Fri, Sep 18, 2015

SDBR Analysis: San Diego's Fallen Stars

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TE Antonio Gates. Picture by Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY Sports.

Things never end well for stars in San Diego.

No one gets to walk away a champion, a la Ray Lewis or Jerome Bettis. Heck, most of the best players in Chargers history didn't even end their careers with the team they helped put on the map.

The partings, in fact, are often bitter.

Junior Seau, the best defensive player in Chargers history, was shipped away for a conditional draft pick back in 2003. The Chargers deemed that, after 13 seasons, Seau's best days were behind him. Seau went on to play seven more years after the trade, racking up 368 tackles, 9.5 sacks and three interceptions during stints with the Dolphins and Patriots.

In Seau's first season in Miami, the Dolphins won 10 games. He carried that success over with him to New England, where he was a captain on the Patriots' 16-0 team in 2007.

"Great team player, very supportive of his teammates - I mean, everybody in the locker room loved Junior," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "They loved what he did and they loved the way that he interacted with the team. He was a great player."

Seau was not the only Chargers great to wind up with the Patriots. Also on that list is Rodney Harrison, who spent his first nine seasons (1994-2002) with the Bolts before being unceremoniously released. He spent six seasons in New England, helping the Patriots win Super Bowl XXXVIII over the Panthers, 32-29.

Watching Seau and Harrison leave town in the same offseason -- and go on to find success elsewhere -- will always be the strongest example of things not working out for San Diego's stars. But there are plenty of recent examples, too.

LaDainian Tomlinson, the greatest player in franchise history and the record holder for most touchdowns in a season (29), was released after the 2010 season and began taking shots as soon as he left town. He said he "felt disrespected" by GM A.J. Smith, called Norv Turner a "passing coach" and praised his new offensive line in New York as superior to the one he left behind in San Diego.

Fortunately, it was water under the bridge by the time Tomlinson retired, at which point he signed a one-day contract with the Chargers to end his journey with the team that drafted him in 2001.

Said Tomlinson at his retirement ceremony: "One thing I remember is when Junior Seau, when he retired, and he was up here, standing up, giving his speech. One thing that stood out to me is he said 'I'm graduating today.' And that's the way I look at it. I've been playing football twenty-something years, and so at some point, it almost seems like school every year. Where you sacrifice so much, and there's so much that you put on the line -- mentally and physically, with your body, everything."

There are plenty of second-tier examples, as well, including:

--Shawne Merriman got popped for steroids in October 2006 and later injured his knee in a game against Tennessee in December 2007 (a game in which he said he was targeted by Titans players). He was never the same after those two events. Merriman, who had 39.5 sacks through his first three seasons, averaged less than one sack per season over the next six years.

--Vincent Jackson got entangled in a nasty contract dispute in 2009 that caused him to miss the first 11 weeks of the season (Pro Bowl LT Marcus McNeill missed five games that season in a similar dispute). The resulting bad feelings prompted Jackson to leave as a free agent one season later, joining the Buccaneers on a five-year, $55.55 million deal. Jackson has gone over 1,000 yards in six of the last seven seasons (that truncated 2009 season being the exception) and should join the 10,000-yard club at some point in the next couple seasons.

--Quentin Jammer was always destined to finish his career at strong safety. With his size and physical style of play, the transition seemed inevitable. But when his contract expired after the 2012 season, the Chargers declined to offer him a new deal. Instead of finishing his Chargers tenure at strong safety, a position that has been in flux since Harrison's release, the ended his career as a member of the Broncos.

All of these examples raise the question: What will happen with Antonio Gates?

It was fair to wonder about how Gates' story would end even before his four-game suspension for PED use was announced. At 35 years old and entering the final season of his contract, it was clear his days in the league were numbered.

It was assumed the Chargers would extend Gates on a year-by-year basis for as long as he wanted to play. Now, that assumption is no longer safe. Not only has Gates' legacy been tarnished, but he has opened the door for Ladarius Green to audition for the No. 1 tight end position. If Green lights it up over the first four weeks of the season, it is fair to wonder if Gates' role will be reduced once he returns ... and if his contract will be renewed after the season.

"We are tremendously disappointed for our team and our fans as well as Antonio, but no more disappointed than Antonio is with himself," the Chargers said in a statement. "Antonio is a member of the Chargers' family and we will continue to support him 100-percent. We have the utmost confidence he will stay in excellent shape for the season and be ready to go when he returns in Week 5. While it's unfortunate to not have him to start the season, we have complete confidence our tight end group will continue to play at a high level."

This feels like the beginning of another dismaying end. When Gates catches his first touchdown pass this season, which will be the 100th of his career, the cheers will be muted by the asterisk that will surely accompany that incredible accomplishment.

This is not how the final years of Gates' career were supposed to play out. Unfortunately, disappointing final chapters have become par for the course for San Diego's star players.


How will Antonio Gates' final seasons play out? Talk about it inside our new message boards!


Michael Lombardo has covered the San Diego Chargers since 2003. He spent 12 years covering the team for Scout.com and has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. In addition to being publisher of SDBoltReport.com, he works as the Senior NFL Reporter for Footballinsiders.com. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter @NFLinsider_Mike.

Tags: 
A.J. Smith, Antonio Gates, Junior Seau, LaDainian Tomlinson, Quentin Jammer, Rodney Harrison, Shawne Merriman, Vincent Jackson
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