Jared Gaither is one of the most physically gifted athletes in football. At 6'9" and 340 pounds, there are few players as big and agile as Gaither. Few offensive tackles can move their feet or are as physically strong as Gaither. He's a "freak" some might say, in reference to his unique athletic qualities.
Gaither is big, but he also carries a big risk and a big reward for the Chargers. There's no doubting Gaither's talent; he's almost always performed when he's had the opportunity to play, but he's far from a safe player to have protecting the blindside of your franchise quarterback.
When Gaither is healthy and motivated, he's been a great left tackle. Gaither is particularly strong at pass-blocking, and according to ProFootballFocus, he was the most efficient pass-blocker in the NFL last season (150-plus snaps). That's better than All-Pro offensive tackles Joe Thomas, Jason Peters and Michael Roos.
Perhaps it was a small sample size, but that's not likely. Gaither was top 5 in 2009, the last time he had played consistently, and Gaither came to a new team two-thirds into the season.
Gaither started the same week he was acquired, and the Chargers went 4-1 in the five games he played. Gaither helped the Chargers stay in the playoff hunt, and until losing to the Lions in Week 16, they were very much in the race.
Philip Rivers looked revitalized with good blindside pass protection. In the five games with Gaither, Rivers had an 11-to-3 touchdown to interception ratio. Prior to Gaither's arrival, Rivers had thrown more interceptions than touchdowns and had a 16-17 ratio.
Gaither did not allow a sack in five games, and the Chargers allowed only two once Gaither was inserted into the lineup. The Chargers had allowed 28 sacks when Gaither was claimed off waivers. 2.5 sacks per game versus 0.4 sacks per game. Almost shocking.
Gaither also helped the running game. Prior to Gaither's arrival, the team was averaging 100.9 yards per game rushing and 0.82 touchdowns. After Gaither's arrival, the team averaged 131.0 yards per game rushing and 1.4 touchdowns. Over the course of a season, that's nearly 400 yards and seven touchdowns.
The Ravens running game went from 2,200 yards, 22 touchdowns and 4.7 yards per carry with Gaither in 2009 to 1,831 yards, 11 touchdowns and 3.8 yards per carry in 2010 without Gaither. The same exact running backs playing in only one less game, and Gaither only played in 11 games in 2009.
The Chargers scored 31.4 points per game with Gaither and 22.6 points per game without Gaither. There were few other changes to San Diego's offense. Provided the five games was a large enough sample, the Chargers might have had a top-4 offense if Gaither had been with the team the whole year. Only the Packers, Saints and Patriots scored more than 31 points per game last season.
When Gaither plays, he's not just good, he's elite.
One of the biggest problems with Gaither has been health. When Gaither became the starter after the retirement of future Hall of Fame offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, he missed a month of training camp with an ankle injury in which he was originally carted off the field.
Gaither was carted off for a neck injury in 2009 and returned two weeks later, but missed three more games due to a foot injury. Then, in 2010, Gaither missed a month with a foot injury while feuding with the Ravens over his move to right tackle. The Ravens reportedly tried to trade Gaither, but could never get what they wanted.
When the trade rumors calmed, Gaither signed his tender and returned to practice, but was carted off the field with back spasms and cramping after only a few days. The team didn't believe it to be serious, and Gaither even returned to practice for a short time, but he ended up missing the entire 2010 season with the injury.
According to Gaither via the Carroll County Times, the injury was diagnosed as a thoracic disc injury with a treatment plan that involves rest, stretching and strengthening the back.
The Raiders reportedly had a deal with Jared Gaither during training camp last season, but the deal fell through, apparently due to Gaither's injured back. Gaither eventually signed a veteran minimum contract with the Chiefs, according to Aaron Wilson.
The Chiefs, like the Ravens, may have wanted Gaither to play right tackle. Although publicly Gaither said he was open to right tackle, it's reasonable to assume based on his history that he privately wasn't happy with a move. There's little other explanation for a healthy Gaither sitting on the bench behind Barry Richardson in Kansas City. Richardson was one of the worst starting offensive tackles in the entire league.
According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, Gaither earned the nickname "Jared Game Day" in Baltimore because he had a poor work ethic in practice, but would play well in games. He's been called out for his work ethic, and the entire reason he fell to the fifth round of the 2007 supplemental draft was because he was declared academically ineligible. Form your own opinions about how a football player becomes academically ineligible at a big football program like Maryland.
The injury that currently has Gaither sidelined mirrors his 2010 injury, as they were first called cramps and later called muscle spasms. Muscle spasms are a symptom for a thoracic disc injury, according to medical doctors writing for medscape.com. His 2010 injury also was not considered serious, but he never recovered enough to play.
While the Chargers have Gaither at his favored left tackle spot, it's unknown at this point when or if Gaither will return and if his back condition will ever be a non-factor. Those that have had back injuries know that it is rarely something that is ever completely solved.
The risk with Gaither is almost as great as the reward, and for a head coach and general manager fighting for their jobs, you would think they would have learned their lesson from 2011.
Less than a year ago, the Chargers were lacking depth behind a fairly young, but injury-plagued left tackle in Marcus McNeil. McNeil played poorly, got hurt and the Chargers got lucky enough that Gaither wore out his welcome in Kansas City.
The Chargers only have a player that was out of a football in 2011 and an undrafted rookie free agent to back up Gaither. Now, the entire season may be riding on Gaither's injured back.