CARSON — Maybe this was the last time we will see Antonio Gates on a football field. Then again, maybe it wasn’t.
If it was, at least he’ll leave us with a vintage moment to remember him by. It occurred just before the end of the first half Sunday at StubHub Center, aka Black Hole South.
Gates got open just enough on a second-and-9 from the Oakland 26, Philip Rivers threaded the needle to get it to him and Gates caught it and dragged both feet in bounds before getting out with 30 seconds left, for a first down at the 6.
It set up a touchdown pass to Keenan Allen that sent the Chargers to intermission with a 20-10 lead over the Raiders. They finished with a 30-10 victory that provided a rousing conclusion to their first season in greater Los Angeles, even if all of those hiccups at the start of the season ultimately kept them out of the playoffs.
No, Gates wasn’t ready to announce if he wanted to return in 2018, which would be a 16th NFL season at age 38. He did say he’d prefer that it be here, with a team he thinks is awfully close to breaking through, but that “winning a Super Bowl is a priority.”
To be perfectly frank, it might not be his decision to make. This is the NFL, after all, and players are disposable. And the market for an aging tight end who finished the season with 32 catches for 316 yards and three touchdowns, and who went through a mid-season stretch where he was barely being targeted, might well depend on who’s doing the asking.
The deciding point could well be what people don’t see, what takes place between Sundays. Gates has been a mentor for second-year pro Hunter Henry, and while he wasn’t delighted to be a backup to Henry at midseason he accepted the role and made it work for all involved.
“I’d love to have him back — that’s it, bar none,” fellow tight end Sean McGrath said. “I want him in the room because I’m selfish, because you can learn so much from him. Everyone can learn so much from him.
“ … I think it’s showed dividends in Hunter in just the short time they’ve been together. You get that tool set in this game, and it’s hard to send someone like that packing.”
When Henry went down two weeks ago with a lacerated kidney, Gates stepped back up. He had six catches for 81 yards and a score last Sunday against the Jets, with the Chargers playing to keep their postseason hopes alive. This week he had four for 46 against the Raiders, on an afternoon the Chargers needed help to get to…