By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — If this was indeed the final moment of Antonio Gates’ NFL career, it was perfect.
Sure, the game situation and the scoreboard weren’t ideal for Gates, as his Chargers trailed 41-22 on a cold afternoon in New England, with just over a minute left in the fourth quarter. But if Gates had to go out this way, it couldn’t have been much better.
The 38-year-old tight end, playing in what could be his final snap ever, found himself in man coverage against Patrick Chung — who himself is a 10-year NFL veteran but is still seven years Gates’ junior. Gates broke to the outside of the end zone on an out route and, with textbook body position, hauled in a touchdown catch.
Ever the gamer, Gates helped Chung to his feet. Chung responded with a congratulatory helmet tap.
The two-point attempt failed, as did the ensuing onside kick. But it was nevertheless a fitting end to the career of one of the greatest tight ends of all time.
And another one of the all-time greats certainly appreciated the moment.
“I mean, Gates is a monster,” said Rob Gronkowski, who served his tight end role more as a blocker than a receiver in Sunday’s game. “I’ve been watching him since high school. Just to share the field with him again is definitely an honor. Just always looking up to him, ever since he’s been in the league. I got to see him after, say what’s up to him and wish him best of luck from whatever he does from here on out. But he’s a great player and a great role model for the league.”
Gates’ career began with the Chargers all the way back in 2003. He’s since played in 236 regular-season games and now 12 postseason games. With five catches for 41 yards in Sunday’s loss, he’s now caught 1,006 passes for 12,381 yards and 118 touchdowns in the regular season and postseason combined.
“I mean, if it were to be, pretty cool. If it were to be his last one, and his last catch was a touchdown,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. “Talk about a guy who’s caught more than anybody in the history of tight ends. And he and I have thrown more in the history of quarterbacks and tight ends. So, if that were to be the last one, at least, there’s nothing to be excited about right now. But if it were to be, you look back one day and say it ended just how it started there a long time ago.”
Gates’ 116 regular-season touchdowns are five more than the record previously held by Tony Gonzalez. And while Gronkowski may be able to claim to have been the most dominant force at tight end the league has ever seen, the longevity and sustained excellence by Gates (and Gonzalez, for that matter) may not be seen again for a very long time. Over his 16-year career, Gates has played in 236 of a possible 256 games, for an average of 15 games played per season. (Gronkowski, who’s averaged 13 games played per season over his nine-year career, ranks third in touchdowns by a tight end with 79.)
Gates’ future remains very much uncertain. The Chargers only signed him this year after Hunter Henry suffered a torn ACL. He caught just 28 passes for 333 yards and two touchdowns during the year, before catching nine passes for 76 yards combined in his two playoff games. And though he never did reach the Super Bowl, if his career had to end some way, the end zone was an appropriate location.