San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates #85 runs with the ball against the Minnesota Vikings at Qualcomm Stadium on September 11, 2011 in San Diego, California.
All was well Monday morning when the Chargers returned to practice after a bye week of rest, recovery and relaxation.
Tight end Antonio Gates (foot) was on the field for the first time in nearly a month, running well and catching red-zone passes at the back of the end zone. Running backs Ryan Mathews (calf strain) and Mike Tolbert (concussion) were participating, too.
After a week away, the team had gained something extremely valuable: separation.
As the roster grew to nearly full health, two of the three other teams in the AFC West appear to have weakened, as the upstart Oakland Raiders lost their starting quarterback to injury, and the Broncos traded away their top receiver for a conditional draft pick.
On the Chargers' end, it seems it'll take a setback to keep Gates from returning to game action Sunday against the New York Jets. With him back, the offense was nearly at full strength Monday, barring the absence of wide receiver Vincent Jackson (hamstring), who had an encouraging run session with trainers earlier in the day.
"The one thing about Antonio, he always looks good when he's out there," coach Norv Turner said. "He went through part of practice, and we're going to go day-to-day, and hopefully he doesn't have a setback and is able to practice on Wednesday."
Gates took to the media podium next, missing the usual smile he once wore when expressing optimism about the frustrating plantar fascia injury, first suffered almost an entire year ago.
He says dealing with the injury has been something he "never could have imagined." He promised that, over the past month, he's made more effort to improve than words can express.
As for his return Sunday, that he won't promise.
His foot still feels tightness, and he called the lingering ailment "tricky."
"We have a long week," Gates said. "I didn't go out there to make any assessments on playing on Sunday. I went out there to give myself some type of confidence, being back and involved, participating in the game of football. I didn't go out there to say, 'I'm going to play on Sunday.' I just wanted to see what I can do and what I couldn't do and take it one day at a time."
Gates added that sometime this week, he may give the foot a "true test" on whether he can go Sunday, which will be a committee decision between him, the trainers and coaching staff.
Defensive end Luis Castillo (tibia) did not practice and is the only Chargers player assured of missing Sunday's game.
Meanwhile, around the AFC West, Jason Campbell broke his right collarbone Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, landing hard on his shoulder at the end of a second-quarter scramble. He is expected to miss several weeks.
According to multiple reports, the Raiders have reached out to free agent quarterbacks David Garrard and Josh McCown while inquiring about Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, who has held true in his threat to retire if not traded.
Bengals management has, to this point, fulfilled its role in the stalemate, deflecting all outside interest for Palmer. Garrard also needs surgery, according to reports, and is not an immediate option.
Campbell threw for 1,170 yards with six touchdowns and four interceptions for the Raiders, considered to be the Chargers' greatest competition in the division race. They are 4-2, a half game behind the Bolts (4-1) in the AFC West standings.
On Monday morning, before the Chargers could hit their Mission Valley practice field, the Broncos sent Pro Bowl wideout Brandon Lloyd to the St. Louis Rams for a conditional sixth-round draft pick, which will reportedly become a fifth rounder if Lloyd catches 30 or more passes during the remainder of the season.