Justin Gage sacrificed his body.
There’s no doubt in his mind, though, that it was the right thing to do. And no one questions the thought process of the Tennessee Titans’ wide receiver when he’s out on the field.
“I was told when I first started playing football that this is a chess game, not checkers,” fellow wide receiver Nate Washington said. “[Gage] does a great job of using his head. It’s not all about the speed; it’s not all about the strength. He does an excellent job of using his head.”
Gage was well aware of what was at stake in the fourth quarter at San Francisco Nov. 8, when he left his feet and stretched his body for all it was worth. He came down with a 33-yard reception, which helped set up the go-ahead touchdown in the Titans’ second victory of the season after six straight defeats.
He also came down on his back, which resulted in some broken bones and a month of missed games.
“I guess you can look at it as, I went out on a positive note,” Gage said. “I made the play. That was a good thing. It put our team in a position to win, and that was a game we desperately needed.”
Gage has made his share of big plays in three seasons with the Titans. He led the team in receiving yards in 2007 and 2008, and he has averaged better than 13.5 yards per catch each year since he came to the team as a free agent. Nine of the 11 touchdowns he has scored for Tennessee have been in victories.
Beyond that, the vast majority of his catches are meaningful in some way.
Of his 117 receptions from 2007 through 2009, 95 of them (81.2 percent) resulted in first downs, which was the second-highest rate in the NFL over that span and a clear indicator of his understanding of the situation every time a play starts. Only San Diego’s Vincent Jackson (82.1 percent of 168 receptions) moved the chains more often.
“He knows how to get in and out of breaks the way he needs to,” Washington said. “He knows where to be. And he knows how to run his route. … It’s one thing to be the fastest and the strongest out there. It’s another thing to be able to use your head, and Gage is one of those people who can do that.”
At 6-foot-4, 212 pounds, Gage has good size but is not exactly a natural at the position. He was a quarterback throughout high school and his freshman year at the University of Missouri.
“Definitely, my mental game is up there,” he said. “I can read defenses a lot easier and know what spots to get in, and to have that rapport with the quarterback, being that I was a quarterback most of my college and high school career. Then, just the bigger size and the ability to get up and go over the defender to get the ball helps me.”
In one case, it hurt him, too.
His receptions and receiving yards have declined each of the last two years, due at least in part to injuries. He missed four games with the back problem after the game at San Francisco, the same number he missed the previous season.
He scored touchdowns on his first two receptions when he returned from the back ailment (both in an overtime victory against Miami) but had just six catches in four games overall after getting healthy enough to play.
“He was very productive, made some great catches for us [last season],” coach Jeff Fisher said. “I’m very pleased with what he did. He just had that great, acrobatic catch at San Francisco that set him back a couple weeks.”