Old-school TEs Gates, Witten still effective
September, 27, 2013
By Eric D. Williams | ESPN.com
Getty ImagesJason Witten and Antonio Gates -- ranked No. 2 and 3 in all-time tight end catches -- meet Sunday.
SAN DIEGO -- They don’t make them like they used to.
That’s the sentiment of San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, and his counterpart, the Dallas Cowboys’ Jason Witten.
Both arrived in the NFL in 2003, and a decade later, the duo sits No. 2 and No. 3 in receptions among active leaders for tight ends behind future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez of the Atlanta Falcons.
Gates' and Witten’s teams will face each other for perhaps the final time in their impressive careers when Dallas travels to Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday.
“They’re very talented,” San Diego coach Mike McCoy said. “They’re different in their own ways. I think they’re the quarterback’s best friend. They have a lot of confidence in how they play the game and what they do, and the way they run routes and everything, but they’re very good football players.
“It’s great to have guys like that, weapons you know. Regardless of what the situation is, whether it’s in the red area, whether it’s third down, when the game’s on the line, it’s a guy that you know you can count on.”
Gonzalez is the active leader in receptions with 1,253 catches in 17 seasons. Witten is No. 5 on the list with 822 catches, and Gates is No. 12 with 657 catches.
Gates said what makes he and a handful of other tight ends different than other guys coming into the league are they are complete players. They can and dominate as a blocker in the run game or beat a defender down the seam of the defense in the passing game.
“It’s a mutual relationship where the respect is there,” Gates said about Witten. “Granted, he’s always been an NFC guy, and I was always an AFC guy. He’s more a traditional, true tight end that can catch the ball.
“Some of these guys are receivers who they’ve converted to tight ends. But when I think of Jason, I think of a true tight end -- a guy who fits the position.”
Between them, Gates and Witten have earned invitations to 16 Pro Bowls -- eight apiece. Witten said those weekends in Hawaii provided opportunities for the two to swap stories and trade secrets. Specifically, Gates played for six seasons under former Chargers coach Nor Turner, who served as a mentor for Dallas coach Jason Garrett.
“Over the years it’s been interesting, because Norv and Jason’s are very similar systems and we can pick each other’s brains about that, so you’re kind of talking the same language,” Witten said. “You’re always competing against him, but it’s somebody you definitely have a lot of respect for. I don’t know about the box score, but you take a peek at the film every once in a while and see what kinds of plays they’re running.”
At 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds, the 33-year-old Gates was a standout basketball player at Kent State, but chose to purse football in the pros, signing with the Chargers as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2003.
Gates’ size, agility and athleticism help him create mismatches against opposing defenses in the red zone. His 84 touchdowns rank second-most among tight ends in NFL history behind Gonzalez (104).
“Obviously he was a basketball player and has great feel and athletic ability,” Witten said. “At the end of the day it’s all about body and leverage. I think he understands, just like I do, that those are the matchups you want to create -- whether it’s on a linebacker or a safety, how do you use that leverage and your quarterbacks have confidence in you. I think Philip (Rivers) has a lot of confidence in him, quite like Tony (Romo) and I.”
At 6-6 and 261 pounds, Witten was a third-round selection in 2003 by the Cowboys out of Tennessee. The 31-year-old Witten is the Cowboys all-time receptions leader, and has developed a reputation for reliable hands, polished route running and a knack for making the big play.
“Football is very important to him,” Garrett said about Witten. “His attention to detail is as good as anybody I’ve been around in my career. Nothing is too small to make sure he gets right. He goes about it that way in meetings and in walk-throughs on the practice field. There’s no secret behind his success. He works very hard at it. He’s a talented guy, and you put those two things together, you can be a consistently good player, as he is.”
While Gates believes the number of players who can do everything required of a tight end is dwindling, giving way to more athletic pass catchers built like big receivers, he understands that fans will see two of the best to ever do it in San Diego on Sunday.
“We’re different in a sense of what he’s able to do help his team, as opposed to what I’m able to contribute,” Gates said. “But I have so much respect for him because he’s still able to make it happen, and contribute to help his team win football games."
ESPN Dallas Cowboys reporter Todd Archer contributed to this story.