," he says. "I had to know I was going to see more double-teams. I had to figure out what to do about it. But this forced me to elevate the mental part of my game."
Never, ever take for granted the fact he came into the NFL as an undrafted player whose collegiate sport was basketball. The last time he had played football was at Detroit Central High School.
The school was Kent State, his fourth collegiate stop (Michigan State, Eastern Michigan, College of the Sequoias). The 6-foot-4-inch, 260-pound bruiser was the best player on a Golden Flashes team that set the table for George Mason four years later by going to the Elite Eight. He was the MAC player of the year as a senior, but his NBA status was as a "tweener," and he decided to try football, and the Chargers signed him as a free agent.
Schottenheimer then, as now, was the head coach here, and he looked at this Antonio Gates/Basketball Player thing with an open mind. "We've all seen guys who can do it," Schottenheimer says. "I've always thought that those guys [i.e. basketball players] have great hand-eye coordination, and the other thing is that they know how to use their body to protect the ball."
(Quick aside: Marty informs us that he was a "great rebounder" for a Pennsylvania state championship team at Fort Cherry High School in 1961.)
"As soon as he arrived," Schottenheimer continues, "his pass-catching skills were very evident. What was not evident were his techniques and fundamentals in blocking."
"That first training camp was the worst thing I've ever been through," Gates says. "It was a struggle. But the one thing I could control was my knowledge. There wasn't a day I went out there without knowing the plays. I had to gain credibility by effort and dedication."
He did have one thing going for him. "Catching passes came natural," he says. "Everything else was the hard part."
Other potential basketball-to-football crossovers have come to him for advice. "They say, 'Can I make it to the NFL?' " Gates says. "I just tell them that if you're not willing to sacrifice, you'll never make it to the NFL."
It is simply not as easy as Gates has made it look. How ungodly gifted and how amazingly intelligent is this man? Six months after playing his final college basketball game he was a starting tight end in the NFL. One year later, he was catching 81 passes and had become an All-Pro.
That selection was all about the numbers of course, and now he finds himself at a different juncture in his career. He is a veteran member of a team that has a chance to become great, a team many think will be wearing the hats, T-shirts, and smiles of a Super Bowl champion on or about 9:30 EST, on Feb. 4. People are talking about LT, Philip Rivers, and Shawne Merriman, and not so much about Antonio Gates. There may not be as much hoopla for Antonio Gates. But there may be a ring.
As he likes to point out, he's sort of been there before. He was a junior scoring 15 points per game on a well-balanced Kent State team that went to the Elite Eight. A year later, he had increased his scoring to 21 ppg, but the team didn't even make it to the tournament. "Now what season would I rather have," he asks, "the one when I was averaging 21 and breaking school records, or the other one?"
If you're Antonio Gates, that's an easy call.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.