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The Best Quarterback-Tight End Combo of All Time
Learn all about the biggest plays and the biggest records set by Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, one of the best quarterback-tight end combos of all time.
Nov 16, 2021

The end of the 2018 season marked the end of an era, not only for the Chargers, but for the NFL. After 15 seasons together with the Chargers, the players that made up what many consider to be the best quarterback-tight end combo of all time had played together for the last time.

Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates are synonymous with Chargers football. They both spent 16 years with the team, and between the two of them, only one season of their combined 33 years in the NFL was with another franchise — and that occurred after Gates announced his retirement in 2020.

Rivers and Gates not only hold the Chargers franchise record for total number of touchdowns between a quarterback and a receiver or tight end; they rank third behind Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison and Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski — the latter of who only recently surpassed Rivers and Gates for the second spot on the all-time list — for touchdowns during the regular season with 89.

And while stats are at least part of the argument for Rivers and Gates being one of the best quarterback-tight end combos of all time, it's not the only reason.

By accomplishing what was previously only thought possible by quarterbacks and receivers, they showed the league just how much of an offensive threat a quarterback and a tight end can be, changing the game forever and keeping Chargers fans on the edge of their seats for the better part of 20 years.

The Beginning of a Legendary Combo

Rivers' and Gates' success together is even more incredible considering Gates' unconventional path to the NFL. In fact, Gates never even played college football. After having to choose between basketball and football as a freshman at Michigan State University, he decided to stick with basketball.

In his rookie season with the Chargers, Gates caught 24 passes for 389 yards — good for 16.2 yards per reception, a career high for Gates — and two touchdowns. Poised for a breakout season in 2004, Gates finished his second season with 81 receptions for 964 yards and 13 touchdowns.

A favorite target of former Chargers quarterback Drew Brees, Gates' 13 touchdowns that season were good enough — at the time — for the NFL single-season record for touchdown receptions by a tight end. Currently, Gates is tied for third for the most touchdown receptions by a tight end in a single season.

That same year, Gates was named a Pro Bowler for the first time and named First-Team All-Pro. 

In 2005, Gates continued to post incredible numbers. That season, he caught a career-high 89 passes for 1,101 yards and 10 touchdowns, breaking the coveted 1,000-yard receiving mark in only his third season.

Philip Rivers was traded to the Chargers in the first round by the New York Giants in 2004. He was the third quarterback on the roster, alongside Doug Flutie and starter Drew Brees. It wasn't until the 2006 season, after Brees signed a new contract with the New Orleans Saints, that Rivers moved into the starting spot. 

Coming into a talented offense (the Chargers had the best offensive rating in the AFC and the third best in the league in 2005) alongside weapons like Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson — both of who were coming off back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons — Rivers was expected to thrive. And thrive he did.  

Speculation that Rivers would rise to NFL stardom in 2006 was cemented after just five NFL starts. He was even named the second best NFL quarterback under 25 years of age by Sports Illustrated.

Rivers' excellent performance in 2006 earned the team a 14–2 record — the best record in the league — earning the team the AFC West division title and the number one AFC playoff spot. That year, Rivers posted a 92 quarterback rating and earned his first Pro Bowl appearance.

And while the spotlight may have been on Rivers' performance as a first-year starter, Gates quietly had another amazing year, leading the league in receiving yards and touchdowns at the tight end position. Gates' nine touchdown receptions accounted for nearly half of Rivers' 22 on the year.

It was official. The Rivers-Gates combo had arrived.

Their Golden Years With the Chargers

For the following 12 seasons, Rivers and Gates gelled unlike any quarterback and tight end in NFL history.

In 2007, the team took the AFC West division title for the second straight year. And this time, they made it all the way to the AFC Conference Championship game, where they lost to New England, 21–12. 

Despite the loss, that game will forever go down as one of the greatest playoff performances ever, as Rivers played the entire game with a torn ACL. The Chargers offense as a whole was banged up that postseason, including Gates, who had dislocated a toe right before the postseason began.

That season, Gates caught another nine of Rivers' 21 total touchdown passes and nearly broke the 1,000 yards receiving mark again. He finished the season with 984 receiving yards. 

The Chargers made another playoff push in 2008 when they won the AFC West division for the third year in a row. After beating the Colts in the Wild Card round, they lost to the Steelers — who would go on to win the Super Bowl that year — in the divisional round.

Rivers posted his best numbers yet, leading the league in touchdown passes and quarterback rating. He also broke the 4,000-yard mark for the first time in his career.

Gates' 2008 season was hindered by his lingering toe injury. But, even after having surgery on it during the offseason, he still started every game during the 2008 season.

The 2009 season was perhaps Rivers' and Gates' best combined season ever. Gates posted a career-high 1,157 receiving yards to go along with 8 touchdowns. Rivers posted an above-100 quarterback rating for the second straight season and again broke the 4,000-yard mark.

The team topped the AFC West yet again, posting a 13-3 record, the second best record in the AFC.

In the postseason, the Chargers lost in the Divisional round to the New York Jets, 17–14.

From 2010 to 2016, Rivers and Gates continued to post impressive numbers. Gates led the league two more times — 2010 and 2014 — in receiving touchdowns as a tight end. Rivers posted a 100–plus quarterback rating for the third straight season in 2010 and threw for 4,000-plus yards every season during that span but one, 2012. That was the last season of his career he didn't hit the 4,000-yard mark.

Joining the Greatest Duos in NFL History

In 15 seasons together, Gates and Rivers connected on 89 touchdowns.

But the moment that catapulted them into the quarterback-to-tight-end touchdown record books came in 2017 against the Kansas City Chiefs, when Rivers threw a pass that Gates completed for his only reception of the game, marking the 86th touchdown pass between them at the time.

Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates Stats

Rivers is the Chargers' all-time passing leader. He also holds the franchise record for touchdowns, and he has the highest quarterback rating of any Chargers quarterback with at least 1,000 passing attempts. 

Below are his all-time stats from 2004–2020:

Table inside Article
244 5,277* 8,134 64.9 63,440* 7.8 260 421 209 95.2

Gates is the franchise leader in nearly every receiving statistic. He's the Chargers' all-time leader in receiving yards, receptions, and touchdowns. His 955 career catches is good enough for fourth on the all-time list and he's one of only three tight ends to have at least 10,000 receiving yards in their careers.

Below are his all-time stats from 2003–2018:

Table inside Article
236 955 1,458 11,841 12.4 50.2 116

Parting Ways After 15 Seasons Together 

The duo made one last trip to the playoffs together in 2018 — Gates' final season. After tying the Kansas City Chiefs for the best record in the AFC West — and the AFC — the Chargers went into the postseason as a wild card. They won their first game against the Baltimore Ravens before being eliminated in the divisional round by the New England Patriots, which went on to win the Super Bowl that year. Almost poetically, in what would be the Chargers' final timed down of that game, Rivers connected with Gates from eight yards out for one final touchdown pass to cap a remarkable run together.

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