SAN DIEGO – The Chargers went 5-1 without tight end Antonio Gates last year but the man who filled in for the seven-time Pro Bowler didn't see it as reason to celebrate.
"We were 5-1," Randy McMichael said, "but we still were home in February. I think that's the most important part about it."
Being part of the first Chargers team in five years to miss the playoffs wasn't what McMichael expected when he turned down starting jobs elsewhere to sign with San Diego as the No. 2 to Gates.
McMichael hadn't reached a postseason and that was a big part of why chose the Chargers.
"It was very heartbreaking that we didn't get there last year," the 32-year-old said. "I had all the high expectations coming here, and just like a lot of guys, we expected more of ourselves than what we got."
With Gates still a force when he played, McMichael saw fewer passes than in his typical years with the Rams and Dolphins. He ended up with 20 catches, his second-lowest, but matched his career norm of 11 yards per reception.
"He came through big," said coach Norv Turner, who praised McMichael's pass blocking. "We needed a veteran presence and his playmaking ability. He's a lot different from Gates, but he was productive."
McMichael had been a starter for all of his career when Turner recruited him to join the Chargers. Turner was McMichael's offensive coordinator with the Dolphins in his first two seasons, and McMichael trusted that even when Gates played, passes would come his way.
"Antonio was going to be the primary starter," McMichael said, "but I had been in this offense before, and I knew that coach Turner likes to play the majority of the starters. So I really didn't have a problem with stepping back and taking that backup role."
Gates remains concerned about his right foot, the same one that cost him six games last year and pained him in other games. He has made one practice in training camp.
Gates has said he expects to be ready for the season opener Sept. 11. He knows Turner's offense so well, he could teach it, making missed practice time less significant.
The dicey part, said the 31-year-old Gates, comes when his plantar fasciitis flares up after severe tests, which may not come until the season. "It's about pain tolerance," Gates said.
"I'm 100 percent he'll be ready Sept. 11," McMichael said. "He's going to be the same Antonio Gates he's ever been."
The five teams that the Chargers defeated in the six games that Gates missed had a combined winning percentage of 34 percent, and the only winning opponent in the bunch — Kansas City — didn't use starting quarterback Matt Cassel in the 31-0 loss at San Diego.
In the first start that Gates missed, McMichael caught two touchdowns against the Texans.
McMichael also mentored the No. 3 tight end, Kory Sperry, an undrafted free agent who now enters his third NFL season
"Randy knows how to coach, how to teach and how to play at the same time," Sperry said. "So if you're in there with him, it's a blessing."
Turner described Sperry, 26, as one of the team's most-improved players this year.
Better as a receiver than a blocker, Sperry worked on his blocking form during the lockout with help from Chargers offensive linemen Nick Hardwick and Jeromey Clary. Sperry said Gates' foot issue doesn't add fuel to his preparations for the season.
"No matter what, when you're in the NFL you have to be ready for anything," Sperry said. "If you're not ready, that's when you find yourself losing a job."