<strong>August 1, 2005</strong>
Source: <a href="http://www.signonsandiego.com/sports/canepa/20050731-9999-1s31canepa.html">San Diego Union Tribune</a>
The sun sets in the west. Smoking is bad for your health. Bears relieve themselves in the woods. City Hall is a mess. Gorillas have teeth. Now add this to your list of revelations: The Chargers opened training camp and there were two no-shows.
I know what you're thinking: Only two? The last time the Chargers had everyone in camp the first day . . . well, has it ever happened? I'm surprised head coaches haven't held out. Absenteeism is as much a part of this team's uniform as the lightning bolt.
It figured top draft choice Shawne Merriman wasn't going to be around Chargers Park. But Jammal Brown, the 13th pick overall, has signed with the Saints (Merriman was 12th), so talks could accelerate now that some kind of fiscal guideline (aka NFL slotting structure) has been established. It wouldn't be like the franchise to jump too soon â€“ it never has; why start now? â€“ nor would it be wise for Merriman's agent, Kevin Poston, to do the same.
"That could be this afternoon," General Manager A.J. Smith says, looking at his watch. "It could be down the road. But we are talking. Our lines of communication are open."
The Chargers want Shawne Merriman. If they didn't, they wouldn't have drafted him. But it's not impossible for them to live without him. Now tight end Antonio Gates, he's beyond another matter. That could be like living without a heart.
The All-Pro, who set The League record last year for most touchdown catches by a tight end, is not in camp. Gates wants more dough. Who doesn't? The Spanoses want more money. I don't see any of them retiring.
In this case, it's how much money. Gates wants to be the highest-paid tight end in the league, to make more than Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez and Baltimore's Todd Heap. Those two have deals that included more than $10 million in signing and roster bonuses. So did Kellen Winslow II, but that was draft money, so it doesn't fit into this equation. The Chargers are willing to go high, but not that high.
I can see their point â€“ to a point. Gates is two years out of Kent State, where he played only basketball, and was an undrafted free agent. He has had one great year. Gonzalez is about to start his ninth season, Heap his fifth. Does Gates deserve as much?
I'd say yes, as much, but not more.
"What we're offering," Smith says, "is an unbelievable amount of money, but we're still talking. They don't want to play for $380,000 and they shouldn't play for $380,000."
That $380,000 figure is all the Chargers are required to offer Gates â€“ a one-year tender contract worth the third-year player minimum. If Gates had signed that tender, even knowing negotiations would continue, he would be fined $5,000 a day for not being in camp. In that he has not signed, he can't be penalized.
The Chargers thought so highly of Gates they started contract talks with his agent, Andre Colona, midseason of last year. However, whatever progress has been made hasn't been enough. It would appear Gates will not sign a long-term deal.
But Smith's philosophy is to re-sign his own players, ones he believes are worthy of keeping around. Gates certainly falls into that category.
"He is everything I want to be a part of what we're building here," Smith says. "Our relationship with his agent has been terrific. Why is it taking so long? Both parties have to come together.
"I believe in building your football team by paying your own people. I want the team to realize that there's a message there. Play your butts off and the chances are pretty good you're going to get a phone call."
It's highly doubtful the Chargers would have won 12 games and made the playoffs last year without Gates. In fact, let's just say it wouldn't have happened. And let's say that, if Gates isn't on the field this year, their chances of repeating that kind of success are not good.
"I have no idea how to answer that," Smith says, "and I never would, with one player. Pull four particular guys off the offense, defense and special teams and ask me that, and I can give you an answer. He's a tremendous talent and a great kid."
Smith will tell you no one player makes a team, and there's some truth to that, unless you're talking about John Elway. But it's hard to imagine this offense without a tight end defenses prepared for and still couldn't figure out. His quarterback, Drew Brees, who threw Gates all 13 of those touchdowns in 2004, doesn't want to think about it.
"I'll give him a big hug when he comes into the locker room," Brees says. "I'll welcome him with open arms.
"Obviously, we'd love to have him here, get the whole group together, so we can experiment with stuff. But it's part of the business."
The chief business of the NFL, to borrow from my Calvin Coolidge, is business
"I've been in the business a long time, and that's what it is, it's business," coach Marty Schottenheimer says. "It happens all the time. I'm not involved in it. I suspect that at some point it will be resolved."
It will. Gates will play. But it is business, right?
Tailback LaDainian Tomlinson knows. "We all understand that."
We understand it. We don't always like it.