Commentary

Will Gates' foot hold up all year?

Updated: September 2, 2011, 4:25 PM ET
By Stephania Bell | ESPN.com

How healthy is Antonio Gates heading into the season?

32 Questions

Who defines the ideal fantasy tight end better than Antonio Gates? Known for his soft hands (honed while playing basketball at Kent State), his size and his deceptive agility, Gates has led all tight ends in targets, touchdowns and total yards multiple times in his career, often passing many wide receivers in the same categories. He's been praised for his consistency at the position, which can be attributed, in part, to his durability.

That durability took a hit last year when Gates, who entered the season with plantar fasciitis, tore the plantar fascia in late October and ultimately played in the fewest games of his career. After years of playing in 15 or 16 games, even despite a severe turf toe injury in 2008, Gates was limited to 10 games in 2010.

No one could blame him. Normal humans are barely able to walk, let alone engage in athletic activity, after such an injury. The plantar fascia is the fibrous tissue along the undersurface of the foot which runs from the heel to the ball of the foot and reinforces the arch. The plantar fascia is placed under tension every time the foot hits the ground as the body weight is loaded through the leg. Imagine now that the tissue is damaged, the fibers are torn and frayed and every step tugs further, weakening that already impaired foundation. The pain is nothing less than excruciating.

Athletes who have suffered from plantar fascia tears often describe the sensation in the arch of their foot as feeling like "walking on broken glass" or "stepping on hot coals." Gates shared last year when he visited ESPN during the San Diego Chargers' bye week that his foot felt like someone was "slicing a hot knife through butter." You get the picture; this is not one of those "uncomfortable" conditions an athlete can simply push through, especially when running, pivoting and pushing off is integral to the position.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Gates
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireAntonio Gates was second among tight ends in fantasy scoring last year despite missing six games.

Nonetheless, the ever stoic Gates tried to do just that. After missing a few weeks with the injury, Gates returned in late November and played two consecutive games, even managing a score in one of them. However, the condition proved too problematic to overcome. Gates did not play after Week 14.

The hope then was that the rest of the offseason would finally allow the tissue to scar down and heal and that Gates would return in 2011 with the plantar fascia issues behind him. Granted, the scar tissue might be stiff and he might need protective shoe inserts to support the arch, but the hope was the pain would be a thing of the past. It turns out that was not quite the case.

Gates entered the preseason on the Chargers' physically unable to perform (PUP) list. He acknowledged to the San Diego Union-Tribune that there was uncertainty about how he would manage the chronic issue of his foot going forward. "Going forward, the main thing is trying to control it," Gates said, adding, "The recovery part is the [unknown]. I don't know if that will ever go away." According to the Union-Tribune, Gates remained confident he would be able to play this season, however, despite the presence of any lingering discomfort and does not plan on missing any game time.

During the preseason, Gates made steady progress in his activity and rejoined the team in full practices daily over the final week of camp. Perhaps most notably, he participated in the Chargers' third preseason game, playing 20 snaps, and, most importantly, felt well enough the following Monday to practice without limitation. Gates has indicated that managing the condition going forward is part of the plan. Management will likely translate into limited or non-practice days in order to allow him to play on Sundays. The Chargers can afford that luxury given Gates' veteran status and his well-established role within the offense. Limited practice is a small price to pay for having him on the field when it matters.

Despite these parameters, uncertainty is likely to remain a part of the road map for Gates, no matter how intent he is on being present week in and week out. By his own acknowledgement, this is an ongoing condition, not something he can completely refer to in the past tense. His practice status likely will render him "questionable" on many weekly injury reports, even if his goal is to play every Sunday. There is no way to predict if, when or how the wear and tear of weekly contests will manifest itself with respect to Gates' foot. It is worth noting, however, that even while enduring significant pain, Gates has typically been productive when on the field.

If fantasy owners can live with some uncertainty from one week to the next, the payoff from Gates is likely to be worthwhile. Just ask the Chargers. They're counting on it.

Stephania is a physical therapist who is a Board Certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. She is a clinician, author and teacher with extensive experience in the area of orthopedic manual therapy and sports medicine. Follow her blog here.