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Dare I say it? Gates is shaping up as Winslow’s equal

Discussion in 'Chargers Fan Forum' started by Johnny Lightning, Jan 10, 2010.

  1. Johnny Lightning

    Johnny Lightning Go Bolts

    Feb 7, 2006

    Saturday, January 9, 2010

    Never is a dirty word, and I try my best not to use it — unless someone asks me something silly, like if I’ve ever dunked (a basketball, not a doughnut). Never compare athletes from different eras, they say, and while it may be a good idea not to, it really isn’t much fun, which is the way with many good ideas.
    So what the heck? Let’s have some fun.
    As I marvel week-to-week at the freakish ability of Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, I can’t help but compare him with Kellen Winslow, the great tight end of San Diego’s Air Coryell era. And I never — that’s right — thought I’d live long enough to even think about it.
    It’s beyond hard to say Gates is better than Winslow, one of only two tight ends voted to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. I saw Winslow play every game. I covered him day-to-day, when he was so much a part of the most dynamic offense football has seen.
    During his eight seasons under Don Coryell, Winslow forever changed the position, not only because he was 6-feet-5, 250 pounds, a tight end who would run everything from a screen to a streak, but because he was so smart — book and football smart. Coryell put him in the slot, spread him out as a wide receiver, put him in motion. He was a monster, at one time widely considered the best football player alive.
    “I’m taller; he’s a better athlete,” Winslow, now athletic director at Central State University in Ohio, says of Gates. “That about sums it up. I’m taller.”
    Gates is 6-4, 260, but he’s different than Winslow, at times a nifty combination of tight end, tailback and a small forward with a great first step. Defenders know he’s there, but it’s as though he isn’t, like he’s invisible. It’s nuts. As Magic Johnson was to basketball, Gates is a freak.
    “Yeah, he is,” LaDainian Tomlinson says. “He’s so hard to cover. Safeties and corners aren’t strong enough to deal with him and linebackers aren’t fast enough.”
    There is a big difference in background. Winslow was on the chess team in high school but discovered football and became an All-American at Missouri, eventually a Chargers first-round draft choice. Gates played football in high school, but didn’t bother at Kent, where he was a standout basketball player. He wasn’t drafted.
    It was as though he fell out of the sky. Chargers GM A.J. Smith would love to take credit for discovering Gates, but he can’t bring himself to do it. Sight unseen? Smith asked for — but never received — film of Gates playing high school football.
    “You’re not going to see me standing at a podium taking credit for him,” Smith says. “Eugene Parker was his agent at the time and he did a masterful job getting word out on Antonio. We followed up. You can follow up and get involved, or not get involved. We got involved.
    “I’d never seen him play football, and it’s almost always tape evaluation. But we didn’t have any solid tight ends (in 2003), so we thought we’d develop him on the practice squad. Immediately, everybody in the organization knew that he was such an outstanding athlete, we had to forget about the practice squad. We knew he was special and if we put him on the practice squad after his first preseason other teams would have grabbed him.”
    Winslow played nine seasons — four in which he played 10 games or fewer due to injury or strike — from 1979-87, catching 541 passes for 6,741 yards and 45 touchdowns. Gates, just concluding his seventh year, has 479 career catches for 6,223 yards and 59 touchdowns. He’s 29 and getting better.
    So much so that, a few weeks back, Chargers coach Norv Turner said Gates was playing at a level greater than any player he’s coached at any position. As offensive coordinator in Dallas, Turner coached quarterback Troy Aikman, tailback Emmitt Smith and receiver Michael Irvin.
    “Obviously, you get caught up in emotions,” Turner says. “You take a guy and ask him to play at the height of his position, and that’s what he’s doing. Look at what he does to people. People look at us and say, ‘Let’s don’t let Gates wear us out,’ and he does.”
    Gates has successfully taken his basketball skills to the fields of the NFL. Just the way he uses his body, his stops and starts, his fluidity, his ability to find space.
    He and Winslow have been fortunate to be with outstanding quarterbacks, Winslow with Dan Fouts, Gates first with Drew Brees and now with Philip Rivers. Winslow played alongside receivers Charlie Joiner, Wes Chandler and John Jefferson and backs Chuck Muncie and the terribly underrated James Brooks. Few secondaries can match up with the Chargers when Gates and 6-5 receivers Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd are on the field, and tailbacks Tomlinson and Darren Sproles have been known to catch a ball or two.
    In other words, similar football situations.
    “Antonio’s had the quarterbacks, first with Brees and now with Rivers. It helps,” Winslow says, laughing. “Who’s going to double-team him in that offense? You can’t cover everyone. It happened to me. He’s in a great situation, as I was.”
    Gates hasn’t always been totally healthy, either. A toe injury suffered during the 2007 playoffs did more than cramp his style last year, although the six-time Pro Bowler still managed to catch 60 passes and score eight touchdowns. This year, he’s caught 79 balls worth 1,157 yards and eight scores.
    He believes he’s better now, that the injury gave him the opportunity to study the game.
    “The injury had an impact on me as a player and a person,” Gates says. “It actually helped me. Things happen for a reason. I studied more. I played games without practicing. As far as knowing the game, I’m better. I’m a more complete player.”
    As Turner puts it: “He’s more sudden than he’s been.”
    Winslow or Gates? I’m starting to lean, reluctantly, toward Gates. There’s still time, but I never thought I’d have to answer that question with a straight face. Never.


    Winslow | Gates

    6-5 Height 6-4

    251 Weight 260

    109 Games 109

    541 Receptions 479

    6,741 Yards 6,223

    12.5 Avg./catch 13.0

    45 Touchdowns 59

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