SAN DIEGO (AP) – Antonio Gates didn’t meet the San Diego Chargers’ ultimatum to sign a contract by Saturday afternoon, meaning the defending AFC West champions will be without their All-Pro tight end for at least the season opener against Dallas.

In an extreme move to break an impasse in negotiations, the Chargers ordered Gates to report to camp and sign a contract or face a three-game suspension. Gates’ agent and the Chargers continued to negotiate up to the 12:30 p.m. deadline, but again failed to agree on a multiyear deal. Gates has refused to sign the $380,000, one-year contract the team tendered him as an exclusive-rights free agent.

Once Gates does sign a contract, he will be put on the Roster Exempt List, automatically triggering the suspension, the team said in a statement. He will miss the team’s final two exhibition games, at Minnesota next Friday and San Francisco at home on Sept. 1, as well as the season opener against the Cowboys on Sept. 11 at Qualcomm Stadium. If he doesn’t sign by Thursday, he’ll also miss the Sept. 18 game at Denver.

Gates, agent Andre Colona and general manager A.J. Smith didn’t return calls seeking comment.

“Obviously if Gates turns out missing the first game because of this, that’s disappointing for everyone in this locker room because he is big part of our team and we don’t want to see that happen,” quarterback Drew Brees said after practice Saturday, but before the deadline passed.

“He’s someone we need on the team, but business is business,” said running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who missed most of his rookie training camp in 2001 in a contract holdout.

Tomlinson said he spoke with Gates by phone Friday night.

“He was hoping things got worked out. Hopefully things still get worked out,” Tomlinson said. “We obviously need him, but it is a business first and if Antonio is not here we are going to have to hold the fort down until he gets back.”

That’ll be a big task, considering that Gates accounted for nearly 20 percent of the offense last year. He became a star in just his second NFL season, helping the Chargers go 12-4 and reach the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons.

Gates caught 13 touchdown passes – a league record for tight ends – and led the Chargers with 81 catches for 964 yards. Defenses had a tough time trying to cover the 6-foot-4, 260-pound former college basketball standout, who last year said he often used his hoops skills on the football field since he was used to boxing out bigger players. He was a power forward at Kent State, and didn’t play college football.

Tomlinson was the team’s second-leading receiver with 53 catches for 441 yards and one score, as well as rushing for 1,335 yards and 17 TDs. The Chargers didn’t have a wide receiver catch as many as 50 balls.

With Gates out, the team’s top tight end is Justin Peelle, who had 10 catches last year for 84 yards and two TDs.

Speaking before the deadline, Peelle said: “If that’s what happens, that’s what happens and I’ll be ready to go and help this team win.”

The Chargers normally have trouble getting their top draft picks into camp, but this situation developed because Gates wants a deal similar to other top tight ends. The sides have been negotiating a long-term deal since the middle of last season but still can’t agree on length or money.

Since Gates has had just one big year, the Chargers don’t want to pay him equal to Kansas City’s Tony Gonzalez.

The Chargers know Gates will at least report for the final six regular-season games in order to gain credit for this season and become a restricted free agent. He can then receive offers from other teams, which the Chargers would have the right to match.

Coach Marty Schottenheimer called Gates’ absence “a disappointment,” but added: “Any player you have could miss the Dallas game. And you know what? They don’t give you a pass, you have to find a way to win. That’s how I feel.

“It’s a part of the NFL. We’ve been through this before. I have no control over it so I’m not going to spend any capital on it.”

The Chargers host the St. Louis Rams on Sunday.

AP-ES-08-20-05 1824EDT

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