The San Diego Chargers looked good on Monday night. Even after one game, it restored hope that this year, they will make up for an 8-8 finish from 2011. This would be the year they conclusively take over the AFC West, even given the arrival of Peyton Manning in the division.
But then there's Antonio Gates' injury. And if there is one certainty with regards to this Chargers team, it is that it needs Antonio Gates in order to succeed.
Vincent Jackson is gone. Robert Meachem and Malcom Floyd are wild cards. Antonio Gates is Philip Rivers' guy, and this offense can't afford to lose him.
Hopefully, it won't.
During Monday night's 22-14 road win over Oakland, the tight end went down with a rib injury, and the hearts of Chargers fans everywhere stopped for a moment. The good news is, he returned to the game and finished with four receptions for 43 yards, and he appears to be fine going forward.
But for a guy who's had his fair share of injury problems over the last couple of years, a Week 1 injury that takes him off the field certainly isn't a good sign.
The Chargers got by, even without Gates going at full throttle. It wasn't all their own doing—they were the beneficiaries of three botched Raiders punts, resulting from an injury to Oakland long snapper Jon Condo—but their defense did manage to hold Oakland to two field goals and a single touchdown, which didn't come until there were 54 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
But this offense is still not running the way Rivers or head coach Norv Turner would like it to be running.
Rivers needs a target he can trust, and one with whom he already has an established rapport; Gates is supposed to be that guy if San Diego is going to be successful in 2012.
That's not to say Floyd and Meachem will fail. Floyd caught the only Chargers touchdown of the night on Monday, a six-yarder late in the first half. But Floyd has never been able to establish himself as a go-to target, even after seven seasons in San Diego, and newcomer Meachem has had injury struggles of his own in his four-year career.
Gates is the closest thing to a certainty this pass offense has, and the Chargers can't afford to lose him. After an explosive 2009 season in which he tallied a career-high 1,157 yards, Gates missed six regular-season games in 2010 and three in 2011.
The Chargers haven't made the playoffs since 2009. They need Gates, especially late in the season, in order to compete—that much is clear. And never has that been more significant than right now, when Rivers doesn't have an elite wide receiver to look to in case something goes wrong with Gates.
So here's hoping this rib injury is an isolated incident in a long, prosperous season.